Asian Gang Shootings On Upswing In City, Police Say One Youth, Thai Ho, 17, Got Caught In The Middle. The Shooter Thought He Was A Rival, Police Said.

Posted: December 13, 1995

The sharp pain knocked the wind out of 17-year-old Thai Ho.

Minutes before, his quick hands were outmaneuvering enemies in a game of Mortal Kombat and were fully in control of his digitized destiny.

But now he is stumbling backward, breathing hard. His right hand is shielding his wound, and his legs are buckling beneath him. He falls to the ground, immobilized. All he can do is wait for help.

Investigators said the teenager was shot while leaving a South Philadelphia video store Dec. 3, by a 15-year-old gang member who thought Ho belonged to a rival gang. The weapon, believed to be a small-caliber handgun, was never found.

Ho, who is recovering at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, took a single bullet to the chest. It remains there, lodged against his ribs. Doctors opted not to remove it because of its proximity to his heart.

Police said the shooting might have been in retaliation for earlier melees between two gangs - and Ho apparently got caught in the middle. His situation shows how fraternization - not necessarily membership - can have tragic consequences in the insular and territorial world of gangs.

"There's a growing trend of Asian-on-Asian shootings over gang-related matters," said Police Sgt. Robert Montague of the Philadelphia organized- crime unit, which specializes in gang-related activity. "Since 1991, it's gone up significantly, especially among young gang members."

The problem is not unique to Philadelphia.

Gang experts say almost all major cities are experiencing similar upswings, as Asian gangs continue to migrate from the West Coast and filter across the country. With the gangs' expanding web and influence, police are having to deal with a new generation of Asian gangsters, and the accompanying difficulties presented by cultural and language barriers, growing membership and violent streaks.

Montague said it was difficult to know how many Asian gang members are in the city, but he said there could be as many as 500.

Hours after the shooting, police arrested 15-year-old Pivorn Heng and charged him with aggravated and simple assault, three counts of reckless endangerment, two counts of firearms violations, and conspiracy.

Thoeun Oeun, 21, of Southwest Philadelphia, suspected of driving the getaway car, was arrested with Heng and faces the same charges.

The shooting gives investigators accustomed to dealing with armed robberies of Asian businesses or homes a different glimpse of the shadowy world of Asian gangs. It paints a vivid picture of a world in which pint-size soldiers, many not old enough to drive, terrorize neighborhoods, plunder families and act as hit men.

"These are violent kids in their early teens shooting at each other, who would think nothing of it to shoot you or me," Montague said. "With their small physical dimensions, they are more likely to use weapons like guns."


According to police reports, Ho and two youths, ages 12 and 14, were standing at 15th and Tasker Streets shortly before 7 p.m. Dec. 3 when they saw a blue Honda Accord cruising the area. Police identified Ho's companions as members of a South Philadelphia street gang that calls itself the Tiny Rascal Gang, or TRG.

Four males were in the Honda: Oeun was the driver and Heng sat directly behind him in the back seat, investigators said.

"One of the gang members with Ho points to the car and says, 'That's Westside Crips. Let's get out of here since they will probably do a drive-by,' " Detective Ronald Marker of the South Division said. "So they go into this video store and play video games for a while, hoping the car leaves."

For about 25 minutes, the three were inside Thonny Video, at 1514 Tasker St. Ho gravitated toward his favorite, Mortal Kombat.

Then they decided to leave. As soon as the three walked out of the store, a shot was fired from a car parked in front of it.

Police were summoned at 7:23 p.m. to the video store. The make and license plate of the Honda were flashed citywide.

Investigators said University of Pennsylvania police saw the Honda heading west on Sansom at 42d Street. Heng and the other youth in the back seat were arrested at Sansom and 45th Streets, where they had jumped out. Oeun and the fourth male were arrested by Penn police at 44th and Chestnut.

Marker said the shooting was part of a continuing feud.

"We were given the impression that this was in retaliation for something that happened earlier between members of both gangs," he said.

Ho's condition has been steadily improving. The bullet shattered his left lung and his breathing is aided by a tube connected to a ventilator. Doctors are hoping to repair the lung.

"I don't sleep for three nights," said Sin Huynh, 39, who has kept a nightly vigil beside her son's bed. "I see my son, and I'm so very hurt."

Huynh, who immigrated to Philadelphia from Saigon, Vietnam, in 1980, lives with Ho and her other children, Kathy, 16; Binh, 15, and Tony, 14. Her brother, Dunz Huynh, 30, also lives with the family.

Ho's father lives in Southwest Philadelphia, where he owns a grocery store. The couple divorced in 1987. Huynh said she supports the family by helping her brother Dunz, a tailor.

"We don't have much money," Huynh said, her voice sometimes unsteady from crying. "I told Thai that if he wanted to buy things that he needed, to work for them. That's what he did, and he would sometimes help me out."

Huynh said Ho left the ninth grade and applied at the Job Corps Center at 4601 Market St. The center placed him at the Woolworth on Broad Street and Snyder Avenue, where he worked for half a year, stocking shelves.

"He was never into gangs," said Billy Worrell, 17, his best friend. ''Thai's a very friendly kid. He was nice to everyone. That's the way he is."

Only a few years back, Asian gangs were exclusively members of their own ethnic groups. Of late, gangs have become less restrictive.

"Now they're more cross-racial," Montague said. "It's not uncommon to find several Asian groups within a gang."

The Tiny Rascal Gang, for instance, started out primarily as a Cambodian gang. It now has Laotian and Vietnamese members.

"These kids share the same socioeconomic background and start intermingling in the neighborhood," Montague said. "They start doing crimes together for economic reasons and because there's safety in numbers."

Extortions and home robberies of Asians have traditionally been unique to Asian gangs. But a new component is altering the choice of prey.

"With the advent of narcotics, a lot of the kids are becoming junkies," Montague said. "You'll start seeing more of them holding up and robbing whoever they can to support their habits - not just other Asians."

Experts say Asian gangs share similarities with other street gangs: Protecting one's turf is considered duty; scores are typically settled with firearms, and respect is a natural extension of intimidation.

"Their mind-set is to do whatever it takes to get through the day," Montague said. "Their survival instinct is incredible. It's partly cultural, given the histories of the countries these kids come from."

Marker said police took the TRG members who were with Ho to the Honda to identify the suspects that night.

"They were too scared to even approach the car," Marker said. "My feeling was they didn't want to be seen by this group of males on their turf."

Instead, both witnesses were taken to South Division headquarters, at 24th and Wolf Streets, where they identified Heng and Oeun in a photo spread. The two other teenagers were released pending further investigation.

Montague said Asian gang members range in age from 10 to 35. A large majority of them join gangs to "escape" strict parents.

Experts say Heng, who lives on the unit block of South 45th Street, fits the prototype of a young, up-and-coming gang member.

He has severed ties with his Cambodian family. He dropped out of school. The gang is his adopted family and way of life.

"I was kind of surprised at the shooter's age," Marker said. "But when you talk to him, it's not like you're talking to a normal 15-year-old kid. He knew what to say and what not to say. He was experienced with the system."

Investigators said Heng already had an outstanding warrant for a home- invasion robbery July 20 in the 2300 block of Shelmire Avenue in the Northeast. Police said Heng and two others broke into the home, tied up a Korean man and his 17-year-old sister, and stole items valued at $13,700.

"We've been looking for him for three months," Montague said.

Heng is at the Youth Study Center. A hearing is scheduled for Monday in Family Court for his alleged role in the shooting of Ho. Oeun was being held at the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility after not posting 10 percent of $25,000 bail. His preliminary hearing is today in Family Court.

Meanwhile, family and friends are keeping an eye on Ho.

"Why they do that to my son?" said Ho's mother, Huynh, who continues to struggle with the circumstances that have left her nervous and restless.

"How does a 15-year-old get a gun?" she asked. "Why so young and so mean?"

comments powered by Disqus