Youth gangs rise outside Honolulu
By David Waite
Advertiser Staff Writer
Youth gangs on O'ahu aren't making the same kinds of headlines they did in the early to mid-1990s, but that doesn't mean the problem or the potential for violence has gone away, experts say.
The good news, said Sid Rosen, founder of an outreach program called Adult Friends for Youth, is that gang activity in Kalihi is almost nonexistent.
The bad news, Rosen said, is that youth gangs appear to be on the rise in outlying areas such as 'Ewa Beach, Waipahu and Wahiawa.
And several incidents in recent weeks give rise to renewed concerns about youth gang violence:
Two 15 year-old boys were injured, one from stab wounds, on Feb. 2 as they walked across the Punahou campus toward the school's annual carnival. While there have been suggestions that the incident may have been gang related, Bill Kato, the Honolulu Police Department's homicide detail lieutenant and a youth gang expert, said investigators have not established any affiliation between the two Roosevelt High School students who were stabbed and youth gangs.
But Rosen said his son, who teaches at Roosevelt, has asked several times if Adult Friends for Youth could provide counseling services in hopes of steering students away from gangs.
"My own feeling is there are a lot of students there whose problems would lead them in that (gang) direction," Rosen said.
Youths who police believe were involved in a Nov. 19 crime spree at a Jack in the Box on School Street in Kalihi, a 7-Eleven store in Kailua and a Chevron gas station and convenience store in Pearl City had definite gang ties, Kato said. A 17-year-old Pearl City boy has been charged with three counts of first-degree robbery in that case, while a 17-year-old Kalihi boy was charged with two counts of first-degree robbery.
In a trial over a fatal shooting, prosecution witness Anthony Quisagan testified that his brother belonged to a youth gang, as did Joel "Keoni" Brunson, who was charged with murder of 18-year-old Robert Rodemio, killed last May at a birthday party in 'Ewa Villages. Quisagan appeared in court last month wearing oversized blue jeans and a white T-shirt covered by an extra-large flannel shirt.
When he walked several times from the witness stand to point things out about the crime scene, being shown on a TV monitor in the courtroom, Quisagan constantly put the index finger and thumb of his left hand together and held his palm toward the ceiling while walking to and from the monitor. And, he continually tucked his right hand under one of the flaps of his flannel shirt.
The hand gestures did not escape Circuit Judge Michael Town, who is presiding over the trial.
"I don't think it's a physical thing," Town remarked during a short recess, without the jury present. "Is it a gang sign?" he asked.
He received no response from those present in court that day.
While he wasn't there to see the gestures, Kato said they sounded very much like gang gestures to him.
Continually jabbing a hand under a flannel shirt in the area near the waistline is a scene right out of the many rap videos that dwell on gang violence, Kato said. The gesture-maker is suggesting that he has a hand gun tucked in his waistband and is ready to "draw down on anyone who rolls up" in a car, Kato said.
It's a dangerous game of bluffing in most cases, a warning to strangers they don't belong in a certain neighborhood.
Overall, flashing gang signs and wearing gang colors is largely a thing of the past, both in Hawai'i and on the Mainland, Kato said.
"Like any other criminal, gang members find out what's going to get them in trouble. So they pretty much stopped flying their colors and tattooing gang names on their arms," Kato said.
A 1998 survey done by the U.S. Department of Justice, the most recent one available, put the number of gangs on O'ahu at 146 and estimated their membership around 1,500. Kato's overall assessment is that there are about the same number of gangs and gang members today as there were three years ago.
"It may be that they just quieted down some, or what they are doing is just not as obvious. They're keeping a lower profile nowadays," he said.
Kato shares Rosen's observations that gang activity has declined in Kalihi but is on the rise in the 'Ewa and 'Ewa Beach areas, and Waipahu in particular.
Police refer to one of the more troublesome areas in Waipahu as "the pupus," a term derived from the street names - Pupupuhi, Pupuole, Pupunohe, Pupukahi, Pupumomi, Pupukui, Pupukupa and so forth - clustered mauka and makai of Farrington Highway near Westgate Shopping Center.
A jumble of run-down, three-story walk-ups line the streets makai of Farrington, and the misery that comes from a hardscrabble life often flows out of the buildings into the parking lots and sidewalks below. It is an area, Kato said, hard hit by gang "skirmishes."
Waipahu High School has had its share of gang-related problems in recent months, as has the area near the Hans L'Orange baseball field and park.
HPD's gang detail takes a proactive approach trying to keep problems from escalating, Kato said.
"If we see a particular gang getting really active, we develop intelligence to identify their leaders and then we look for cases against those leaders," he said.
"You take down the leaders and most of the gang members are lost for a while."
In Hawai'i, many of the youth gang members begin to drift away from the organization by the time they reach 18 or 19, Kato said.
"You see them at 20 or 21, and they may still be claiming a (gang) affiliation, but for the most part, they have gotten on with their lives."
Life goes on for most
Outgrowing the gang mentality and moving on with life are major reasons why gang activity is far from the issue it was in Kalihi during the mid-1990s, Rosen said.
Friction between two groups of youths, one at the Kuhio Park Terrace public housing project and the other at the Mayor Wright housing project, had been building for several years.
By that time, Rosen's Adult Friends for Youth had worked with three generations of gang members at Kuhio Park Terrace, Rosen said.
"We felt we had brought a successful resolution to the long-term conflicts between the (two groups) and that gang warfare, in general, had come to an end," Rosen said.
The fragile peace accord was put to the most severe test possible in 1996, when a known gang member was killed at a Dillingham Boulevard night club, allegedly by rival gang members from Mayor Wright housing.
"A couple of ... kids then went to Mayor Wright and were flirting with danger. The Mayor Wright kids caught them, and a second (rival gang member) was killed; he was stomped to death.
"Most of the (Kuhio Park Terrace) gang members had been moving away from the gang mentality, and we used that to forestall any attempts at retaliation, even though there was a 'high alert' on the part of the Honolulu Police Department."
The fact that the deaths of two gang members went unavenged was an indicator to Rosen that times had changed in Kalihi.
It was in 1996 that another "decades-old" conflict between two gangs - one primarily from the Kanoa Park area of Kalihi and the other with substantial factions in the Leeward area and Kalihi - was resolved, Rosen said.
"By the end of 1996, gang warfare as we knew it in Kalihi had pretty much come to an end," Rosen said.
The one major exception to that was the shooting death of Richard Tambua in the Kapalama area Dec. 31, 1999.
"It was very devastating for us, because the same staff person had been working with the kids on both sides," Rosen said.
Problems at Campbell High
In communities where gang problems are on the rise, Rosen said there are people who try to "downplay" the situation. "For the last couple of years, it's almost been ignored," he said.
"Campbell High School has got real problems. The former principal denied it, but I think the new principal recognizes the school needs help."
Former Campbell High School Principal Louis Vierra could not be reached for comment, but last spring, after a series of violent events at the school culminated in a brawl that resulted in the suspension of 25 students, Vierra said that Campbell had problems like any other school, but they were blown out of proportion. The principal hinted that concerns about violence at the school were based more on perception than reality.
Rosen has high praise for the new principal, Gayle Awakuni, who he said is attempting to come to grips with problems at Campbell.
Meanwhile, he describes the situation at Waipahu High School as potentially "explosive." Tensions between rival gangs there escalated to the point that a high school football game was nearly canceled last fall, Rosen said. Adult Friends for Youth is now working with two gangs, some of whose members attend Waipahu High.
A large part of getting through to youth gang members is instilling a sense of self-worth, Rosen said.
"They feel life is so meaningless for themselves, it must be meaningless for others. A question that is commonly raised with kids involved in youth gang violence is, 'Don't you have any compassion?'
"Unfortunately, at that point in their lives, they don't."