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 5

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.”



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.

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