SALT LAKE CITY — This week’s fatal shooting of a gang member by a U.S. marshal inside Salt Lake City’s federal courthouse during the man’s trial has put the spotlight on his relatively unknown street gang.
Siale Angilau, 25, was a member of “Tongan Crip Gang,” a group composed of young men of Tongan, Samoan and other Pacific Island descent who have been pulling off robberies and assaults in the Salt Lake City area since the late 1980s following a model set by a gang established years earlier in Inglewood, Calif., gang experts say. Utah has one of the country’s largest communities of people of Polynesian descent.
The gang ascribes to the larger “Crip” culture, wearing blue paraphernalia and viewing red-clad “Bloods” as rivals. In addition to Utah and California, the gang has a presence in Alaska, the FBI reports in its most recent gang threat assessment issued in 2011.
They bully kids into joining, knock out convenience store clerks with one punch and operate with bravado predicated on their size and strength, said retired Sgt. Ron Stallworth, the former gang intelligence coordinator for the Utah Department of Public Safety. Each robbery and assault earns members “juice” or “street cred” and elevates their stature in the group, federal prosecutors say.
“They’ve been out of control for a number of years,” said Stallworth, who retired in 2005. “They’ve always had a reputation for violence. They are extremely violent now.”
Angilau was one of 17 people named in a 2010 indictment accusing Tongan Crip members of assault, conspiracy, robbery and weapons offenses. He was the last defendant in the case to stand trial, with previous defendants being sentenced to 10 to 30 years in prison.
Authorities say Angilau grabbed a pen Monday and rushed the witness in an aggressive manner, triggering the U.S. marshal to shoot him several times. The witness also was a member of the gang.
Angilau’s attorney and a former high school football coach said they were surprised by Angilau’s actions, calling him a kind man who always treated them with respect.
Angilau is among a large community of Utah residents of Polynesian descent in the Salt Lake City area. Originally drawn to Utah by Mormon missionaries in the 19th century, the state today has nearly 37,000 people who identify as being native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander, Census figures show. That’s more than every state other than California, Hawaii and Washington.
Members of the original Tongan Crips were born and raised in the Los Angeles area but are ethnically Polynesian, said Alex Alonso, who’s researched LA gangs for more than two decades. Their families immigrated to the United States from the Kingdom of Tonga, a Polynesian sovereign state, in the 1970s, primarily living in poor inner city areas.
In the 1980s, as black and Latino gangs began to proliferate throughout the Southern California area, these Tongans followed suit in the city of Inglewood on 104th Street. The only thing unique about the gang is their ethnic background, Alonso said.
There is no evidence the Salt Lake City gang was an offshoot of the one formed in Inglewood, he said.
“Guys wanted to create a name for themselves, and they want immediate recognitions, so they say, ‘Let’s use an LA name,’” Alonso said.
After the gang emerged in the late-1980s in Utah, its members began stealing beer and food from convenience stores, punctuating the crime by punching or hitting clerks who got in their way, Stallworth said. It quickly became a signature of their robberies, he said. They adopted many of the behaviors of the LA gang, such as getting tattoos or putting up graffiti with the gang’s call letters, “TCG.”
Retired Inglewood police Sgt. Rod Ramos, who worked in the gang unit from 1983 to 1993, said the Tongan Crips there rarely used guns to shoot rivals. Instead, they were known more for their brutal beatings, he said.
“They were real intimidating,” Ramos said.
In Los Angeles, the gang’s influence and numbers have been waning for years. Today there are probably 50 Tongan Crips in Los Angeles, Alonso said.
It’s unclear how many members the Tongan Crips have in Salt Lake City. It is one of about 30 gangs in Utah, the FBI report says.