Vietnamese Easy Prey at Home, Police Say

Times Staff Writer

Invasions of the homes of refugee Vietnamese families by bands of armed robbers, such as occurred twice this week in Garden Grove, are not uncommon in communities with large Vietnamese populations, police in Orange County, Houston and San Jose said Friday.

Young gunmen, generally Vietnamese themselves, find their fellow immigrants easy prey because they tend to keep money, jewelry and other valuables at home rather than in banks, police said. Authorities describe the robbers as well-armed, mobile and ruthless, and eager to capitalize on a distrust of police still harbored by many Vietnamese immigrants.

Wedding parties and other festive occasions when Vietnamese wear jewelry and bestow expensive gifts are common targets of the bands of young thugs, police said. Making the job even tougher for police is the likelihood that one day the gunmen may be in Southern California, and hundreds of miles away a day or two later, authorities said.

On Wednesday, nine to 12 masked gunmen burst into a New Year's Day party in a Garden Grove house demanding money and jewelry and sending many of the 60 men, women and children screaming into the street. The robbers fired several shots as they fled minutes later with an undetermined amount of loot.

The next night, four bandits stormed another Garden Grove home only blocks away where the residents were preparing for a family member's wedding. The intruders fired a shot into the ceiling and tied up and robbed 10 people.

No one was injured in either incident, which authorities said were the latest in a series of residential robberies to plague Orange County's Vietnamese community. Authorities said they have few leads and descriptions to work from.

"The pattern is almost identical, whether it is in Orange County, San Jose or Vancouver (Canada)," said Lt. Richard Gummow, who heads the San Jose Police Department's robbery detail.

San Jose's Vietnamese population is about 65,000, police said.

"These Vietnamese gangsters can easily intimidate the Vietnamese (victims)," Gummow said, characterizing Vietnamese as generally "very gentle" and "non-aggressive."

"You get somebody with guns and he can dominate them. We've had people shot in the head, people's fingers cut off to get the jewelry off their hands . . . that's the key to the intimidation."

Houston's 50,000-member Vietnamese community has experienced "similar robberies where they have gone into the house and tied up families, and even killings," Houston Police Sgt. Herman Mar said.

Police said they have made progress in recent years persuading Vietnamese victims to cooperate with investigators, but they have had to overcome a fear of authorities that many refugees acquired in their homeland from dealing with corrupt police officials.

However, even in dealing with cooperative victims, language barriers create additional delays and confusion for investigators.

In the three communities that contain the bulk of Orange County's 60,000-65,000 Vietnamese--Santa Ana, Garden Grove and Westminster--there are only four full-time police department employees who speak fluent Vietnamese, and three of them are civilian workers.

Westminster Police Chief Don Saviers, who employs the only Vietnamese sworn peace officer in Orange County, said that if an English-speaking officer's interview of an English-speaking victim takes 20 minutes, a similar interview with a non-English-speaking Vietnamese can take three hours.

In Garden Grove, police had little to say publicly Friday about this week's two residential robberies, other than to play down the incidents.

"I don't think it's been a major problem," Capt. Monte Davis said. "Just two spectacular robberies in two nights. It's not indicative of an upswing."

Other department sources said, however, that there have been six to 12 similar, though smaller-scale, residential robberies in the Vietnamese community the past year.

"Garden Grove just had an unusual run of bad luck the last couple days," Westminster's Chief Saviers said. "Those could just as easily have been in Westminster."

One Orange County Vietnamese refugee who has worked closely with police and asked to not be identified said the recent residential robberies have sent a chilling fear through the refugee community.

"I myself personally am very, very scared," the refugee said. "I think your home is your private world . . . 99% of the people are afraid of robbery, not burglary. You have your children at home, and they enter your home and tie you up, demand money, stick the gun to your head. That's scary."

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