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Violence on Rise at Central O.C. Cyber Cafes

Crime: Police say weekend slaying at PC Cafe in Garden Grove is the latest in a string of assaults at teen hangouts.

January 01, 2002|JACK LEONARD and MAI TRAN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Police are stepping up patrols and seeking new laws aimed at halting a string of violent incidents at late-night cyber cafes in central Orange County, including the death early Monday of 20-year-old man attacked while waiting to play a video game.

Dozens of cyber cafes have sprung up in Garden Grove and surrounding cities, bustling through the night with teens who come to access the Internet and play the latest video games. But the late-night venues have increasingly drawn gang members and others looking for trouble, authorities said.

Garden Grove and Santa Ana have been the hardest hit, reporting more than a dozen assaults, stabbings and robberies in recent months at the cafes. This weekend's attack marked the first slaying, and Garden Grove authorities said they will ask the City Council to pass ordinances more strictly regulating the cafes and limiting the hours teens can patronize them.

"It's always alarming when you have this type of increase in violence," Garden Grove Police Sgt. Mike Handfield said. "We've tried to be active but there's only so much you can do."

Sunday's attack, police said, occurred shortly after Phuong Huu Ly and a friend arrived at PC Cafe about 8:35 p.m., intending to spend the evening playing video games for $2 an hour. As they entered, the pair spotted two boys about 16 years old watching them from inside, police said.

The cafe, which stays open until 4 a.m., was full, so Ly and his friend smoked a cigarette outside as they waited for a computer to become available. A few minutes later, the two teenage boys from inside confronted them, authorities said.

One of the boys pulled a large screwdriver he had tucked into his waistband and stabbed Ly in the head, police said. The assailants ran, yelling gang monikers as they jumped into a light green Honda Accord and sped east on Garden Grove Boulevard.

Ly, of Santa Ana, was pronounced dead 7 1/2 hours later at UC Irvine Medical Center in Orange. Police identified him as a "gang associate," and said they suspect the slaying was motivated by a gang rivalry.

Though Garden Grove police have not kept statistics on the trend, officials said they have noticed a steady rise in violence at the city's 19 cyber cafes. Gang detectives, in particular, have spent extra time scouting out the venues in search of troublemakers.

"We're trying to get up to speed," Handfield said. "We didn't anticipate this many problems."

Sunday's killing follows recent violent episodes at the same cafe, which has seen more problems than most, Handfield said. In November, a dispute between two game players quickly turned into a melee, as four teenagers wielded baseball bats in the middle of the cafe. Two people were seriously injured.

A few weeks earlier, another gang-related brawl at the cafe ended in a stabbing that police are treating as attempted murder.

Monday afternoon, the only violence at PC Cafe was on computer screens as dozens of teenage boys fought each other in a popular computer game that pits heavily armed terrorists against even more heavily armed police.

As the sound of shots and explosions rang out around him, Fernando Padilla Jr., 18, took a short break from his game to say the cafe has been unfairly maligned by police.

"It's not a gang hangout," said Padilla, who plays for three hours daily. "There are 5-year-old kids who come in and they've got skill."

Peter Woo, co-owner of PC Cafe, also defended the operation. He pointed to a list of rules he said are strictly enforced. Computer users are forbidden from cursing, yelling and running.

Mounted surveillance cameras watch inside and behind the cafe, and Woo said he plans to add another camera this week in front of the store, where Ly was killed.

But Woo acknowledged that fights do occasionally break out. Some game players, he said, became carried away with their contests and resort to real violence. And he expressed frustration at his unsuccessful efforts to exclude gang members.

"There's nothing we can do to tell they're gang members," he said.

The burgeoning popularity of cyber cafes like Woo's has fueled a rapid expansion across the region. But in Garden Grove, at least, city officials will probably make it harder to operate them, officials said.

Plans are underway to require owners to apply for a city permit that would restrict how late the cafes can stay open, Handfield said. Other rules, he said, will probably forbid youngsters from frequenting the venues late at night.

"We want the kids to be able to go in and play the games they want to," Handfield said. "But when it comes to people being assaulted, we have to draw the line."

Santa Ana officials said they are giving more scrutiny to several cyber cafes on the city's west side, which they believe are becoming favorite locations for Asian gangs.

"They are hangouts . . . and that's when the problems start," Officer Mario Corona said.

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