The Gangs of Zion
In Mormon Country, young Polynesians search for identity — and for escape from a seemingly unstoppable cycle of violence
On Oct. 14, 2003, a warm,
Indian summer night settled over Utah’s Wasatch Mountains. At
Club Suede, a nightclub just outside of the resort town of Park
City, a crowd gathered to see reggae musician Lucky Dube. Patrons
spilled out onto the club’s outdoor patios. Inside, they
hovered shoulder-to-shoulder in the close confines of the club, a
glassy, angular second-floor space that jutted out from a strip
mall toward the sagebrush-studded meadows of Summit County.
The show was a reunion of sorts for young Pacific Islanders, many of whom had made the trip up from the Salt Lake Valley. Famously large, and often tattooed, the young men and women had roots in Tonga, Samoa, Hawaii and other Pacific Island groups. They crowded in with brothers, sisters and cousins, amping up for Dube’s outspoken lyrics and mellow backbeats.
The good-natured revelry was short-lived.
Just after the band began to play, pushing and shoving broke out in the audience. Someone in the front threw beer onto Dube. Suddenly, a group of men attacked 30-year-old Kautoke Tangitau, also known as “Toke.”
They assaulted him on the dance floor and then dragged him out to the balcony, where they stomped on his body and kicked him in the face. The fighting swiftly escalated into what police described as a riot; dozens of clubgoers traded blows.
Sheriff’s deputies called to the scene ordered Lucky Dube to stop playing and the patrons to evacuate the club. But it was too late for Toke Tangitau: Under the bassy beats of the band, none of the police — and few of the revelers — heard the shot from the .22-caliber handgun that punched into his heart from point-blank range. As fighting erupted over his body, he bled to death in the mountain air.
It didn’t take sheriff’s deputies long to find the signs of gang conflict: As the crowd poured out of the club, they found graffiti scrawled in marker on Club Suede’s walls, and heard shouts — “Glendale will make good on this!”
Detectives later learned that Tangitau was a longtime member of the Tongan Crip Gang, a Polynesian street gang that had started in California and spread to Salt Lake Valley. His attackers were members of the Baby Regulators, another Tongan gang, and one of the Tongan Crips’ most hated rivals.
The violence at Suede was the eruption of tensions that had been building for years between the gangs. But it was also maddeningly ordinary: Islanders shooting other Islanders has become routine in Salt Lake gang life, which, contrary to popular belief, is now worse than ever.
In the Intermountain West, gangs have
pervaded cities like Albuquerque, Phoenix and Denver for decades.
Now, smaller cities such as Reno and Boise have serious gang
problems, too. According to the National Criminal Justice Reference
Service, 91 Western cities outside of California have reported gang
problems. They include Cheyenne, Wyo., Great Falls, Mont., Twin
Falls, Idaho, and Grand Junction, Colo. Gangs are even turning up
in towns as small as Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and Lake Havasu
City, Ariz. They’ve arrived in rural Indian Country as well.
The Salt Lake City area, despite its clean-cut reputation, has all the ingredients to create gang culture, according to the National Youth Gang Center: ineffective families and schools; kids with too much free time; limited career opportunities; and segregated, often ghettoized, neighborhoods.
Utah has its share of domestic violence, as well. Last year, 23 people died as a result of violence in the home. And according to a recent report from the governor’s office, the numbers are on the rise.
Salt Lake City’s gang violence, once thought to be under control, has escalated in recent years. From 2001 to 2004, the number of documented gang members in the Salt Lake Valley rose from 3,781 to 4,544. In 2003, the number of serious gang-related crimes was double that of two years earlier. Last year, Salt Lake Valley gangs were responsible for 94 aggravated assaults, 54 robberies, 97 drug offenses and six homicides. There are dozens of Latino gangs claiming allegiance to the California gangs Sureños and Norteños; there are Southeast Asian gangs who rob their fellow immigrants’ stashes of cash, hidden away because of their distrust of banks; there are bands of racist skinheads, and even young Straight Edge gangs who punish those who smoke or drink.
Polynesian kids don’t seem to fit the profile of gang members, however. Most Pacific Islander families are the picture of stability. And most Polynesian families in Utah belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the pillar of family values and respectability. Because of the Mormon Church, in fact, Utah is home to the largest Tongan, Samoan and other Pacific Islander communities in the United States outside of Hawaii and California.
Yet while Islanders make up only about 1 percent of the Salt Lake Valley’s population, they comprise 13 percent of the documented gang members. Detectives say that Polynesian gangs stand out due to their violence. Because of their intimidating physical size, their members often serve as enforcers for other gangs that traffic in drugs. They’re known for their brutal fistfights, and for shooting at their rivals and at law enforcement officials.
Polynesian parents find it hard to believe that their churchgoing children are involved in the American scourge of gang violence. Their communities are supposed to embody everything this valley has stood for: family, faith and a new beginning.
But the “happy valley” in the heart of the Mormon Zion has become a crowded battleground. The Polynesian Saints traveled thousands of miles from one group of islands only to find themselves in another. On the west side of Salt Lake city, ethnic communities are islands unto themselves, surrounded by a sea of white suburbia; from the vantage point of West Valley City, Kearns, Taylorsville and West Jordan, the mountains that edge this valley only increase the sense of isolation.
For young Polynesians, what started as reasonable self-defense against other ghettoized ethnic groups, or else grew out of the centuries-old rivalry between Samoans and Tongans, has become a monster that has disfigured their powerful family allegiances. The church, for the most part, has left Polynesian families to fend for themselves. Now, the resulting cycle of violence is crashing down through the generations.
west of West Valley City, past the southern shore of the Great Salt
Lake and graffiti-covered ruins of truck stops, is a place called
Iosepa. It lies at the base of the Stansbury Mountains in Skull
Valley, the third in the series of high-desert basins bracketed by
mountain ranges that reels all the way to the Sierra Nevada in
California. Now little more than a cemetery, Iosepa is perched on
the hillside above a corridor of sparkling wetlands.
More than a century ago, a group of Mormon converts from Hawaii, who came to Utah with missionaries who first sailed to the Pacific Islands in the 1840s, started a new life here.
The Islanders first came to Salt Lake City. But in part because of cultural differences between Polynesian Saints and white Saints, in 1889, about 75 Islanders left to start a new settlement in Skull Valley. The settlers named the place Iosepa — “Joseph” in Hawaiian — after Joseph F. Smith, a nephew of the church’s original prophet, who served his mission in Hawaii. They irrigated and farmed, planted fruit trees, and became famous for their yellow roses.
But Iosepa was a rough go for islanders used to the bounty of the tropics. Irrigating the dry country, and trying to grow traditional foods such as seaweed in briny reservoir water, were intensely hard work. They suffered from the harsh winters and endured an outbreak of leprosy. Between 1907 and 1916, about 10 percent of the population died. In 1915, the church built a temple in Hawaii, and over the course of the next few years, church leaders paid for the remaining Iosepans to return there.
Iosepa exposed the difficulties of starting over in this harsh, isolated environment, even for the tenacious Mormon Saints. This early ethnic ghetto also revealed that Zion’s many tribes might not settle together so seamlessly.
Still, the church continued to proselytize throughout Polynesia. In Mormon churches and schools, missionaries spread heroic stories of the prophet Joseph Smith, and Brigham Young and his Utah pioneers. By the 1960s, they had converted so many Islanders that some church leaders claimed that Tonga would become the first Mormon country in the world.
The Latter-day Saints and the Polynesians forged a powerful cultural bond, based on shared values of family and authority. In Mormon doctrine, absolute obedience to God through one’s father, a bishop or an apostle is “the First Law of Heaven.” Polynesian children are also taught that obeying their parents is of paramount importance.
“The LDS Church is more in harmony with our culture and ways than any other church,” says Cliff Chase, a West Valley City police officer and a member of the Mapusaga Ward, a Samoan-speaking congregation of the Mormon Church. “In a sense, we were already Mormons.”
Chase, like other Mormons, believes the Islanders’ destiny was pre-ordained. According to traditional church teachings, Polynesians and American Indians are Lamanites, a tribe of Israel that was wicked; as punishment, God colored their skin dark and banished them to the wilderness, where they would stay until the Mormons saved them.
“Saved from the wilderness” is not exactly how many Islanders would describe their arrival in Utah. Many of them were unprepared for the realities of urban and suburban life.
“I thought it would be a place for just Mormons,” says Mike Brunt, who came to Salt Lake City from Western Samoa in 1981, and now runs a Boys and Girls Club recreation and education center on the city’s West side. “I was so naive.”
His first clue that all was not as he had imagined came as his plane from Hawaii descended into Salt Lake International Airport: “Everything was so brown and looked dead,” Brunt says.
Lise Tafuna’s family immigrated to Salt Lake City from Tonga via California in the late 1960s. The day after they arrived, it snowed; she didn’t know what it was.
Nonetheless, the Islanders settled in. They spiced up the normally bland Latter-day Saint ward houses and Sunday services with their tropical flower leis, lava lava skirts and sandals. They formed brass marching bands, played rugby and cricket, drank the intoxicating island beverage made from kava root powder, and received the king of Tonga on visits to this new outpost.
Still, members of the generation that immigrated to the Salt Lake Valley felt the difference every day between the humid islands and the high desert, the village and the city, Tongan and English. This harsh change generated inner turmoil, especially among young Islanders. Tafuna, who had been a star pupil in Tonga, ran away from home for several months when the differences between her family and her peers at West High School became overwhelming.
Isi Tausinga, whose family moved to Salt Lake from a Tongan village in 1974, when he was 12, spoke no English and was lost in school. “I’d sit there and have no clue what was going on,” Tausinga says. “There were times when I wondered whether we’d made the right move.”
The first generation born in Utah had it equally tough, for different reasons. They knew nothing outside this dry, sprawling city in between mountain ranges. They spoke in unaccented English and carried American citizenship. Yet they still stood out. They were Islanders, but they were less sure than their parents of what that meant. Isolated from both their parents and their Anglo peers, they started looking out for each other.
“Everyone was going to football practice, and our house was the hangout,” says Fotu Katoa, director of the state’s Office of Pacific Islander Affairs, who attended Salt Lake’s East High in the early 1980s. “When we heard about Hispanics beating up on Polynesian kids at South High, we’d drive down from East to help out the brothers.”
THE FIRST GENERATION
Just as Salt Lake’s
young Polynesians were beginning to band together, gangs crept in
from Los Angeles. There, Latinos and African Americans were
fighting over control of neighborhoods in communities like Compton,
Lennox and Inglewood. Many Polynesians — Tongans especially
— moved into these dangerous areas in the 1970s and
’80s, and the kids adopted the same self-defense tactics as
their neighbors: They joined gangs, and eventually formed their
own. The gangster life, with its money from drugs and quick
elevation of status, was addictive.
These kids were familiar with violence. Many Polynesian males tell of punishment at the hands of their fathers or mothers. “We would always get the hell beat out of us,” says Pearl Masuisui, who grew up in East Palo Alto, Calif., and has roots in Samoa. He tells of receiving beatings with barbells and table legs. Once, he came home late from an amusement park and his father beat him so badly that he couldn’t go to school the next day because of all the cuts and bruises.
This family violence, combined with a hostile environment and resentment toward other kids who didn’t receive such treatment, fueled an anger that some Polynesians call “the beast.” “Because of that, I went crazy,” says Masuisui, who, with his friends — members of the gang Samoans in Action — looted houses, sold drugs and beat rival gang members. “I didn’t care about anything.”
This young generation of Polynesian gang members became so violent and troublesome that some parents sent their kids away. Many California families had relatives in Utah, and it is common in the islands for uncles, aunts and grandparents to raise children collectively. Quite a few gangbangers ended up in Salt Lake City, a place their parents presumed to be a gang-free haven.
Instead, the delinquent Polynesian teens found virgin territory and upstart gangs — many of which were Hispanic or black.
Miles Kinikini was one of Salt Lake’s early gangsters. Kinikini was the youngest of eight siblings; his Mormon parents had moved to Salt Lake City from Tonga before he was born. He says he first joined a gang when he was in third grade.
It was the mid-1980s, and he lived in Glendale, a heavily Latino neighborhood on Salt Lake’s West Side, where many Tongan families were moving. He realized he’d be in serious trouble if he were caught walking to school alone by one of the packs of Latino boys who prowled the streets. So at age 9, he allowed a group of older Polynesian kids to beat him up in exchange for letting him become a “baby gangster.”
Drive-by shootings picked up when Kinikini was in sixth grade, he says, and the gang started to sell more marijuana and cocaine. They waged street battles against Latino gangs like Varrio Loco Town.
Kinikini is small for a Tongan, but his unrestrained charisma propelled him to a leadership role in his gang. It was originally called the Tongan Coconut Connection. In 1989, when Kinikini was a freshman in high school, it became the Salt Lake branch of the Tongan Crip Gang, with the arrival of an “original” California gangster. Members of the Tongan Crip Gang wore white T-shirts or “wife-beaters,” Dickies and Nike Cortez shoes — and as much blue as possible. The gang had a leadership code, hand signs spelling out “Tongan Crip,” and graffiti to signal attacks on enemy gangs.
In 1989, in response to the rise in L.A.-style gang violence, the Salt Lake City Police Department organized the task force that eventually became the Metro Gang Unit. Isi Tausinga, Salt Lake City’s first Tongan police officer, was assigned to tackle Polynesian gangs. The problem was much closer to home than he supposed. “We would drive right to the address,” he says, “and I thought, ‘Holy smokes, I know these kids. I go to church with them.’ Some were my relatives.”
Kinikini, a cousin of Tausinga’s, hated the police officer. “We had no respect for him because we thought he was a sellout,” Kinikini says. “He was whitewashed.”
The older generation, too, resented what Tausinga was doing. Part of the resistance was denial. The parents from the old country held on to the concept of family respect they had taken from the islands. They were deceived: Their kids lived double lives.
The other source of resistance was cultural: In many Polynesian cultures, crimes are settled between families, rather than through the law. In Samoa, the chiefdom system called the Faá Matai allows for traditional apologies called iffogas, where the family of the victim confronts the family of the perpetrator, and the two work together toward reconciliation. The goals are mutual respect and forgiveness, things often lost in the American justice system. According to Tausinga, the old system wasn’t working; in this new place, in the midst of this new culture, forgiveness had given way to vengeance. But people didn’t want to hear it.
“The more I brought (the gang problem) out, the more embarrassing it was for the community,” says Tausinga. After busting the kids in his church one too many times, he began attending another church that was mostly white. “I shed many tears on my pillow every night. We’re losing these kids, and you don’t have the parents and leaders backing you up.”
On July 24, 1992, Miles Kinikini and Salt Lake’s Polynesian gangs exploded into the public consciousness. It was the night before the annual Days of ’47 Parade, commemorating the Mormons’ arrival in the valley in 1847. Thousands of people had come to downtown Salt Lake to camp out and save good spots along the parade route.
Hundreds of Tongan Crips staked out turf on State Street, just below the slope of the hill leading to the State Capitol. They came for the parade, says Kinikini, but they also came ready for action. The Tongan Crip Gang had recently killed three members of a Samoan gang called the Park Village Compton Crips. Word had it that the Compton Crips had called in California gang members to help avenge the deaths.
Early on the morning of the holiday, Kinikini watched about a dozen cars pull up across the street from where the Tongan Crips were standing. The Compton Crips stepped out and began flashing signs and calling out threats. By then, Kinkini was, he says, “pretty loaded”; he’d drunk a bottle of Black Velvet and taken a few hits of acid. He remembers thinking, “We better start shooting or they’re going to shoot.”
Kinikini grabbed a .357 pistol and ran out to the middle of State Street. Dropping to his knees, he fired all six shots in the gun’s chamber into the vehicles.
Parade-goers fled. The Compton Crips took off. Kinikini and his fellow gangsters ran to their cars and sped back to Glendale. But Kinikini was caught, and he knew it. There were literally hundreds of witnesses. He hadn’t killed anyone, but his shots had hit two of the passengers. Days later, Kinikini turned himself in to the police. Tausinga, with the Metro Gang Unit, picked him up. He was convicted of intent to kill with a deadly weapon and sentenced to two years in jail.
Over the next few years, the Metro Gang Unit, flush with federal funding, made an art of catching gang leaders, says Bill Robertson, the gang unit’s investigations sergeant. Between 1993 and 2000, they slashed the number of serious gang crimes in half; drive-by shootings dropped from 125 to 68, and aggravated assaults from 235 to 102.
Kinikini seemed to be a part of this turnaround. During his time in jail, he read the Book of Mormon cover to cover and renewed his commitment to his family — the only people who visited him. Once released, he went on a mission in Northern California, and like most missionaries, came home, got married and started a family of his own.
But the gangs hadn’t gone away; they’d just gone underground. Kinikini’s younger cousins had joined the Tongan Crip Gang, and their new rivals, the Baby Regulators, were attacking Glendale.
One day, about a year after he’d returned from his mission, Kinikini ran into an aunt whose house had been hit by a drive-by shooting. She was sobbing. The Baby Regulators had shot up a car in front of her house, Kinikini says, and barely missed a 1-year-old who was inside the car.
“I had been revered as a role model,” Kinikini says. “I took it as a personal mission to stop this bullshit.”
Kinikini suspected that two brothers, Finau and Viliami Tukuafu, were behind the shooting. So one night, when his wife and infant son were out of town, he took his younger cousins to the Tukuafu home in West Valley City, threw two gallons of gas on it and lit it. Kinikini was caught, convicted of second-degree arson, and sent back to jail for another year.
Today, Kinikini says he’s done with gangbanging. But looking back at the arson, he says, simply, “You’ve got to roll with the ’hood.”
THE SECOND GENERATION
the Metro Gang Unit chased down the first generation of Salt
Lake’s Polynesian gangsters in the 1990s, Umu Manatau and his
wife, Tupou, were raising five sons and four daughters in a white
brick house in West Valley City. Umu Manatau grew up in Tonga,
where his grandfather built the first Mormon church. He’d
come to Utah in 1974 as a nursing student at the church-run Brigham
Young University, with dreams of becoming a doctor. That dream was
dashed two years later, when his first children were born —
twin boys — and he had to work full-time to support the
family. He eventually found work with West Valley City’s
Manatau tried to be a good father. He mandated “family home evening,” the Mormon Monday night ritual of togetherness. For extra income on weekends, the whole family landscaped yards on the wealthy East Side. His nine children happily took the Latter-day Saints sacrament of bread and water at their ward in West Valley City.
The Manataus also kept ties to the islands, occasionally visiting relatives in Tonga.
Manatau says he spanked and hit his kids when they broke the rules, but for the most part, he trusted them. He let them sleep over at friends’ houses, and hang out with teammates after Little League football practice. He knew that gangs were beginning to envelop West Valley City’s Polynesian community, but he assumed that the problem was outside the cozy realm of his family.
Then, one day in 1997, Umu’s friend Cliff Chase, one of the only other Polynesian officers in West Valley and a new member of the Metro Gang Unit, had some news. Chase had been investigating a string of two dozen gang-related convenience-store and mall-shop robberies. Detectives had discovered that two of the high-school-aged thieves were Manatau’s sons Finau and Rocky.
It turned out that Finau and Rocky had helped start the Baby Regulators. The gang got its name because many of its members were the younger brothers and cousins of the Regulators, a gang that had fought the Tongan Crip Gang in the early days, and took as its theme song, “Regulate,” by rapper Warren G. The “Baby Regs” took the standard beer theft and turned it into a violent assault on store clerks, says Trudy Cropper, the Metro Gang Unit’s expert on Polynesian gangs. They developed a trade in methamphetamine, and forged ties with gangs such as Tiny Oriental Posse, an Asian gang.
“I knew my boys were fighting in school, things like that,” says Umu Manatau. But they didn’t wear the baggy clothing and gang colors. They were on the Granger High football team. “This was a complete shock.”
Yet it made perfect sense to the Manatau boys. Finau Manatau explains that the family lived in a Blood neighborhood, and gangs like Kearns Town Bloods and Black Mafia Gang had it in for the Polynesian kids as early as junior high.
“To us, (belonging to a gang) meant hanging out, no fear,” Finau Manatau says. Even in junior high, the older, rival Blood gangs “couldn’t take care of us.”
But self-defense soon twisted into aggression and lawlessness. By the time they hit high school, the Baby Regulators were walking around with thousands of dollars in their pockets from drug deals. They savored their notoriety, posing for photos with their weapons and cash.
The robbery spree that would finally expose Finau and Rocky was just one in a long string of serious and often violent crimes. Arrested and charged, the two brothers spent the rest of high school in juvenile detention.
But the trouble in the Manatau household didn’t end there. One morning, Cliff Chase was sent out to handle a robbery. The night before, officers had tracked beer thieves through West Valley City to the familiar white brick house with “Manatau” spelled in the iron gate. The store clerk’s description of the culprit matched Finau and Rocky’s brother, Simote. When Chase arrived at the Manatau house, he learned that Umu and his wife, Tupou, were in Tonga. Inside, officers found known gang members and a party that had been raging all night.
Chase handcuffed Simote, whom he had known since he was a small boy, and walked him to the patrol car. “I was thinking of my buddy Umu the whole time,” Chase says. “I wanted to protect him from the fallout. I wanted to save his face by making an example of his son.”
Juvenile hall didn’t cure Rocky, Finau and Simote. Once out, they found little else to do but return to their “boys.” Soon they were back in court. Simote landed in federal prison. As Finau explains, once you’re in the correctional system, the question isn’t whether you’ll return, but for what, and whether the crime is violent and profound enough to get you respect once you’re back in.
Yet, as the boys grew into their twenties, they tried harder to resist gang activity. Finau left the state and enrolled in college. Rocky found a steady job and got married. On the night he drove into the mountains in the warm Indian Summer air to the Lucky Dube concert outside of Park City, his wife was eight months pregnant.
At the Lucky Dube show, Lui
Fa, a Salt Lake City guitar player, had just finished playing with
the night’s opening band, One Foundation. He remembers
standing at the club entrance, looking out over the crowd, full of
gangsters and frat boys. Many of Fa’s friends were there,
including his cousin, Kautoke Tangitau, or “Toke.”
Fa had “tried wearing blue and that stuff,” he says, but had become more interested in music than in gangs. Toke Tangitau was a different story. “My cousin has a short temper,” Fa says. Tangitau also had a warrant out for his arrest that night, for failing to appear in court for two felony charges. He had been running with the Tongan Crip Gang. Yet in the crowd, he looked like one more partier in jeans and a white T-shirt, hanging with dozens of family members and friends.
Rocky Manatau was also with old friends. Among them were two other Baby Regulators, the brothers Finau and Viliami Tukuafu, and another friend, Sione Tai.
They must have realized the night might bring trouble. With so many gangsters of all stripes, big bodies and colliding energy, Suede carried the electric atmosphere of a boxing ring: In one corner were Toke Tangitau and the Tongan Crips, and in the other, Rocky Manatau and the Baby Regulators. Two decades of violent history were suddenly packed into this tiny, sweaty space.
The fight erupted just after Lucky Dube came on. Fa had gone backstage to get a pen for an autograph. When he returned, a scuffle had broken out on the dance floor. Fa could tell that someone — he couldn’t see who — was getting a beating. And he could tell that the attackers were Baby Regulators.
In fact, the fight had exploded when Rocky Manatau and his friends confronted Toke Tangitau. Tangitau, a looming 6 foot 3 inches and 340 pounds, swung a massive fist and hit Sione Tai hard in the jaw, buckling his knees and sending him to the floor. “Basically, it just blew up,” Tai recounted in a courtroom six months later. “Everyone was just swinging.”
Even as they beat and kicked each other, however, thoughts of family tugged at them: “We have to stop,” Tai remembered one combatant saying, “(Toke) is our cousin.”
They didn’t stop, and neither did Tangitau. He charged another Baby Regulator, but mid-lunge, his huge body stopped short. He fell, face forward, and thudded to the floor. He was shot, but the Baby Regulators weren’t finished. They dragged him outside to stomp and beat him, finally leaving him to die.
In the mayhem that followed the shooting, as the Regulators discarded bloody sweatshirts and fled, people in the crowd began shouting Rocky Manatau’s name.
A few days after the shooting, officers with the Metro
Gang Unit surrounded the Manatau home in West Valley with unmarked
vehicles. Umu and Tupou’s kids and grandkids were playing
inside when officers knocked on the door, guns drawn, and asked
where Rocky was.
“Not here,” Rocky’s mother Tupou Manatau told them. “Rocky doesn’t live here anymore.”
They came in anyway, guns still drawn, and searched the house. Tupou called Umu at the police station, and he came home immediately. The gang unit had left. Umu didn’t know what Rocky had done this time, but he told his wife and children to find Rocky and tell him to give himself up.
Even as a fugitive, Rocky Manatau must have felt his family’s strong pull, because the next morning, he turned himself into the police.
For police, the shooting at Suede was a difficult investigation. The Summit County Sheriff’s deputies had trouble infiltrating Salt Lake Valley’s gangs and gathering information from the Polynesian culture. According to Dave Booth, the chief deputy for the Summit County Sheriff’s Office, Toke Tangitau’s family told investigators, in essence, “We respect what you’re doing, but we’re going to take care of this.” The rebuff was both frustrating and chilling.
Eventually, detectives pieced the story together. Eight men had circled Toke Tangitau’s body on the balcony at Suede that night. One of them was Rocky Manatau, who was seen kicking the man’s head. But Rocky had not fired the shot. It was one of the Tukuafu brothers, Finau, who was seen before the fight with a gun tucked beneath his belt buckle. Five years after the Tongan Crip Gang burned down his parents’ house, he shot Toke Tangitau through the heart.
Tukuafu was originally charged with first degree murder, but through a plea bargain, was convicted of criminal homicide by assault, a third-degree felony. He was sentenced to up to five years in prison. Rocky Manatau was convicted of misdemeanor rioting and assault. Because he had also broken his probation, he returned to prison as his baby was born.
Throughout this ongoing nightmare, Finau Manatau retained respect for his father, and says he and his brothers always worried that their actions would reflect badly upon him. “I think he was the best,” Finau says. “He made sure we always had whatever we needed.”
Looking back, Umu Manatau is proud of most of his parenting: the church, the Boy Scouts, the man-to-boy talks. Yet he wonders now whether he should have held back with the discipline — all the spanking and hitting.
“My kids, they are going to make their own decisions. In the islands, you hit them and they stop,” he says. “Here, they have more freedom. It’s out of my control.”
THE NEXT GENERATION
Glendale Intermediate School, a plain brown building with ample field space for its seventh and eighth graders to burn off steam, sits in the middle of its namesake West Side neighborhood. Eighty-five percent of the students come from an ethnic minority; about 20 percent are Polynesian. This is where gang members are made, during that tender age when boys become young men. There are still plenty of kids who come through here wanting to claim their neighborhood, defend it, and maybe, someday, die for it.
At a school multicultural performance one clear evening in early May, Polynesian middle school students run down the auditorium aisle onto the stage as their peers beat on drums and the audience lets out primal whooping. The boys are shirtless and dressed in traditional blue skirts. They perform the lapa lapa, a high-energy Samoan dance usually reserved for weddings, luaus and other celebrations. At no point during the dance does the hormonal screaming die down. After the performance, the sweaty boys change into street clothes and gather in the halls. They say they are not gang members — yet.
“We back each other up,” says Makoni Pole, a 14-year-old from New Zealand. “If you walk into the lunch room and you’re by yourself, you wait for other Polynesians.”
In the front hall outside the auditorium, older boys lean against the school trophy case, wearing powder blue Denver Nuggets basketball jerseys, navy hoodies and blue sneakers. Their hair is moussed or frizzed out in curls and their eyes are watchful.
One of them, who identifies himself as “Matt,” says they are members of Tongan Crip Gang, and he comments on the splashes of red going by in other teens’ clothing. “When it’s not our race, we let it slide,” he says. “And we don’t let the little kids do it.” Matt says he claimed his gang in seventh grade. Joseph Fangalua, a youth advocate at Glendale, says the two greatest influences on Polynesian kids are church and gangs. Even students who are not involved in gangs, he says, call each other “cuz,” the standard Crip greeting. “It’s a lot more relevant than it was 10 years ago,” he says.
But Fangalua, who is Tongan, is trying to drive a wedge between gangs and Polynesian culture. He is trying to foster a sense of individuality in his Polynesian students, something most of them are not taught at home. When you grow up Polynesian in the mainland United States, he explains, one of the worst names you can be called is fiepalangi, which means “wannabe white.” As a result, most kids grope toward what they figure it means to be Polynesian.
“They’re trying to figure out what exactly they should be proud of,” says Fangalua. “But just because you’re Polynesian doesn’t mean you have to join a gang. You don’t have to be on the football team.”
Fangalua has taken some of his students snowboarding, to show them there is a world outside the city streets, that the mountains aren’t just brackets on their dangerous neighborhoods. In this way, the landscape that has offered little but isolation might also help with some healing.
And Polynesian kids have new role models: In the last two years, Polynesians have mounted candidacies for mayor and state senator. A growing number of Polynesian twenty- and thirty-somethings are making music.
Polynesian families and Mormon church lay leaders are beginning to at least acknowledge the problem. Vini Purcell, Mapusaga Ward’s bishop, says he goes out to the state prison at Point of the Mountain once or twice a month to visit with incarcerated ward members. Gang members convicted of heinous crimes are not excommunicated, but instead urged to get their lives back in order. Some do.
“These kids come from good families,” Purcell says.
Earlier this year, the State Office of Pacific Islander Affairs organized a conference to look at the Polynesian gang problem. A followup meeting, at Mapusaga on a Saturday in May, attracted about 30 people.
Yet the Polynesian and law enforcement communities have had to work to get the church brass to listen. At one point in the mid-1990s, Isi Tausinga bluntly laid out the issue for members of the church First Presidency and General Authority. The church now has a representative on a local gang project committee, and has donated money to the Gang Unit’s annual conferences, but 20 years into the gang problem, top church officials don’t necessarily see themselves as having a role in solving it. Church spokeswoman Kim Farah says the Church prefers that local leaders like Purcell address the issues within their wards.
That is not enough for Dorothy Fa’asou, who works on intercultural communication issues with Laie Association Utah. “The church has got to face up to these gang issues. It is too big for the community alone,” she says. “We came here for the church, and the problems happened here, in Utah, in the church. For too long, they have ignored it.”
But Finau Manatau says it matters little what the bishops, prophets or parents say — the decision rests within the minds of the kids.
“The kids ain’t going to listen,” says Finau, who has moved to Reno, Nev., with his wife and two sons. He’s attending the University of Nevada, and wants to be a juvenile probation officer. “The way I see it, you give them an opportunity, something in another environment. Back in West Valley, when I go to a gas station, I’m thinking someone’s going to say something and something’s going to pop and pretty soon someone’ll be shooting. But here, I go into a gas station and I don’t have that stress. I can be happy.”
Finau’s father, Umu Manatau, is heartbroken, but he still hangs on to his pride in his kids. He could list the crimes they have committed, but he would rather list the universities they are attending. Only one of Manatau’s sons has served a mission, but it’s a consolation that six of his children are in college all over the West, getting the education that lured him to Utah in the first place.
Even Rocky is out of prison and working, and he is planning to go to college. He is married to Miles Kinikini’s niece. Kinikini says that doesn’t bother him, despite the long-running and often bloody rivalry between the two men’s gangs.
“What you do is, you squash it,” Kinikini says. “If it’s family, you squash the beast.”
In Skull Valley, the abandoned settlement of Iosepa has become a pilgrimage site for Mormon Polynesians from across the West. Each Memorial Day, a celebration here attracts some 2,000 people. The historical society that takes care of the place has erected a large monument to the people who settled Iosepa. Around it wave the flags of the United States, Utah and seven Pacific Island groups. Carved on the monument is the Iosepa Song of Love, created by the pioneers who once tried to scratch out a living here:
- Iosepa my home of love
Iosepa with its beautiful mountains
Iosepa my best home
Cliff Chase comes here every so often,
sometimes for the Memorial Day celebration. Many of his friends
have family members buried at Iosepa. “It’s a way of us
never forgetting that our people were here,” he says.
“We were all one family at one time, before we all went to
different parts of the earth.”
In the corner of the old Iosepa graveyard, the day after the performance at Glendale School, Cory Hoopiiaina, the president of the historical society, weed-whacks in preparation for a funeral the next day. Hoopiiaina’s Hawaiian grandparents helped start the settlement, and now he is proud to participate in its rebirth.
He describes the night they dedicated the monument, when a giant moonbow stretched from Deseret Peak over the valley. “The things that happen out here make you realize why you’re here,” he says.
Presently, a monster thunderstorm prowls to the west. Lightning rakes the peaks not far away. Hoopiiaina says not to worry — it will swirl around the valley, then drop over the Stansburys to the east, toward the Salt Lake Valley.
In a strange way, despite its history of trouble and tragedy, Iosepa has become a refuge for Polynesians. It’s their own place tucked in the hills, where they can watch over the barren, shimmering valley below. It’s a place to start over and renew.
And as of yet, Hoopiiaina says, Iosepa has not seen the Tongan Crip Gang, the Regulators or the Samoans in Action. “The first person who tags this (with graffiti),” he says, pointing to the cemetery, “we’ll put ’em in the ground.”
Photo Essay: The varied lives of Polynesian Mormons
Writer Tim Sullivan, a native of Salt Lake City, has
reported for the Salt Lake Tribune and
Photographer JT Thomas, a longtime contributor to HCN, maintains base camps in New York City and Western Colorado. He can be reached at email@example.com.