Silent Scream

A series of teen rapes shocks local Hmong parents into confronting a new culture: their children.

Neither the Sexual Violence Center nor city, county, and state agencies contacted by City Pages keep track of group rapes as a separate category in their sexual-assault statistics. But Lt. Jim Singer, head of the St. Paul Police Department's sex crimes unit, says that so far his officers have received reports of about 120 sexual assaults; he estimates that 15 percent involved multiple perpetrators.

Vang's brother and parents were surprised by his arrest, says McCleery. "They loved their son and they didn't see him as a bad person. But as much as they wanted to be involved in Chia's life, they were naive about the kinds of things he was involved in." Vang asked her to describe all of his options to his relatives at every juncture, and his guilty plea to three of the six counts against him was a family decision, she adds.

McCleery doesn't know whether Vang had a history of gang involvement in California; there's nothing in his file to suggest he's run afoul of police in the past. She does know that he felt alone in his new city, and quickly became very attached to the few friends he'd made at school. They happened to be members of the Asian Crips. "I don't think my client ever did these acts with a severe malicious intent. I think he did it to get into the gang," says McCleery. "Because he was a follower, because he was new here, he liked his friends in the gang, he wanted to stay in the gang, so he did what they told him to do."

Founded in California's Central Valley, the Crips are one of an estimated 70 Asian gangs operating in the Twin Cities, according to St. Paul Police Investigator Richard Straka, who is currently assigned to the Minnesota Gang Strike Force. Many of the groups--which in some cases consist of no more than a handful of kids--are organized by national background: There are Vietnamese, Lao, Cambodian, and Hmong gangs, as well as pan-Asian ones.

Some of the suspects questioned in connection with the rape cases told state gang investigators that at the time of the attacks, the Asian Crips were dominated locally by three older men who had recently moved here from Fresno. One of them was Wang Vang (not thought to be related to Chia Vang), who according to Ramsey County Court files pleaded guilty last year to possessing an illegal weapon. Before that, he was picked up in Fresno twice on charges of carrying unregistered weapons and was once convicted of possessing burglary tools. (Wang Vang's attorney did not return City Pages' calls about this story.)

In his police statement, Boury Yang, a self-described member of a different gang who admitted to being present at the Motel 6 rapes, said that Wang Vang and the other two Original Gangsters were aggressively recruiting new members throughout the Twin Cities at the time. While most men are "jumped" into the gang--beaten for a set period of time by a handful of members--Yang explained that some were allowed to skip the pummeling and be "walked in" if they brought additional recruits.

Straka says that one of the suspects told police that initiating female members by rape is the "in thing" to do in California, and has been for some time. In Fresno, only one such case has thus far reached the courts; it involved three Hmong girls, described in news reports as runaways, who in April accepted a ride from one of their friends. He took them to a Motel 6 where more than 15 boys and men, aged 15 to 31, allegedly participated in a gang rape. All were awaiting trial at press time.

Gang rape is nothing new to Fresno: In 1997, according to news reports, 36 group rapes were reported to the city's Rape Counseling Service. But none of them involved members of the Hmong community. "This is so new, we're still gathering intelligence," says Sgt. Len Gleim, head of Fresno County's multi-agency gang unit. "Because of cultural differences we don't get a lot of crime reports."

Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher says Hmong gangs first came to his attention in 1991, when he was a lieutenant in charge of the St. Paul Police Department juvenile unit. In this new job, he noticed that the number of Southeast Asian youth being arrested was skyrocketing. He met with a number of community leaders including General Vang Pao, the leader of the Hmong efforts on behalf of the CIA in Laos during the Vietnam War. One of the things he learned was that many Hmong parents were anxious to work with police to rein in what they perceived as out-of-control kids.

Back then, the White Tigers and other reputed Southeast Asian gangs didn't seem to be involved in dealing drugs or defending territory, Fletcher says. Loosely knit and not very hierarchical, they were mostly into property crimes. The earliest were armed with screwdrivers, and they stole bikes. Later they moved on to cars; in 1986, there were 1,326 reports of stolen cars in Ramsey County. By 1989, the number had reached almost 3,000.

In the early '90s, some gang members began driving those stolen cars through the facades of gun stores. Fletcher estimates that, since 1989, Southeast Asian gangs have stolen 600 to 700 guns in this way in Minnesota and western Wisconsin.

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