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Crips in Utah: Gang culture invades an unlikely turf

(USA Today) -- Just before gunfire rang out last month in a heavily guarded federal courtroom, Hema Katoa saw the defendant suddenly rise from his chair and charge the man in the witness box who was testifying against him.

It was a stunning development that played out in full view of the judge and jury on the first day of a racketeering conspiracy trial involving an accused gang member who would ultimately collapse on the courtroom floor, fatally wounded by a U.S. marshal.

A month later, the incident is shining a harsh spotlight on the unusual origins of a criminal gang that continues to thrive in a most unlikely place — Salt Lake City — and raises new questions about the extraordinary strategies law enforcement officials are employing to combat the group.

The weight of the morning's trauma did not fully register until hours later, when Katoa learned that his nephew, part of Salt Lake City's tightly knit Tongan community who had been swept into the ranks of a brutal affiliate of the Crip street gang, was dead.

Since Siale Angilau's dramatic courtroom death, Katoa's days are a mix of grief and the ongoing struggle to "protect'' other Pacific Islander children — many ironically brought by families from gang-infested Southern California neighborhoods to be closer to their Mormon faith — from sliding into the ranks of the Tongan Crip Gang.

The courtroom shooting is even more difficult to reconcile with Salt Lake City, home to the Mormon church and the gateway to some of America's most exclusive ski resorts. Yet the presence of Angilau's so-called TCG has been an unfortunate reality for more than two decades.

Ron Stallworth, a founder of the state's gang task force, in 1989 first identified the presence in Utah of the Tongan gang, heavily influenced by the Los Angeles-based Crips.

"Frankly," Stallworth said, "I'm surprised something like this didn't happen much sooner.''

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