TOP member says he will be a gangster for life

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Story and multimedia by KENDRA WILMARTH

According to the U.S. Census, the population of Salt Lake is roughly 180,000 people. As with any metropolitan city comes a variety of people. With such diversity, large cities like Salt Lake all face a similar problem, gang control.

Gangs first became recognized in Utah as a problem in the early 1990s. Around 3,000 documented gang members are in the Salt Lake Valley, as reported by the Salt Lake Metro Gang Unit. For the past 20 years this unit has been working to minimize gang activity.

The SLMGU devised the Salt Lake Area Gang Project. The Project is composed of police chiefs and administrative personnel from agencies that participate in the project. It was designed to identify, control and prevent criminal activity. The Project also provides youth with alternatives to gang life and helps to educate communities about the destructiveness of the gang lifestyle.

“If someone said, ‘Hey you know what … don’t worry about school the rest of your life, let’s party, have sex, do drugs,’ what kid wouldn’t join a gang as a 16-year-old kid?” said Rick Simonelli, a detective in the Salt Lake Metro Gang Unit. “They think it’s pretty cool and start hanging around the older kids and they’re drinking, they get to hold a gun and they’ve never held a gun before and they think they’re pretty cool and macho.”

Simonelli has been working for the past six years to help solve the gang situation.

He says Utah has around 25 well-known gangs on the streets right now. Tiny Oriental Posse, or TOP, is one of these gangs. This gang can only be found in Utah and is known as one of the state’s most violent gangs. TOP has been operating primarily out of West Valley City, where most of the members are located in Lake Park, a lower-income apartment complex.

TOP is a Southeast Asian street gang with members of Laotian or Cambodian descent. In 2009, the “big guys,” as Simonelli refers to them, were put in jail under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO. In summary, the RICO Act prosecutes offenders in the federal court with the same act they were charged with in state courts. This means their time is doubled and the offenders are sent to federal jails throughout the nation.

“Since the RICO, it’s been pretty quiet because the majority of them have been locked up,” Simonelli said. “There’s only been one shooting done by TOP that we know of for the past couple years.”

Although the gang may not be at large, one member from the Salt Lake area says he will be a TOP gangster for life. D, who asked not to be identified, comes from a moderately wealthy Cambodian family. After his father disappeared and left his family in 2008, D, now 18, moved to Utah with his mother from Southern California.

Within a few weeks of being in Utah he was approached by a group of kids. With one question — “Do you party?” — and a simple “Yes,” D’s life changed significantly. D spent the next couple of months getting drunk after school and skipping classes to get high with his new circle of friends.

“My friends and I went to a party in Salt Lake one weekend. I was pretty drunk and got in a fight with some kid. The next thing I knew I woke up in another house with a bloody mouth,” D said in a phone interview.

D was abandoned by his friends at the party. He woke up a few hours after the fight on an unfamiliar couch. The couch was owned by a 21-year-old attendee of the party who introduced him to the TOP gang.

“I knew we’d be close after that morning,” D said. “ He showed me a new kind of family, people I could trust. I’d do anything for them and they’d do the same for me. We’re not blood, but we’re family.”

D took the UTA bus line to Salt Lake every day after school for the next five months. After being kicked out of his mom’s house, he dropped out of school and moved south from Woods Cross to Salt Lake.

Within months D officially joined the TOP gang. He said carrying around a gun for the first time felt comfortable and made him feel more secure.

“I used to go shooting with my dad, so I knew what I was doing with a gun,” D said.“ I never carried one around though, but I knew I needed it for protection.”

D said most members in TOP own guns, carry guns or at least know where to find a gun if they find themselves in trouble. But how are gang members getting their hands on guns? Simonelli says the Internet makes it easy.

“A lot of them get their guns off of,” Simonelli said. “ People buy them easier off the Internet because they don’t have to go through a dealer and fill out paperwork. By federal law sellers off of sites like aren’t responsible for who they sell their gun to, but a gun dealer is.”

Now, D’s gun is a crucial part of his life. After his first encounter with a drive-by shooting he says he will never let his gun leave his side. Gangs are well-known for this type of criminal activity. Simonelli said they use this tactic to gain power.

“That’s why they do these shootings and assaults. They want people to fear their gang,” Simonelli said. “That’s how they earn their respect.”

TOP is known for crimes like robberies, aggravated assaults and drive-by shootings. These crimes mainly transpire between gang rivalry. Members of TOP are rivals with another Asian gang called the Oriental Laotian Gang, or OLG. It’s a war between white and blue. TOP members distinguish themselves with white bandanas while their enemy is dressed in blue.

“All those gangs, even though they’re Asian they still fight each other,” Simonelli said.

Members of gangs also get tattoos as a symbol of their loyalty. A popular one among Asian gangs is the dragon tattoo. “It shows a part of their heritage and for them it’s like a sense of power,” Simonelli said.

TOP currently has only about 25 to 30 members, so it is not considered active by the police. However, Simonelli said Asian gangs are harder to track down and operate somewhat differently than most gangs.

“Asian kids won’t snitch on each other,” he said. “ They stay tight with their own and Asians really stay together as compared to other races.”

Kenny Dorrell is the director of Project 180, a prevention and intervention program designed to help kids stay away from gangs. Dorrell said in a phone interview that members of TOP also tend to be more structured. This organization helps them to stay out of jail and off of police’s radar.

Simonelli said although TOP isn’t at large right now, it’s important not to discount them as a violent gang.

“You’ll see the generationals in the gang. It will be really quiet and low-key in the gang one year and then a few years later there will be a few kids that pop up and now the gang is committing all sorts of crimes and becoming active again,” Simonelli said.

While D won’t mention any of the activities TOP is currently involved in, he says TOP is “unstoppable.” D claims he has found a true family on the streets and his loyalty won’t ever die, even if that means taking his own life in the name of TOP.

“I’d give my own blood for my family,” D said. “That’s what we do.”

Former gang members start new lives with West Valley program


Gang colors are prohibited at Project 180 in West Valley City.

“During a normal meeting they have to wear a white T-shirt and cover tattoos and any gang markings,” said Kenny Dorrell, director of the gang intervention program.

Project 180 teaches students, who are court ordered or voluntary participants, strategies to leave the gang life. Dorrell and other mentors meet with the youth Tuesday and Wednesday nights at the West Valley Community Center. The group is succeeding in reaching the needs of the former and current gangbangers.

“We’re growing big time,” said Richard Pendarvis, program director at the WVCC. “We’re at 20 active students right now, which is the most we’ve been at in a long time.”

According to Project 180’s mission statement, the program replaces gang components of students’ lives with resources and opportunities for success. The official launch date was summer 2006. Although the group is in West Valley, participants come from all around the Salt Lake area.

The students can play pool or X-Box before a meeting starts and guidance begins. Most members are about 16 and each has to go through an interview process before being admitted. “We like to have a good environment where the kids feel comfortable,” Dorrell said. “But the real strength is in our mentorship. We get involved with them and try to befriend them.”

Dorrell shares his own gang experiences with the students. Growing up in Salt Lake, his friends and older brothers were in gangs. By the time he was 10, he wanted to be in one too. Dorrell’s father enrolled him in a private Christian school to keep him away from that lifestyle. However, it didn’t prevent him from starting a mock gang with friends when he was 15, which eventually developed into a real one.

“I surrounded myself by people who were in that lifestyle and started wearing a color and representing the hood,” Dorrell said. “That lasted until I was about 20.” As time went by, he saw his friends’ lives getting worse and knew he had to get out of it. Some of them still wear the gang color.

“They identify their gangs as their family and I understand that completely because they want to fit in and be involved with something,” Dorrell said. “But just because you do that doesn’t mean you need to do things like stealing and drug dealing.” A student in the program, who asked not to be named, knows all about the criminal activity gangs take part in. “With my situation and what I was facing I would have been on my way to prison when I was 18,” he said.

An older sibling got the student involved with a gang when he was just 8. When he was 11, the student was initiated into the gang by being jumped, or beaten up. Other members of his family also were involved.

He said retaliation is crucial when a rival gang begins to taunt, or “bang” on another. “Usually anytime anybody tries to bang on you or say something, you’ll try to bang right back,” said the student, who is now 17. “If you don’t bang back and one of your homies sees you, you’re going to get banged on at a private meeting.”

Most “banging” is done over what colors a rival gang wears. Whenever an enemy attacked, he felt he had to come back twice as hard, which usually caused violence. Since attempting recently to leave the gang life, he has proudly walked away from fights he would have joined prior to enrolling in the program.

“It’s not worth it for me to deal with them or for them to come at me sideways,” he said. He has told his former gang partners he doesn’t want to be involved anymore and is trying to change his life for the better.

“Misery likes company and they’ll take anyone with them,” the student said. “That’s all a gang is. Misery. Miserable people trying to take anyone they can with them.”

Greg, a mentor who asked that his last name be withheld, left his local gang when he saw the misery he caused his loved ones.

While holding onto drugs for other gang members, Greg was pulled over by police and subsequently arrested. As he sat in his jail cell, he thought about the path he had taken in life. This course led him to join his gang when he was 13. Thirteen years later, he still was immersed in the culture. When Greg got out of jail he found his mother crying.

“I spent half my life doing things to people that shouldn’t be done to another human being,” Greg said. “In my opinion the whole gang lifestyle is ignorant; you’re persecuting and killing people who are just like you for false causes.”

Activities his gang used to do include assaults, robberies, extortion, beer runs and grand theft auto. “You name it, we pretty much did it,” Greg said. “I ruined a lot of people’s lives and now I have the power to make a difference for these youth and the community.”

Former New Mexico police officer Ed Britt worked in the violent crimes division and often encountered gangs like the one Greg was in. “There was always something going on,” he said. “We handled everything from murder, assaults and rapes to child molestation cases.”

From his experience with gang members, he found that the best approach to take was a direct one. “What I used to do is intermingle with them,” he said. “If you get out there as an officer and really touch them and talk to them and get to know them, they’ll be more open to you and they trust that you’ll be there for them when they need some help.”

Britt is no longer a police officer, but he continues to assist youth involved with gangs through Project 180. Lately, he’s been teaching the participants anger management skills and strategies to interact with others. At a recent meeting, the students played basketball to learn teamwork. It’s important for the program to get the participants to work together to show them that their past rivalries are artificial, Britt said.

“They are all just normal kids,” Britt added. “But when I ask them they say they are scared of being in their neighborhoods without being affiliated.”

Another Project 180 member said he became associated with gangs through his friends and was “jumped in” when he was about 12. Four years later, he wanted to leave and was “jumped out” by four or five of his gang counterparts.

“We smoked and we partied,” he said. “You feel like you’re big and bad.”

He was out partying while his parents were home worrying. But when he left the gang, he became the one who was concerned. He was frightened by the possibility a rival would recognize his face when he was with his loved ones. His fears came true recently when shots were fired while he was spending time with his girlfriend.

Levi knew leaving his gang would be dangerous. Nonetheless, he faced his fear and quit. “I was ready to ride or die anyway and now there’s just a little more honor and meaning behind that,” said Levi, a mentor who asked for his last name not to be revealed. After leaving, it wasn’t easy for him to adjust to a normal life.

Levi was initiated at age 12 and dedicated his adolescence to using drugs, committing crimes and being a gangster. “By time I was 16, I was doing time for armed robbery,” he said. A year later he was released, only to be brought back to prison numerous times for gang activity.

When he was 18, he studied the teachings of Jesus Christ while in jail. When he got out, he felt torn between his gang and new-found faith. He decided it was best to separate himself from the gang and devote himself to Christianity.

“I was trying to live for Jesus and do drugs at the same time. That’s not an easy thing to do,” he said. He discovered Project 180 and asked for help with his drug habit. In exchange, he volunteered with the program.

Levi was given the assistance he needed which enabled him to pursue other goals, like becoming a cage fighter. “These guys helped me bring that dream to reality,” said Levi, who is also a father.

“When I was a youngster – slanging and banging – I didn’t listen to nobody with a 9 to 5 and I didn’t listen to nobody who really knew what was going on,” Levi said. “But maybe if a trained fighter came in and said ‘listen I’m someone who knows what’s up’ it might have had a little more impact.”

Although he turned his back on the gang life, Levi said he won’t completely shut out members of his old gang, the ones still stuck in a pit of madness. He knows exactly what he’d tell them if they asked for his assistance. “I’ll be happy to help, but I’m not going to sacrifice my family’s well-being or my personal beliefs any longer to wallow in that pit with you guys,” he said. “It’s nasty down there.”

Levi shares his experiences of faith, fighting and gang activity with the participants to help them make informed choices and avoid the mistakes he made.

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