Even for detectives hardened by the trivialities that can lead to street violence, these crimes defied reason.
In an effort to become the most feared Asian gang in Los Angeles, a group of young men are alleged to have engaged in a spate of violence--shooting and wounding strangers, conducting running gun battles on freeways and staging a deadly ambush against a rival gang.
"They did it just for fun," Los Angeles Police Det. Larry Dolley said. "They called it summer madness."
A jury is now being selected in Van Nuys for the trial of seven men, alleged leaders of the Van Nuys faction of the Asian Boyz gang, for the rampage of crime in 1995. Five could face capital punishment in a trial that police said could produce more death penalties than any other in California history.
Through their lawyers, many of the defendants have denied gang affiliation. Some were college students at the time the crimes were being committed. David Evangalista, for example, was an A-student, volunteered at a hospital and worked delivering jewelry.
The majority of their lawyers either did not return a reporter's phone calls or declined comment.
Daniel Nardoni said his client, Son Thanh Bui, was the victim of a gang member-turned-witness who is wrongfully accusing everyone he knows to save his own skin.
Bui, Evangalista, Bunthoeun Roeung, Sothi Menh, Roatha Buth, Kimorn Nuth and Ky Tony Ngo have pleaded not guilty to charges stemming from seven slayings, 18 attempted murders and five instances of conspiracy to commit murder. All of them fled Cambodia, Vietnam or the Philippines with their families in the 1970s. Authorities are still seeking an eighth man, who was also indicted in the crimes.
All will face a common jury, which worries Ngo's lawyer, Arlene Binder. Her concern is that the jury will paint him with the same stroke as the other defendants, even though he is charged in only one of the killings.
Dozens of Violent Crimes Across Valleys
Police say that the charges the defendants face are only a fraction of crimes they committed.
Investigators acknowledge that they did not realize the same small group of men might be responsible for dozens of violent crimes across the San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys until it was over.
Because the crimes were not concentrated in one area, they were initially investigated by different detectives from the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and various divisions within the LAPD, authorities said.
"They were very smart in thinking of ways to avoid identification," said Dolley, a detective on the Asian Boyz task force. "When they were arrested, they'd give [false] names. Friends would come in crying and say they were their sisters or cousins and say the suspects were college students and you've got the wrong guy. They were convincing."
The earliest slaying police linked to the gang occurred at a Sylmar drag racing spot in 1993, when all but one of its principal members were still teenagers. Police arrested two gang members on suspicion of fatally shooting a bystander because he had honked his horn.
It was this killing that prompted authorities to target the gang--but not until 1996, when the state's key witness was gunned down outside his girlfriend's house, crippling the prosecution.
"That was a Friday night, and the task force started Monday," Dolley said. Five experienced homicide detectives from the Valley and two Asian Crimes detectives from Los Angeles were assigned to investigate the gang.
By then, police said the Asian Boyz had committed 13 murders and dozens of attempted murders, assaults, robberies and home-invasion robberies in a one-year reign of terror that began in April 1995. The majority of the violent crimes filled that summer, when the defendants' ages ranged from 14 to 22.
"They were the worst, the hardest-core group of guys I'd ever seen," Dolley said.
While the shootings were the gang's attempt to get recognized, they made their money through meticulously planned burglaries and robberies, and by extortion from owners of Asian-owned restaurants, authorities said. In this they were like many Asian gangs, which police say prey on their ethnic communities, where victims are sometimes unlikely to report crime to authorities.
LAPD Lt. Fred Tuller, who heads the Valley's anti-gang effort, said the Asian Boyz chose victims after learning from friends or relatives that they kept valuables at home.
He said they bound an 84-year-old woman with duct tape in her Chatsworth home so they could steal the electronic equipment they'd heard she had. They allegedly stole nearly $100,000 from the home of a jewelry dealer. While relatives of one of the gang members were at a wedding, investigators said the group burgled the wedding party's house.
When they ran out of leads, Tuller said they began "cold-calling." They would pick Asian names out of the telephone book, call the residents and speak in Vietnamese, Tuller said.
"In the original search warrant, we found a phone book in a car with Vietnamese names underlined," Tuller said. "Obviously they were potential victims."
Tuller said the gang stole an estimated $500,000 over a two-year period. The money helped maintain apartments and houses in the San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys and paid for souped-up Hondas and other cars, he said.
Gang Rivalries Began Brewing
"They used to refer to it as 'I've got to go to work today' and they'd go out and do a robbery or two," Tuller said.
Rivalries also brewed with other gangs. Living in Van Nuys, the Asian Boyz naturally were at odds with the Latino gangsters who considered the neighborhood their turf, police said. They allegedly decided to solve the problem by eliminating the opposition on Tet, the Vietnamese New Year.
On April 14, 1995, Valerio Street gang members approached the mostly Asian-occupied Valerio Gardens apartment complex to settle a score with the Asian Boyz, police said. They were expecting a fistfight.
The Asian Boyz had a different plan, Dolley said. When the moment was right, they allegedly pulled out an M-16 machine gun and opened fire.
"They just unleashed a barrage of bullets. They got out of their cars and just started shooting," Dolley said.
Two gang members were killed in the attack, at least three were wounded. An innocent bystander was also injured.
According to the charges, in August 1995 the Asian Boyz killed three members of a rival gang as they drove down the 10 Freeway. The attack was straight out of a Hollywood movie, with the Asian Boys allegedly shooting as they hung out of windows and reached over the top of the car.
They killed two other rival gang members in a similar manner outside the Covina Bowl in the San Gabriel Valley, authorities alleged.
The gang was formed in Long Beach in the 1980s and has swelled to about 200 members, of Vietnamese, Cambodian and Filipino descent, in Southern California. It has other factions in cities across the country where Southeast Asians have settled.
Still, LAPD Asian Crimes Det. Ed Yee said other Asian gangs--some of which have crossed the line into organized crime--have more members, more power and more money.
Dolley said the Asian Boyz decided they would make a name for themselves another way.
"In the summer of '95 they began indiscriminately shooting people because they didn't like how they looked or thought they were the enemy," Dolley said. "They were trying to build up this reputation as the baddest gang in town. I guess the way they wanted to do it was by terrorizing the streets."
People Not Affiliated With Gangs Targeted
Gang members allegedly chased and shot two men leaving a bowling alley. They allegedly tracked two carloads of teenagers from their favorite hangout, the Family Fun Park at Devonshire Street and Balboa Boulevard, and shot and killed a man. They allegedly followed a couple home along Topanga Canyon Boulevard and shot at them. They allegedly fired at a couple changing a flat tire on a freeway, wounding both.
"These were just normal people. They opened up on them for no reason," Dolley said. "A lot of gangs are involved in violence but it's rational. It may seem trivial, but you can understand them. This gang is just not rational."
The gang's last killing, authorities alleged, was the slaying of fellow Asian Boyz member Cu Doung, who died March 23, 1996, the day before he was scheduled to testify against his former gang mates.
The killing crippled the prosecution's case.
In the months that followed, detectives tailed the defendants, patted them down and searched their houses and cars, uncovering about 50 guns, investigators said. They arrested 23 suspected gang members, but failed to persuade prosecutors to file charges.
But investigators said their biggest break came in May 1996, when several Asian Boyz gang members were arrested in another freeway shooting. One, Truong Dinh, made a deal to testify in exchange for immunity.
"We just got lucky," Dolley said. That testimony and the evidence seized from gang members' cars and homes led to the current prosecution.
Nardoni, the defense lawyer, said authorities are letting an admitted killer get away by implicating the innocent. He said Truong Dinh has a motive to lie: to gain immunity.
"He was a known gang member who carried guns," Nardoni said. "He's getting a free ride for his involvement in six murders and I don't know how many attempts. Basically, he's been given the Lotto."
Because of the fate of his predecessor, Doung, authorities are closely guarding Dinh's whereabouts and have stepped up security at the Van Nuys Courthouse.
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Here is a list of the defendants, the charges and the victims.
Bunthoeun Roeung, 22, charged with three murders, eight attempted murders and two counts of conspiracy to commit murder. He is alleged to have killed Armando Estrada and Miguel Limon on April 14, 1995, and Rogelio Ferman on July 23, 1995. State seeking the death penalty.
Sothi Menh, 23: charged with four murders, 15 attempted murders and three counts of conspiracy to commit murder. He is alleged to have killed Armando Estrada and Miguel Limon on April 14, 1995, Rogelio Ferman on July 23, 1995, and Oscar Palis on Aug. 26, 1995. State seeking the death penalty.
David Evangalista, 23: charged with four murders, 15 attempted murders and three counts of conspiracy to commit murder. He is alleged to have killed Armando Estrada and Miguel Limon on April 14, 1995, Rogelio Ferman on July 23, 1995, and Oscar Palis on Aug. 26, 1995. State seeking the death penalty.
Roatha Buth, 26: charged with five murders, three attempted murders and two counts of conspiracy to commit murder. He is alleged to have killed Armando Estrada and Miguel Limon on April 14, 1995, and Chen Peng, Paul Vu and Ben Liau, Aug. 1, 1995. State seeking the death penalty.
Son Thanh Bui, 22: charged with six murders, nine attempted murders and three counts of conspiracy to commit murder. He is alleged to have killed Armando Estrada and Miguel Limon on April 14, 1995, Rogelio Ferman on July 23, 1995, and Cheng Peng, Paul Vu and Ben Liao on Aug. 1, 1995.
Ky Tony Ngo, 22: charged with one murder, six attempted murders and one count of conspiracy to commit murder. He is alleged to have killed Rogelio Ferman on July 23, 1995. State is not seeking the death penalty.
Kimorn Nuth, 19: charged with six murders, 12 attempted murders and four counts of conspiracy to commit murder. He is alleged to have killed Armando Estrada and Miguel Limon on April 14, 1995; Chen Peng, Paul Vu and Ben Liao on Aug. 1, 1995, and Oscar Palis on Aug. 26, 1995. State is not seeking the death penalty.
Marvin Mercado, who is still at large, is charged with six murders, 12 attempted murders and four counts of conspiracy to commit murder. He is alleged to have killed Armando Estrada and Miguel Limon on April 14, 1995; Cheng Peng, Paul Vu and Ben Liao on Aug. 1, 1995, and Oscar Palis on Aug. 26, 1995.