COLUMN ONE : A Violent Dead End in Alaska : Two families who moved north to keep their sons safe from gangs have found that what they thought was the land of opportunity is a land of broken dreams.
These wide, windy streets seemed a long way from California--and in their panorama of fast-food restaurants, low-rise bank buildings and stands of leafy alder, a lot cleaner.
Bouamy Phiachantharath had worried about his boys in Fresno, where the family settled after leaving Laos in 1985. Chansy, a wispy teen-ager with a wise mouth and a passion for fast cars, seemed the perfect candidate for the kind of trouble that was almost worse than the corruption and war they had left behind.
“Living that way, the family saw too much violence, such as gangs, shootings and stealing,” Phiachantharath wrote in a family biography that tried to explain why he, his wife and five of his seven children got on a plane and flew to Alaska, the farthest place from Fresno he knew, on July 13, 1991. “The parents,” he explained, “did not want to see them grow up in a bad way.”
Helen Byrd had a similar epiphany. Her son Sylvester, now 19, appeared headed for trouble in Houston. She had heard Alaska was a fresh place where she could find a good-paying job and Sylvester could stay safe.
“My oldest girl had been trying to get me to come up. She told me, ‘Mom, we don’t have all that stuff up here like in Houston.’ You know, drive-bys and all that stuff,” Byrd said. So she and Sylvester took off for Alaska on Nov. 10, 1994. They got an apartment and jobs at K mart.
These are America’s new frontier families. And like a growing number who have fled the heartaches of home for a new life, they came to grief in a land that has become a melting pot of the nation’s dispossessed.
In the chilly hours before dawn on July 12, authorities say, Sylvester Byrd pulled up beside Chansy Phiachantharath’s car on a deserted downtown boulevard, leveled a 9-millimeter handgun at the window and fired until it was empty.
Chansy’s body was left in the street, tossed out by his friends. Sylvester was swept off to prison, although he claimed: “It didn’t happen the way they say,” and faces up to 129 years if convicted of the killing. And two sets of parents who had ventured to Alaska to find clean starts instead found a new outpost of urban fear.
“A lot of people came here from down in California ‘cause they wanted to get away from trouble. But I think there’s nowhere or no place you can go to hide any more,” Cathy Ramos, a 16-year-old Service High School junior, said at a gathering for Chansy earlier this month--one day after another murdered classmate’s funeral.
Chansy’s death was only the beginning of a year of violence in Anchorage that has left six teen-agers dead, several others wounded, and one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods at a slow boil. Residents of north Anchorage’s Mountain View district, on the verge of rioting at one point this summer, have demanded more police patrols and curbs on guns in the schools--pleas hollowly familiar in the cities many left behind.
Authorities and social analysts say stories like the Byrd and Phiachantharath families’ are common in Alaska, where all manner of refugees arrive from across the nation--often leaving behind failed marriages, lost jobs and general disillusionment, and bringing hopes for a new start.
Adrift in Anchorage
“We have a lot of what we call end-of-the-roaders. Often, they’re trying to escape something. Sometimes it’s a record of crime outside, sometimes it’s a bad marriage, sometimes they just don’t fit in,” said Judith Kleinfeld, director of the northern studies program at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks.
The result, she said, is “this odd paradox in the north of, on the one hand, it being a very safe place and a lot of people don’t lock their doors at night. And on the other hand, the number of . . . killers who go and shoot up a place [here] is very, very high.”
Both the Byrds and the Phiachantharaths had feared gang violence at home. Anchorage homicide Detective Sgt. Mike Grimes said it is often the very families who came here to escape such violence who bring the seeds of it with them.
“People get the idea of coming to Alaska to start over. Consequently they end up in Alaska, and Alaska ends up with all the attendant problems of a melting pot, maybe even worse,” Grimes said. “We have large numbers of Filipinos, Koreans, people from the Chinese community, the African American community. We’re finding that the Asian immigrants that initially sort of saturated California are moving farther north, so in the last couple of years we’ve seen Laotians, Cambodians.”
Asians now make up 4.8% of Anchorage’s population, compared to 6.4% for blacks. Until recent years, the population had been mainly native tribal people and white immigrants.
It is the newer immigrants of all colors who largely have been responsible for introducing gang habits in Anchorage, police say.
“We get some of these kids that have already been exposed to the gang and crime problems outside, and basically they come up here, and they’re right at home all over again,” Grimes said.
The mixture can become deadly in a frontier land like Alaska, where guns are an integral part of life. Few families are without a hunting rifle, and people are allowed to carry weapons virtually without constraint. The Legislature recently passed a concealed-weapons law--among the nation’s most liberal--after vigorous debate over the growing danger in the streets.
“We’ve had so much hype about how dangerous things are getting and how you’ll feel safer if you just have a gun. I think kids are buying into that too,” said John Angell, director of the Justice Center at the University of Alaska at Anchorage.
“Even a kid between the ages of 12 and 16 can carry a gun around town with their parents’ permission, or if they’ve taken an eight-hour firearm safety course,” Angell said. “The result is that more and more kids are carrying guns, and things that used to be just neighborhood fights where someone got bloodied now turn into homicides.”
Perhaps few should have been surprised, then, when Chansy became one of three Service High students to die this summer. Helen Byrd says she had a strange feeling when she read about the 17-year-old junior getting shot, even before she knew her son would be charged with the murder. And after she found out, she longed to go and help ease his family’s pain.
“My heart just went out to them,” she said in an interview. “I saw [Chansy’s mother] on TV, and I wanted to go up and grab her and try to comfort her. Because she lost a child. And I’m losing mine.”
From the start, Chansy’s wisecracking ways and open adoration of girls eased him into Service High, where he was one of the most popular students in the English as a second language program.
Despite working late at a grocery to help support his family, then often cruising in his lowrider car into the early morning, Chansy showed up lively and joking for classes every day--to the consternation of his teachers.
“Sometimes he would bend the rules or step over the line and you just couldn’t stay mad at him. He would give you that smile. And what can you do against Chansy’s smile?” said ESL teacher Cathy Coulter. “He was a big personality. He was just huge.”
Chansy would quote from “The Lion King” and “Forrest Gump,” and begged his teachers to show “The Little Rascals,” his favorite video. His passions were weightlifting--he won second place in the “Mr. Service” contest--and the black Acura he had bought from his brother over the summer.
It was Chansy, the youngest son, whom Bouamy and his wife, Pheng, depended on to help with errands and to take Bouamy to the hospital for his heart problems.
“I think the family really saw him as the ticket,” said another of Chansy’s teachers. “He didn’t have an accent, and he also had this incredible charm. They saw he was going to be the star.”
Brushes With Trouble
Yet, like many high school students, Chansy flirted with trouble. His grades slipped during his freshman year when he was spending more time cruising. A friend who was having trouble at home moved in with Chansy’s family. The friend subsequently was arrested on charges of gunning down an Air Force airman.
“We were absolutely sure that he was faced on a daily basis with gang people talking to him. But he didn’t want to be involved,” Coulter said. His grades picked up to A’s and Bs last year, she said. “I really think he was going to be the leader to show the other immigrant kids how to achieve.”
In his journals, Chansy said he was “trying to stay out of trouble and keep my grades up.” It wasn’t easy. “I am having some problems with a lot of kids, and I am trying to solve it without starting any trouble,” he wrote. “But if they start it, I have to end it.”
Looking back, those close to him wonder if that had anything to do with what happened when Chansy and three friends headed out for breakfast July 12. It was 4 a.m.
The way his friends described it to police, they were driving on Northern Lights Boulevard, past the fast-food joints and gas stations, when they saw a carload of youths from another high school apparently vandalizing a parked truck. They threw rocks at the youths and gave chase by car, but lost them.
Byrd was one of the youths. Abandoned when his friends sped off, Byrd and another friend known as “Psycho Dan” were picked up later by several teen-agers in a white van. They headed onto Northern Lights.
When they came upon Chansy’s car, police say, Byrd aimed his gun at the driver’s window and fired repeatedly, hitting Chansy in the head, then grabbed a shotgun from the back and tried to fire it as well.
The friends told police they stopped the car, pulled Chansy’s body onto the pavement and, fearing the van would return, sped off toward the hospital, inadvertently driving over both of his legs.
Eight Silent Witnesses
In his confession to police, Byrd described his “extreme anger” and admitted that he shot at the driver’s window “without any justification whatsoever.” He said that after the shooting, he and his friends went back to his apartment and watched a video movie.
Although there were seven others in the van that night with Byrd, none of them came forward, and Grimes worked a string of 20-hour days to try to solve the killing. Only by going back to a doughnut shop where the white van had been seen and pressing the van’s owner to secretly tape his conversations with Byrd did he break the case.
“The thing that was so symptomatic of what’s going on here is there were eight kids in that van. It was all over the papers that this 17-year-old had been shot, and not one of them came forward,” Grimes said. “And some of them were friends of Chansy’s! They knew him from school. We had to run ‘em down one after another, after another, after another. That’s what’s amazing. The taking of a human life has so little impact on these kids that none of them would pick up the phone and let us know. . . . I’m not sure they even care.”
Helen Byrd had a feeling something was wrong before the police showed up at the apartment she shares with Sylvester, her daughter and her two grandchildren. Sylvester had already been in trouble in Anchorage, once for shoplifting, once for drugs.
“He was as scared as the dead, he would have confessed to anything,” she said. “The way they busted in here, huggin’ the walls. The one detective told me who he was and they wanted to arrest my son for murder. . . . I had read about the incident in the paper, and when I read in the paper, something just told me.”
Both she and Sylvester had lost their jobs at K mart when the holiday season ended. Sylvester got another job at Wendy’s, but by then he was already hanging around with a group of kids several years younger--not good kids, Byrd thought.
She said that when her daughter heard what had happened, “she just went to pieces. . . . She says it wouldn’t have happened if she wouldn’t have brought us up here to Alaska.
“I told my son, ‘If I could undo it, or relive it again, I would take that bullet. I’d take it myself.’ He just cried. He tells me he wishes he could take my pain.” He said, ‘Mama, I never meant no harm. I shoulda done what you said and stayed home.’ ”
A few miles away, in another south Anchorage apartment, Bouamy and his family sit on straw mats and gaze wordlessly at a videotape of the news coverage of Chansy’s death. Over and over, they watch the lump of their son’s body covered by a white blanket in the middle of the road.
“Chansy’s friend got shot yesterday in Fresno. He got five shots in the back and two in the head,” said Bouamy, a former colonel in the Laotian army.
“In Fresno, they always had a lot of violence and shooting and killing. And we had too many people in the family. It’s hard to control them. One of my friends said it was good in Alaska. There was no trouble here,” Bouamy said. “At first I thought we would stay here forever. After California, I tried to find a better state, but there was nothing but Alaska. Now there’s nowhere to go.”
Bouamy has vowed to go back to Laos after Byrd’s trial, scheduled for Oct. 2 but likely to be postponed. His four other sons and daughters say they will likely stay. But they are haunted by new memories in an adopted homeland.
“Seeing my brother dead in the road, it makes me think every day I only have two hours to live. Nobody wants to die like that,” said Soukthavy, 25, who worked with his brother at the grocery.
“My father, every time he talks about him, he cries. He says Chansy was the only smart one in the house, and now what are we going to do? I can’t sleep at night. Every night I go to bed, I don’t sleep till 7 o'clock. I just look at the wall, and I see Chansy’s face.”
The day after a classmate of Chansy’s was shot and killed in the cross-fire between two gangs, Grimes said, the police picked up a 14-year-old boy wearing gang colors. He was from Little Rock, Ark. He was carrying a gun.
“His mother had gotten him up here because Little Rock was eaten up with gangs. Now, he’s right back in the middle of it,” Grimes said. “We asked him what all the fighting was about, and he says, ‘I don’t know why.’ ”
A few days after Chansy was shot, said Coulter, nearly 50 students showed up at a grief counseling session. Teachers were unprepared for the crowd, and nobody quite knew how to begin.
“I asked if anybody wanted to share something, and it was real quiet,” Coulter recalled. “It dawned on me that Chansy was always the one to break the ice.”
Now, there’s been another funeral at Service High, and a subdued school year has just started. “I’ve grown really close to the students now,” Coulter said. “They all have my phone number in their planners. I keep harping on them more and more to ‘Stay in. Stay in.’ I guess I’m afraid. I can’t bury another one. I just can’t do it.”