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Officials Believe Karaoke Clubs Attract Crime : Law enforcement: Police say the club's secluded rooms can become gathering spots for organized crime. Two shootings have occurred at an Alhambra lounge, and several cities are watching the businesses closely.

October 25, 1992|AMY LOUISE KAZMIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN GABRIEL VALLEY — The reflection of the strobe light on the mirrored walls of the Alhambra lounge created a dazzling display as three youths belted out Chinese pop hits to music from a karaoke machine.

Later, sitting around a table with friends, they said the U2 KTV & Cafe is a comfortable place to hang out and exercise their vocal talents.

"Kids come here to sing and socialize," said a 17-year old Walnut girl, who asked that her name not be used. "I've met a lot of nice kids here, a lot of straight-A students."

But Alhambra officials have a different view of the year-old club on East Bay State Street. In the wake of two shootings there in six weeks, including an Aug. 26 slaying, authorities are concerned that the lounge is a gathering spot for Asian organized crime figures. Both the gunman and the victim in the August killing had ties to known Asian crime groups, police said.

Club owner Susan Sun, a Taiwanese immigrant and the mother of two young children, denies such allegations. She calls the shootings "bad luck. When a customer comes in, what can I do? We don't know who belongs to who."

KTV clubs, like the U2, are distinguished from typical karaoke bars by their private rooms, each equipped with their own karaoke machines. In these small rooms, families and groups of friends can sing and enjoy the popular karaoke machines without standing in front of a crowd of strangers.

Sun said she set up her business because "I like to sing a song, and my husband likes to sing a song." In her native Taiwan, she said, KTV clubs are a popular form of family entertainment, often used for celebrating birthdays and other special occasions.

But in Taiwan, some KTV clubs have also become notorious gathering spots for drug users and dealers, who can party and do business in the private rooms, away from prying eyes.

Because of that notoriety, officials in several San Gabriel Valley cities are keeping a tight watch on local KTV clubs, which are slowly growing in popularity.

In Arcadia, where there have been two nonfatal, gang-related shootings in karaoke clubs in the last year, the City Council on Tuesday will consider placing a temporary ban on new clubs. There are now five in the city.

San Gabriel Police Lt. Jim Goodman said his city has adopted strict rules. Alcohol consumption is prohibited. Doors to the private rooms may not be locked. Rooms must have clear glass windows so people can see inside. Video cameras must be installed in hallways and security guards posted outside the premises. The clubs must close at 3 a.m.

"Any place that's open all night long, you are going to draw all kinds of different people," Goodman said, adding, "We are trying to give the message to the owners to keep their places clean."

Monterey Park officials took their concerns a step further in March when the City Council adopted a one-year moratorium on KTV clubs to allow the city to develop a policy on the issue.

Adolfo Reta, director of community development, said guidelines are being developed that will allow karaoke machines in restaurants but would prohibit their use in private rooms. Due before the Planning Commission next month, such a policy would effectively ban KTV clubs in the city.

Alhambra officials said they do not want to take any precipitous action against KTV businesses. But in response to the problems at the U2, the City Council has asked the city manager to review conditional-use permits issued to the city's three karaoke businesses. Officials said they want to determine whether the regulations are appropriate and to verify that clubs--especially the U2--are complying.

"I don't think that karaoke, in and of itself, is a bad activity," Councilman Boyd G. Condie said. "We want to just look at the whole picture and understand what are the elements causing the problem and stop it."

The U2 has a plush, glitzy main lounge and 10 elegant private rooms, for as many as 10 people, that rent for $30 to $60 an hour. On a recent Monday night, a group of older adults had rented the largest private room. The others were empty. Only a handful of youths were in the main lounge. Business is much better on the weekends, Sun said.

The club, which is not permitted to sell alcohol, offers an array of fruit drinks. But police Lt. Jim Henchey said officers have at times have seen "evidence that liquor has been consumed" there.

The first shooting at U2 occurred about 3:30 a.m. Aug. 26. Henchey said William Ling, 24, an associate of a New York-based crime syndicate, used a handgun to kill Dolby Lee, 25, of San Gabriel, identified as a high-ranking member of an Asian gang. Club patrons wrestled the gun from Ling, but he escaped. A warrant has been issued for his arrest.

Henchey said detectives do not have a motive, although they believe that the two men were acquainted. Authorities believe Ling might have been aiming at Lee's companion, a higher-ranking gang member, who was standing nearby.

After the slaying, Alhambra officials asked Sun to install a video camera at the club's main entrance. That camera recorded the second shooting Oct. 8. A patron who had left the club earlier armed himself with a handgun and forced his way back inside where he began arguing with a waitress, police said.

"She was trying to keep him from entering the business portion of the establishment," Henchey said. "She was trying to influence him to go back out and cool off."

After the man shot the waitress, patrons wrestled him to the ground and took the gun away. But the assailant was gone by the time police arrived. Investigators believe that the gunman wanted to shoot someone in the club but the waitress, whose name has not been released, got in his way. The waitress is recovering. Despite the videotape, police have not identified the gunman.

Sun said the shootings have upset her and her business has suffered.

"After these things happen, I feel angry," she said.

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