Fatal gunfight closes Samoan festival for day
A day after a security guard shot and killed a gunman during a Wednesday night melee at the 22nd annual Samoan Flag Day Festival, Samoan Chief Tua’au Pele Faletogo was fielding anxious telephone calls from people with two pressing questions:
Is the event at Carson’s Victoria Regional Park still open? Is it safe?
“The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department shut us down for today,” he told one of the callers Thursday, as deputies turned prospective celebrants away at the entrance gates. “All the wonderful cultural programs we had scheduled for the evening have been canceled. I feel really bad.”
Also looming is a larger question: Will local conflicts doom the festival in the future?
Authorities said the fatal shooting took place after a gunfight broke out between rival Pacific Islander gangs at the crowded, family-oriented festival held just north of the 405 Freeway in the shadow of the Goodyear blimp’s takeoff and landing zone.
The deadly shooting was not the first during the festival. Four years ago, a 24-year-old Bellflower man died after being shot multiple times by suspected gang members just outside the fence enclosing the event designed to encourage youths to be proud of their language, heritage and culture.
“It’s become dangerous to do something good for the community,” said Faletogo, who chairs the city’s Planning Commission. “Tongan and Samoan rivalries are out of control.”
(Another tragedy occurred in 1995, when a man collapsed and died of heart and kidney failure after joining a Flag Day ceremonial dance to celebrate the $15.9-million judgment that a jury awarded him and 35 others in ruling that they had been brutalized or falsely arrested by sheriff’s deputies at a bridal shower in 1989.)
After Thursday’s meeting, sheriff’s and city officials shut down the festival for one day and called a halt to any nighttime activities for the duration of the weeklong event, which ends Saturday.
After conferring with Carson Mayor Jim Dear, Sheriff’s Capt. Todd Rogers and Faletogo, they also decided to allow a cricket tournament involving teams from as far away as Samoa and Hawaii to continue today and Saturday, but without audiences.
In addition, 192nd Street was closed to traffic from Main Street on the western edge of Victoria Park to Towne Avenue on the eastern edge to eliminate the possibility of drive-by shootings.
“There will be a very heavy police presence,” Rogers said. “Very heavy.”
Faletogo’s 46-year-old wife, Pulou, was one of three bystanders shot and wounded in the gunfight. Two boys, 12 and 13, were also hurt. They were taken to a local hospital, authorities said, and are expected to make full recoveries.
Officials said the trouble started about 10 p.m. when two young women began fighting over a young man. What began as a verbal confrontation escalated into a fistfight that included a Tongan man and a Samoan man, they said.
The Tongan eventually pulled out a firearm and fired into the crowd, then ran toward a park gate, Sheriff’s Lt. Gil Carrillo said. “He was looking back over his shoulder, shooting, and noticed the armed security.”
The man shot at the security officer, who returned fire, Carrillo said. The gunman was later pronounced dead at the scene. Coroner’s officials said he was in his 20s.
The security guard, who was legally authorized to carry a weapon, was not injured.
Sheriff’s Department spokesman Steve Whitmore said the guard worked for a private security company and was not a sworn law enforcement officer.
Sheriff’s detectives are investigating the death as a homicide. Carrillo said witnesses saw the man shoot at the guard, and a handgun recovered at the scene is believed to have been used by the assailant.
Shortly after the fatal shooting, someone fired a gun toward the festival crowd from a car heading west on 192nd Street, which borders the park. No one was injured and there are no suspects.
Faletogo said his wife had tried to break up the fight between the “young girls” before she was shot in the right leg.
“Somehow the shots started coming from everywhere -- boom, boom, boom,” he said. “She grabbed onto me and said, ‘You know, hon, I got hit.’ I looked down at her traditional wear and it was all bloody.
“Here we have a program of pride and preservation of culture, then there is this idiot who destroyed it,” he said. “You don’t want to be defeated by acts of terrorism. These gangs are trying to steal our streets and our community. I will not be defeated by people like this.”
As he spoke, a cricket match began between the hometown Victoria Boyz and a team from Utah. Only a few dozen people watched what had been expected to draw thousands of spectators, boosting festival attendance and profits for vendors of Polynesian foods and crafts.
Samoan Flag Day commemorates the raising of the U.S. flag in American Samoa in 1900, a move that marked the creation of a strategic base in the South Pacific.
Los Angeles County is home to about 30,000 Pacific Islanders, according to a 2006 U.S. Census Bureau estimate. Nearly 4% of Carson’s population is Pacific Islander, the highest concentration in the region.
Community leaders and county and city officials expressed concerns about staging next year’s festival, given the bickering that has come to characterize relations among many Samoan churches and chiefdoms, which function as urban villages where language, culture and traditions flourish.
In the meantime, a number of shootings had already prompted neighborhood leaders and sheriff’s officials to organize a community march and rally against crime and violence next Wednesday.
As for the future of the Samoan Flag Day Festival, Faletogo said, “We’re going to have to hold a big community meeting and decide exactly how to proceed. Of course, that won’t be easy. If I even suggest it, someone will ask, ‘Who are you to call a meeting?’ ”
“But it must be done,” he added. “We must seriously consider the future of this beautiful event.”