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Shooting a fellow gang member at a party. Beating up a 7-Eleven clerk during a beer robbery. Holding up convenience stores at gunpoint.
Eight members of the Tongan Crip Gang on trial in U.S. District Court this month for a string of gang-related crimes dating back to 2002 don't deny that they've committed crimes. Some have already pleaded guilty in state court and served prison time after admitting to the conduct.
What is at issue during the trial of TCG members in federal court is whether gang members sought to commit crime in order to enhance their standing in the gang and expand the gang's operations, allowing them to be charged under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act in the federal system. The RICO case against nine TCG members could land high-ranking gang leaders behind bars for at least 20 years if they are convicted.
Defense attorneys for eight alleged members and associates of TCG laid out their cases Wednesday during opening arguments of an estimated six-week trial before U.S. District Court Judge Tena Campbell, claiming TCG didn't commit violence as a way to build prestige, but instead carried out crimes on a case-by-case scenario where swagger wasn't the primary motive.
Scott C. Williams, one of eight defense attorneys on the case, said the federal case against TCG isn't appropriate because there isn't evidence that the group is an organized criminal enterprise. Individual crimes should be charged in state court, he argued. He said that the defendants in the federal case are part of the gang for "cultural" reasons. He said many in TCG joined to find a sense of belonging and because relatives and neighbors before them joined not because they sought to build a professional crime organization.
"TCG is more "T" than "C"," Williams said. "It's more about being Tongan."
Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Nelson argued TCG is a criminal enterprise which has built itself into a gang terrorizing Utah for the past 20 years by committing violent robberies, assaults and shootings. He asked jurors to convict defendants on conspiracy to commit racketeering charges, saying the group has demonstrated a clear pattern of criminal activity at community restaurants and stores.
The gang has "had a substantial effect on the community where we all live," Nelson said.
Seventeen TCG members and associates were charged in a 29-count indictment filed in federal court in May 2010, alleging the gang engages in acts of violence to enhance their prestige and to protect and expand the gang's operations.
Nine of the 17 were charged with racketeering (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO), which is punishable by up to 20 years in prison, for allegedly engaging in a pattern of criminal enterprise. Federal, state and local law enforcement agents have said TCG has been committing crimes ranging from assault to armed robbery to murder in the Salt Lake Valley for more than 20 years. The RICO case was designed to take a major step toward dismantling the gang, prosecutors said when announcing the indictments last year.
The U.S. attorney's office has said it took two years to assemble the TCG case, which included documenting 34 "overt acts" dating back to 2002 that support the RICO allegations.
Only eight of the 17 are now being tried: Eric Kamahele, aka "Smooth," 22, Cottonwood Heights; Mataika Tuai, aka "Fish," 32, Salt Lake City;David Kamoto, aka "D-Down," 22, Salt Lake City; Daniel Maumau, aka "D-Loc," 24, Salt Lake City; Kepa Maumau, aka "Kap-Loc," 22, no city of residence listed; Charles Moa, aka "Slim-Loc," 31, West Jordan; Sitamipa Toki, aka "Tok-Loc," 28, Salt Lake City; and David Walsh, aka "D-Nutt," 31, California.
Four other defendants are set for trial in February 2012.
Five other defendants have accepted plea agreements in the case and have been ordered to prison or are awaiting sentencing.
Defense attorney Fred Metos asked jurors to try to look at each defendant separately instead of lumping all into the same category. He said prosecutors will create an atmosphere of "fear and foreboding" that will play on jurors' emotions and implored them not to judge the defendants on their appearances calling the group "physically large people with long hair and foreign names."
"You're going to hear about violent crime and it's going to affect your emotions," said Metos, who represents Daniel Maumau. "It's a lot easier to convict someone you really don't like; somebody you're scared of."
"Don't buy into the fear factor here ... keep the presumption of innocence and burden of proof in mind as you listen to the evidence."
Jurors in the case, chosen after a 12-hour jury selection process that started Tuesday, listened as eight separate defense attorneys representing the defendants made points about each individual case. The complex trial will likely be time consuming, if evidence in a series of pre-trial motions is any indication. Each separate defense attorney lodged individual objections, with Campbell going down the line to take objections one by one on prosecutors' arguments.
New details are expected to emerge at trial in a 2007 murder in which several of the defendants participated in.
Solomone TokoToko Tu'ifua died Feb. 24, 2007 after he was fatally shot outside a Salt Lake City party.
Police arrested 25-year-old Santini J. Soakai and David Kamoto in the slaying, but homicide charges were dismissed when it was determined neither was the shooter. Prosecutors now allege David Walsh, a TCG member from Inglewood, Calif. and a defendant in the RICO case, is the triggerman who fired on Tu'ifua because the man had a "beef" with other TCG members even though all were members of the same gang.
Kamoto's attorney, Williams, said Wednesday his client went to police with information about what happened the night of Tu'ifua's death and that the Tu'ifua shooting in no way advanced TCG's reputation. He said an argument escalated into the shooting.
"It's a mano vs. mano thing that happened in the yard," he said of Tu'ifua's death.
Nelson told jurors they can expect to hear conflicting testimony, including statements from witnesses whose own criminal histories are far from spotless.
He said jurors will learn about TCG and how it align's with west coast Crip culture through representing themselves with gang-specific clothes, tattoos, hand signs and graffiti. TCG members "put in work" on the street to build credibility as a gang. Videos of robberies, photos and testimony from witnesses affected by TCG's violence will bolster the government's case, Nelson told jurors.
Other defense attorneys tried to differentiate their clients from the gang as a whole.
Rebecca Skordas, who is representing Kepa Maumau, said her client was initiated into the gang through a beating in 2003 at age 17. He later left the gang, but still associates with family and friends connected to TCG, she said. That doesn't make him a gangster, which an expert witness will testify to later at the trial, she argued. She said Kepa Maumau has been wrongly charged in the case for robbing an Ogden clothing store and two restaurants in Tempe, Ariz. because the real criminal, a 17-year-old, lied to escape his own charges.
"People do disassociate from gang membership," Skordas said.
The cases continues Thursday before Campbell.
A history of RICO prosecutions in Utah
The Tongan Crip Gang is not the first Wasatch Front street gang whose members have been charged with federal racketeering charges in recent years.
In 2006, 15 alleged members and associates of the Tiny Oriental Posse were indicted. Charges were dropped against one man, but 14 others pleaded guilty to offenses committed on behalf of the gang. Defendant William Mathipannha had pleaded guilty in state court to first-degree felony murder for shooting a 15-year-old rival gang member in October 2004.
In 2002, the King Mafia Disciples were charged with RICO crimes. Members of the Soldiers of Aryan Culture were charged in 2003.