Two weeks ago, in the darkness of late evening, five young Vietnamese men armed with handguns walked into the Long Beach apartment of a middle-aged Vietnamese woman and ordered her to lie face down on the floor.
"They said, 'If you don't do what we say, we'll kill you.' And she complied," Police Sgt. Robert Titus said.
The young men, barefaced and brazen, took back to Orange County everything the woman had--about $4,000 in jewelry she had been unwilling to entrust to a bank.
Witnesses Fear Retaliation
Two weeks earlier, as the owner of a Cambodian market in Long Beach was locking his shop for the day, three unmasked Vietnamese in their 20s stole the purse of the merchant's wife, firing three shots when challenged and wounding a passer-by.
And, in a third recent Long Beach robbery by a group of young Vietnamese, a Cambodian shop owner and his family were forced to lie face down while their home was looted of more than $24,000 in cash, jewelry and gold.
Again, the armed thieves did not bother to cover their faces. "Witnesses are deathly afraid of retaliation," Titus said.
The robbers also count on their victims' proven distrust of a criminal justice system that arrests lawbreakers and then releases them within hours on bail, he said.
As ranking officer of Long Beach's small anti-gang unit, the sergeant has, out of necessity, acquired a quick expertise on Southeast Asian gangs. Since last fall, identified Asian gang crime has dramatically escalated in Long Beach, said Titus and other Police Department officers.
"I don't think there is any question that Southeast Asian crime is a growing problem," Deputy Chief David Dusenbury said last week. "It is serious, and a lot of it goes unreported."
Asians themselves are the victims of a growing number of strong-arm offenses, such as robbery and extortion. But the criminal activities of Indochinese youths are reaching well beyond the 35,000-resident Asian immigrant community in the central Long Beach area, police said.
Nearly every Long Beach neighborhood has been hit by a rash of auto burglaries and thefts by Vietnamese youths from Orange County and, increasingly, by home-grown Cambodian and Vietnamese delinquents, police and Southeast Asian community leaders said.
Police said that last year's dramatic 19% increase in automobile burglary--993 incidents more than the previous year--and 17% jump in auto theft--722 more car thefts than the previous year--were partly the result of Asian gang activity, especially in affluent eastern Long Beach.
Sharp increases continued during the first three months of this year, crime reports show.
In eastern shopping center parking lots, "it was getting so they would steal stereos as fast as drivers could park their cars," a Long Beach undercover officer said.
Crackdown Reverses Trend
A crackdown this spring has reversed that trend, police said, but department statistics are not yet available to confirm the reduction.
In another response, the state announced Friday a $198,000 program to supervise gang members who are on probation. The initial targets will be 120 gang members from Garden Grove, Santa Ana and Westminster. Three probation officers will ride with police officers to check places the gangs frequent and will visit teachers and parents of the youths.
Long Beach has also become a destination for somewhat older roving bands of Indochinese criminals who move from city to city nationally, preying on their countrymen, several area police officials said.
Valuables Kept at Home
Southeast Asians are robbed because they often keep valuables in their homes, are easily intimidated and are reluctant to cooperate with police, who were frequently corrupt in their homelands, police said.
A local Asian crime specialist, who works undercover and requested anonymity, said he knows several cases in which local Vietnamese youths have hopped planes to commit crimes in other cities. For example, two were convicted recently of a jewelry store robbery in Toronto, Canada, he said.
"They're highly transient. They plan robberies here and call for help from Houston or San Diego," the officer said.
The thieves generate confusion by working out of town and using different names when arrested, he said. And the absence of any centralized computer file of Southeast Asian criminals makes the thieves' job that much easier, Deputy Chief Dusenbury said.
One Vietnamese teen-ager, arrested five times by Long Beach police since last fall, has used a different name each time, Titus said, but a tattoo has revealed his identity.
San Jose, Seattle and Houston are all part of a circuit that includes Orange County and Long Beach and that is traveled by Southeast Asian gang members, Titus said. Boston, Toronto and Dodge City, Kan., are also among at least two dozen cities frequented by the loosely knit gangs, a wire service reported in February.