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Legal system trying to keep up with prolific Asian gangs

Legal system trying to keep up with prolific Asian gangs

Legal system trying to keep up with prolific Asian gangs
Published July 15, 2007

ST. PETERSBURG – Men Sorn didn’t have to tell deputies at the Pinellas County Jail that he was a gang member. The marks of his lifestyle covered his slender arms.

The word "Thug" was tattooed on his right forearm, "Life" on his left.  Other tattoos included a dragon and the words "Cambodian" and "Khmer." 

But the most significant marking may have been three small dots on the web of his left hand: They stand for "my crazy life," and symbolize membership in the Asian Pride Gang.

Sorn was a gang leader who killed a rival Asian Pride member after a car chase and shootout in St. Petersburg, authorities said. He was found guilty last month and sentenced to 35 years in prison.

Sorn, 23, said little before he was sentenced last month. But his case and other recent prosecutions have shed light on the most prolific gang type in south Pinellas County: Asians.

For more than 11 years, the Asian Pride Gang and a constellation of other gangs like the Everybody Killers and Southern Bloods have recruited dozens of youths, mostly from Southeast Asia.

"A lot of their leaders are in prison now," said Aaron Slavin, a prosecutor for the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney’s Office who handles gang-related cases. "But they still have a lot of followers."

Asian gangs formed in Pinellas in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when children of immigrants looked for a sense of belonging.

In 1996, two rival Asian gang leaders met in state prison and agreed to end hostilities between the Asian Crip gang and the Southern Bloods, according to local gang investigators.

Their meeting led to the creation of the Asian Pride Gang, a group of about 50 that authorities blame for a string of robberies and violent attacks. A dispute with one rival gang alone led to 30 retaliatory shootings and stabbings in just two years.

Bryan Sims, a St. Petersburg police detective who specializes in gang intelligence, said Asian gangs modeled themselves after established traditional gangs like the Bloods.

Asian Pride gang members wear red bandanas and Converse Chuck Taylor sneakers. They listen to Tupac Shakur and flash hand signs.

Their victims tend to be members of their own community.

"When they do burglaries, robberies and kidnappings, generally they’re going after Asian victims," Sims said.

Pharadee Sim, 19, was recently sentenced to 40 months in prison after a string of gang burglaries in unincorporated St. Petersburg. Gang members knew which homes belonged to Asians, Sim told detectives,  because of unusual trees and plants the homeowners had planted.

"He said they went after Asian homes," Slavin said, "because Asian people have money and jewelry in their homes."

Gang warfare escalated just after 2000 with several high-profile killings. A split in the Asian Pride Gang led to a fight in Tierra Verde with another group named True Asian Pride, Sims said. Asian Pride members objected to the word "True" in their rivals’ name, saying it was disrespectful.

Then, in 2004, Sorn was arrested for shooting a rival in Asian Pride named Xaisomdeth Sayavongkeo The two had a number of disputes, and Sorn was upset because he felt the leader of the Asian Pride Gang –  who was on probation – was being too weak.

Sims says he’s one of the few gang investigators in Florida who concentrate on Asian gangs.

Slavin became a full-time gang crimes prosecutor last July after the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney’s Office received a grant to finance the position. Having one person keeping track of all gang prosecutions helps law enforcement crack down, he said.

As authorities focused on gang members, more and more leaders ended up in prison.

"A lot of them are out of commission right now," Sims said. "A lot of them are locked up."

But the violence continues. Just two weeks ago, another Asian Pride Gang member was arrested in a botched drug deal that turned into a fatal shooting, the Sheriff’s Office said.

Kevin Yun, 18, faces a first-degree murder charge, and sheriff’s deputies are searching for two other Asian men who were with Yun that  day, including the shooter.

After years in the gang unit, Sims isn’t surprised to see young men make dumb decisions that land them in jail, sometimes for the rest of their lives. They often come from broken homes, and are hunting for the good life.

"There’s a certain mind-set they want to emulate," Sims said. "They want rims, plasma TV, the money, the respect."

Abhi Raghunathan
can be reached at [email protected] or 727 893-8472.

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