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
 

Page 4


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.

SUEDE

 

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.

High Country News Classifieds