The Gangs of Zion

In Mormon Country, young Polynesians search for identity — and for escape from a seemingly unstoppable cycle of violence

  • At the Manhattan Club in downtown Salt Lake City, Pacific Islanders flashed gang symbols and both traditional and gang-related tattoos. The day after this photo was taken, several of the men (not those pictured) attended services at the Mapusaga Ward, a Samoan-speaking congregation of the Mormon Church

    JT Thomas
  • Samoan-Americans Fiailoa and March Malaeulu and their daughter Chessleeann, members of the Mapusaga Ward, mix Mormon culture with Island culture. Thanks in large part to the church, Pacific Islanders are perhaps Utah's fasted growing ethnic group. Mapusaga ward leaders estimate that their congregation grows by half every year

    JT Thomas
  • Young Samoans pray during Sunday school at Mapusaga. Insiders say that gang members use church services and events to network and recruit on the sly. A Web site for Pacific Islanders in Utah recently editorialized, 'Most Tongan gang members in Utah are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We've always known this, yet we don't talk about it..

    JT Thomas
  • Miles Kinikini, who now sells trucks and SUVs at Larry H. Miller Truckland, flashes signs associated with the Tongan Crip Gang. When the police arrested them, says Kinikini, the first question he and his friends would ask was, 'This won't prevent me from going on my mission, will it?' Kinikini says he's settled down in recent years, but there are still temptations: 'There's a bullet hole in my front window. I wanted to avenge that, but I thought better.'

    JT Thomas
  • Members of the Salt Lake City Police Department's Metro Gang Unit keep a close eye on the crowd outside Club Mangattan, where a young gangster was shot earlier this year. In the first six months of 2005, Salt Lake area gangs were responsible for 132 assaults, 20 robberies, 16 drive-by shootings and two homicides

    JT Thomas
  • West Valley City police officer Umu Manatau with his police portrait and family photos. Three of Manatau's five sons have tangled with the law for their involvement in gangs. 'I was not aware at all,' he says. 'The way they did it was secret.'

    JT Thomas
  • Umu Manatau (L) sits with friend and fellow police officer Cliff Chase. Once, when Chase heard a rival gang was targeting Manatau's sons, he sat in his car outside their house, guarding it for three straight nights. Polynesian gang members once shot up Chase's house, just missing his sleeping nephew

    JT Thomas
  • Kuli Pupunu says he has left his gang days behind. Today, he works full time, goes to school at night, and makes music with his friends in a basement studio. The studio is affiliated with Aiga Records, an all-Polynesian indie, hip-hop, hard-core and rap company that tries to put a positive light on Polynesians. 'Some of us are gangsters, some of us were gangsters, but we do this (make music) because it is a better thing to do for all Polys.'

    JT Thomas
  • A sign on Skull Valley Road points to Iosepa, the site of a former settlement of Mormons from the Pacific Islands. The church evacuated the settlement in the early 1900s, after disease and harsh winters took a serious toll on the population. Despite the hard times, many settlers cried on their way out of Iosepa, prompting the name, 'the trail of tears.'

    JT Thomas
 

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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.”

PIONEER DAY


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

 

As 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 police force.

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.

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