A new type of gang member has come to the San Fernando Valley--kids who are as likely to be "GQed" in trendy slacks and tailored shirts as dressed down in baggy clothes, driving souped-up Sentras and Integras rather than low-riders. Many come from affluent families and some are A students.
They're Asian gang members, and police say they're the cause of more and more crime in the Valley, particularly armed robberies that sometimes target their own friends and relatives.
"These are pretty much well-to-do children who have good families and have the same faults as other people do," said Los Angeles Police Detective Henry Kim of the department's Asian Crimes Task Force. "Society has always deemed Asians the ideal minority, studious kids. I think when this occurs everyone becomes all aghast."
Gang members themselves say they join for protection against other gangs as much as for the cash. "The Mexicans are always picking on you," said "Pinoy Boy," a slight youth from Northridge who just turned 16 and is in "RPB," a Filipino gang. "Who're you going to turn to? Your dad?"
Police believe it is the Valley's relative affluence and burgeoning Asian population that have drawn its newest wave of gangs; the Valley's Asian population more than doubled between 1980 and 1990, according to U.S. Census figures. Police are also quick to note that only a tiny fraction of the area's Asian community belongs to gangs.
But those who do are notorious for home-invasion robberies in which they trick recent immigrants into letting them into their homes, then ransack the premises while keeping the owners bound and gagged. Because many Asian immigrants are suspicious of banks, they frequently keep large amounts of money in their house, police say.
Such attacks have been fairly common in the San Gabriel Valley, with its long-established Asian community. But they have been surfacing with increasing frequency in the San Fernando Valley as highly mobile Asian gang members, who traditionally do not claim turf, have been on the prowl for new victims.
"They're just like any other criminals--they're opportunists," Kim said. "They look at an area where the public is not too astute to their activities."
Crimes traced to Asian gangs have doubled in the last year in the Valley, according to the Asian Crimes Task Force. There have been five homicides, six attempted murders and seven robberies so far this year in which either the victims or the perpetrators were Asian gang members, said detectives with the Valley's anti-gang unit.
Kim said the documented surge began around Christmas last year, when a group of juvenile gang members robbed five Porter Ranch families in a series of armed follow-home robberies.
It has continued with a home-invasion robbery occurring about once a month in Granada Hills, Northridge and Chatsworth in the northwest Valley, home to a large number of Asian families, as well as numerous burglaries throughout the Valley.
Investigators say they assume Asian gang members are responsible when robbery victims describe their attackers as Asian, seemingly well-organized and bearing trademark tattoos. Members representing at least half a dozen such gangs have appeared in the Valley, police say, some local, some coming from as far as Northern California to prey on area victims before returning to their base.
They include a wide range of nationalities from the largely Filipino RPB to the predominantly Vietnamese "Asian Boys." Yet investigators say they have also noted a broad mix of ethnicities in some gangs, such as the "Asian Bad Boys," which includes white and Latino members as well as members of Southeast Asian descent. Even RPB--which stands for "Real Pinoy (or Filipino) Brothers"--includes whites and Latinos, police say.
"We ain't racists," said "Bu Boy," 16, another RPB member.
Nonetheless, police say a battle between Asian and Latino gangs on Valerio Street in Van Nuys claimed three lives during April and May. A Latino gang claims the neighborhood as territory, but several Asian gang members live there, LAPD Lt. Fred Tuller said.
Members of RPB, some of whom boast that police call them the most "trigger-happy" gang in the Valley, have mixed feelings about the rise of Asian gangs in their own San Fernando Valley neighborhoods. On one hand, they see their friends more frequently falling victim to gang violence.
"Psycho," a 24-year-old RPB veterano of five years, recalled how the gang used to rumble with rivals using bare fists--"no guns, no knives. It was nice, you know?" he said. Now guns are standard equipment in gang battles, weapons that Psycho says he deplores. "Now I'm scared. I always watch my back."
But, notes Bu Boy, a high school junior who would not give his real name, Valley gangbangers now command more respect. "If they go to West Covina, [West Covina gang members] get scared. They say 'Oh, . . . they're from the Valley.' "
When he visited an uncle recently in another part of the state, Bu Boy found that he had been enrolled in a local school and had a part-time job waiting for him. He stayed with his uncle for a few weeks, but returned to his Van Nuys home for his mother's birthday.
Bu Boy knew what was up, he said one recent afternoon. His parents "were trying to change the way I live." He told tales of young gang members whose parents had offered them round-trip tickets to Asia, only to find full-time jobs waiting for them and their return tickets canceled.
Often, tension between immigrant parents and children eager to gain acceptance in their new home leads youths to become alienated from their families and join gangs, police and youth workers say.
"It's different for the newly immigrated kids," said Henry Kim, a counselor at the Korean Youth Center in Koreatown who is not related to the LAPD detective. "The kids are going to school and are in the mainstream."
Psycho said gangs attracted him because of the sense of community they provide. "In the Philippines, every apartment, every house--I know everybody. Here, I don't know why, everybody's ignoring everybody," he said. "I want everybody to get along with everybody, but they don't, though. So we have our group here."
Bu Boy freely admits the reason he joined RPB three years ago: "Peer pressure. . . . When I got in, five of my best friends got in." Gang members' initiation rites included a choice between having the gang's name tattooed across their backs or having a pattern of cigarette burns applied to their arms. Bu Boy chose the tattoo, although he said he later burned his shoulder with a cigarette "for fun."
He came to the United States from the Philippines about eight years ago, and his family eventually settled in a comfortable house in Van Nuys with three cars. But when he entered high school, he said, he joined a gang for protection.
He acknowledges his grades have suffered during his three years as a gang member, and that his dreams of a medical career have given way to vague hopes for work as a real estate agent. When Bu Boy joined RPB, he had a 3.3 grade-point average and was trying to get into Bravo Medical Magnet, a Downtown-area high school with a rigorous medical school preparatory program.
He says he still wants to go to college, "to make my parents happy, even if it's just Valley College."
Last year, at Bu Boy's birthday party, he initiated, or "jumped in," his friend Pinoy Boy, who chose to have RPB's pattern burned onto his wrist. Bu Boy took the younger gang member under his wing, staying at Pinoy Boy's house near Porter Ranch for days and teaching him the ins and outs of being a gang member: Keep a low profile. Never show fear. Don't start any trouble without enough backup.
"Just because you're in a gang doesn't mean you're a superman," he told Pinoy Boy. "If you're going to bang, plan it first."
Planning is a hallmark of Asian gangs, both police and gang members say. Setting up a home-invasion robbery can take weeks of preparation, including searching out and cultivating potential victims. Gang members may strike up a relationship with one of the homeowner's daughters, for example, then come by one day to see her and end up robbing the house. Sometimes, gang members say, they will rob their own members' parents.
One RPB veterano advised Pinoy Boy to do well at school so no one would suspect he's a gang member. Pinoy Boy and Bu Boy grinned as they described how Asian gang members will dress "all nerdy" and then burst into homes with guns, seizing thousands of dollars from terrified residents.
"They expect us all to be good boys," Pinoy Boy said with a sly smile.
Even though many RPB members hoped none of their younger siblings would join gangs, they spoke brightly about the virtues of gang membership and brotherhood, with Bu Boy and Pinoy Boy inventing a rap on the spot: "To me, RPB's family. But to you, RPB's pure insanity."
But even they were hard-pressed to explain why they and their fellow bangers have opted for gang life.
"Honestly, I think Asians are stupid to get into gangs," said Bu Boy, going out of his way to explain he meant "rash" rather than "dumb." "Because at home they've got everything they want."