Silent Scream

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

For all the firearms that should be floating around as a result, there have been few reports of violent crimes by gang members. But Fletcher worries that the rape cases may signal a change. "With the other stuff, there's a direct economic evolution from [stealing] bikes to cars to guns," Fletcher explains. "But with the rape cases, that appears to be something that migrated here from California or somewhere else."

Fletcher says his office has noted a steady increase in gang membership among Asian youth in the last six years. The main reason, he says, is a generational shift: The kids now reaching their teens have had a different experience of America than their elders have had.

Hmong immigrants who arrived here in the late '70s did relatively well, Fletcher explains. "The early migrants were sponsored by American sponsors, lived in scattered-site housing, and had a lot of church assistance. In addition, the first wave had a lot of families who were tied to the clan leadership or the military. They had a little more wherewithal and a little more education."

By contrast, he says, later arrivals had often spent years in refugee camps in Thailand and ended up in public housing here. "The gang problem really has its roots in the failure to assimilate that second wave," Fletcher says. "They came to a society that was 150 years more technologically advanced, where they face 60 percent to 70 percent unemployment--often 80 percent in public housing. Ninety-eight percent didn't speak English when they got here. The women tended to be more connected with the community. But the men, for a variety of reasons, were uncomfortable."

Most gang members he's encountered, Fletcher says, "are from large families living in small public-housing units with fathers who are unemployed. Their behavior is good through elementary school, even though most of their academic skills are far behind. But when they get to junior high, things change. The work gets more difficult at the same time that their relations with adults get strained. They start skipping the classes they do poorly in. Their parents aren't able to be supportive of their activities. As they do poorly, as they get around other kids who are involved in gangs, as their parents aren't aware of what's happening, they end up allying themselves with some particular gang or group."

Koua Yang, a human service counselor at the Wilder Foundation, adds that kids who were born in the United States often seem to be at greater risk than their immigrant counterparts. They speak less Hmong and know less of their parents' culture than teens who spent their early years in the camps, he notes. "The kids born here call the kids who came from the camps 'Thailanders,'" he adds. "But those kids are trying hard to make it. Many [immigrant teens] became very successful because they still thought this was the land of opportunity."

In April, Ramsey County District Court Judge Lawrence Cohen sentenced the last defendant in the burglary-rape case. He was giving the man the maximum possible sentence, the judge announced, because of the calculated nature of the crime: Between the community's growing fear of gang violence and the stigma attached to rape, the perpetrators "were pretty sure that nothing would happen to them. They certainly knew what they were doing, and they left thinking they would be free."

Indeed, most of the people who worked on the rape cases say it's unusual for such events to be reported to anyone. The chat-line cases only came to light because some of the girls involved knew gang investigator Straka from their neighborhood. In addition to running a Boy Scout troop in St. Paul's McDonough housing projects, Straka and other Strike Force officers are fixtures at Hmong community events and spend a lot of time hanging out at after-school sports leagues and dances.

Chris Wilton, the assistant Ramsey County prosecutor who dealt with the chat-line and the Asian Crips cases, says cops and prosecutors have slowly been learning how to work in the Hmong community--using, among other things, the extra resources available to their "Gangs and Guns" unit, a special task force of prosecutors and support staff who concentrate on violent crimes. Having enough staff to respond to victims' needs has been crucial in cracking the cases, says Wilton.

For instance, he says, victims in the burglary case were reluctant to cooperate with authorities without the approval of their clan's leader, so Wilton and a county victim/witness advocate met with the leader at the family's house. The extreme remedy for such a situation--executing the rapist--clearly wouldn't work in St. Paul like it would in the mountains of Laos, the leader acknowledged, and thus he would not pass judgment in the incident. Instead, he would attend the trial to show his support for the victims and to let people know that they had respected the clan system.

In another case, part of the chat-line series of prosecutions, Wilton says he struggled to explain to a victim's family the tentative plea bargain he'd struck with one of the alleged rapists. Close to 17 years in prison, he told them, was a very long sentence. "The response I got," he recalls, "was that if they were back in Laos, [the defendant] would be dead." Eventually he figured out that from the family's perspective, "we appeared to be putting a roof over these guys' heads, giving them clothes, and feeding them. That's more than some of these kids get now." The family ultimately agreed to the bargain because it meant their daughter wouldn't have to testify in court.

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