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.