Retired police officer Henry Hollinger says Calgary's current gang warfare can be traced back 10 years to kids with ties to Forest Lawn High School. (Photograph by: Ted Rhodes, Calgary Herald)
March 14, 2009
By Jason Van Rassel
Calgary Herald (Alberta, Canada)
"Much love from the crew The cries and the pain got me goin' insane Gang life has got me on the brink walking around with a strap on my hip" -- Lyrics from a rap recording paying tribute to slain FOB Killers member John Pheng made by his friends in 2005Before FOB and FK, there was the"Runaway Gang."
That's the nickname police investigators gave a ragtag bunch of troublemakers who either attended Forest Lawn High School or spent time hanging around the school a decade ago.
"We watched this group of goofy kids develop into a gang," recalls Henry Hollinger, a retired Calgary police officer who was working in the intelligence unit at the time.From kids to killers, this is the story of Calgary's evolving gang war, how a group of teens went from cutting class together 10 years ago to shooting each other on city streets.
The feud between FOB and the FOB Killers (FK) has claimed at least 25 lives since 2002, maimed dozens of others and struck fear into law-abiding citizens throughout Calgary.
If there's any question about whether the conflict has escalated into all-out war, consider the life and death of John Pheng.
At age 22, the FK member died on the floor of a 17th Avenue nightclub as his companions pursued the gunmen into the busy street outside two years ago.
Pheng had killed at least one other person. On New Year's Day 2004, he fatally stabbed an 18-year-old Calgary man who was dating his former girlfriend.
This is the life Pheng's friends celebrated in an amateur recording they made shortly after he was murdered in February 2005.
"You're a soldier, man,"raps one.
Pheng's friends sang the praises of his violent ways, but the citizens of Calgary aren't joining in.
Gang violence topped a list of concerns in a citizens' survey released this week, and it dominated the agenda Friday as Premier Ed Stelmach met his counterparts from B.C. and Saskatchewan.
Police have thrown considerable resources toward stopping the violence, disrupting the gangs' criminal businesses and keeping youths from getting involved in the first place.
What makes the war between FOB and FK unique --and difficult to stop--is that it isn't motivated by battles over drug turf, but mutual hatred.
"They've matured, they've learned, they're more criminally experienced and they've developed relationships in other cities and provinces," says Acting Staff Sgt. Gord Eiriksson of the city police's gang unit. "But what concerns us the most is the level of violence and the complete lack of regard for others' lives."
Pheng came to Canada with his parents and two older siblings when he was three years old.
He was born at a displaced persons camp in Thailand in 1982, shortly after his parents fled Cambodia's murderous Khmer Rouge regime.
By all accounts, Pheng's parents worked hard to provide for their children, first in Olds, then in Calgary.
Things became more difficult after Pheng's mother died of cancer and his father was left sole responsibility for raising the kids.
It's a pattern common to many immigrant communities, and not just the Asian-Canadian teens who made up most of the Runaway Gang: parents favour more traditional values, which their Canadianized offspring find too strict.
But the parents often have to work long hours to support the family, which means they have few ways of enforcing their will when the child rebels.
"Usually, these kids aren't involved at home and have activities outside," says Do Huu Trong, chairman of the board of the Calgary Vietnamese-Canadian Association.
At first, Hollinger and other investigators who encountered the Runaway Gang were dealing with truants who were imitating things they saw in gangster movies.
Several used cigarettes and coins to burn dot-pattern tattoos on their hands and forearms, crude imitations of traditional three-and five-dot markings favoured by Vietnamese gangs.
The meanings of the tattoos can vary, but a common five-dot design is meant to depict the "five T's" in Vietnamese: tinh (love), tien (money), tu (prison), toi (crime) and thu (revenge).
For Pheng and his friends, they were soon on the road to becoming hardened criminals instead of teenage imitators.
RUNAWAYS BECOME GANGSTERS
"White"--slang for cocaine --drives the business of FOB and FK today.
Dealing cocaine was the ticket to bigger money, but it was also what got the first person killed.
Huu Pham, a 15-year-old from Calgary, was in a fourth-floor Edmonton apartment when a police tactical team burst through the door on Sept. 24, 1999.
Pham and another man fled to the balcony and climbed over the railing. Both died of head injuries when they fell to the pavement below.
The raid was part of an investigation by RCMP and Edmonton police into a cocaine trafficking organization. Son Nguyen and Tan Diep, who later became members of FOB, were also swept up in the police operation.
"They went to Edmonton as baby gangsters and came back to Calgary as big-time gangsters," Hollinger says.
Their time in Edmonton taught budding criminals like Son Nguyen and Diep the potential behind dial-a-doping (mobile drug sales arranged using cellphones and pagers) in Calgary.
As the core group from Forest Lawn branched into new rackets, its members got to know teens from other parts of the city, like the Chin brothers, Roland and Roger, who attended John G. Diefenbaker High School in the northwest, and Jackie Tran, who went to Crescent Heights High School.
At first, everyone got along and enjoyed the profits, but something split the friends into two groups.
The catalyst for the break isn't known by outsiders: some have told police it may have been over a stolen personal item--a watch or a jacket -- a fight over a girl, or the theft of some marijuana.
As a veteran investigator recently put it, determining what started the war isn't as important as recognizing what it has become.
"I don't think the reason they splintered is as fundamental as what's happening -- and that people are dying," Sgt. Gavin Walker said during a hearing in December for Jackie Tran, who is facing deportation to his native Vietnam, in part due to his alleged membership in FK.
Only the people who opened fire inside the Shaken Drink Room on Feb.26, 2005, know exactly why Pheng had to die that night.
Pheng's killing, like 23 of the 25 with confirmed links to the war between FOB and FK, remains unsolved.
Five months before he died, Pheng was arrested in connection with a violent home invasion in Chestermere, where six men kidnapped and assaulted a 20-year-old woman.
Though Pheng was never charged by police, his enemies weren't about to about wait for the courts to proclaim his guilt.
Violence -- including murder--was already an established way of settling scores between the two gangs, but investigators recall Pheng's enemies felt he crossed a line by harming a woman.
"One of them said to me, 'You don't mess with the bitches,' " one veteran police officer says.
Pheng's 2005 killing marked the end of a period of relative quiet during the FOB-FK conflict brought about by a police task force formed two years earlier.
Back in February 2002, Pheng, Vuthy Kong and other members of the emerging FK gang got in a fight outside a downtown karaoke bar.
During the melee, Kong fatally stabbed a young Calgarian, Adam Miu. The victim wasn't a gang member, but his death angered people who were.
Police were reluctant to publicly say the killing, and sporadic violence that followed it, were related to gangs. In fact, police at the time wouldn't use the word "gang" to describe criminal organizations.
Six days in December 2002 changed all that.
On Dec. 23, rival gangsters crossed paths at Southcentre as last-minute Christmas shoppers filled the stores.
As the parking lot teemed with shoppers, FK member Linju (Billy) Ly drove his car past the Indigo bookstore, while passenger Michael Oduneye pointed a .223-calibre handgun out the window and fired four shots.
Two shots hit Jason Youn: one perforated his bowel and the other lodged near his spine. Youn needed a wheelchair and a colostomy bag for months after the shooting.
But he was lucky -- he survived.
Revenge came swiftly to Ly, who was shot dead as he shovelled the sidewalk in front of his parents' Renfrew home six days later.
Ly was the second person connected to FK to be killed in retaliatory attacks that day: someone shot FK associate Vinh Le inside a crowded downtown club hours before.
Less than two weeks later, then police chief Jack Beaton announced police were forming a task force to investigate several connected incidents "directly related to criminal street-gang activity."
The police had escalated things, but so had the gangs: they demonstrated they would exact revenge any time they felt they had a clear shot, no matter how many others they put in danger.
Many have been killed, wounded and jailed since those lyrics were dedicated to Pheng.
Shootings in public continued, including two separate ambushes at Calgary gas stations in less than two months in 2005 that killed three.
Police began seeing evidence that warring gangsters were preparing for combat whenever they left their homes: some had guns in secret compartments in their vehicles and many started wearing body armour.
Even as killings and prison decimated their ranks, FOB and FK have recruited new members willing to fight a battle that predates them.
"Half of them don't even know what this dispute is even about," Hollinger says.
But the hatred between the two sides has become entrenched. When police visited Jackie Tran in 2007 to inform him of a threat to his life, he shrugged off the warning.
"This isn't going to be over until they're dead or we're all dead," he told an officer.
FOB and FK have long since grown into multicultural gangs with many Canadian-born members and many whose parents aren't immigrants.
In a southwest Calgary home occupied by a Caucasian family, an anguished father recently wondered how his son became involved in such a dangerous life.
"There's a big part of me who blames myself for how things are,"says Brian, whose name has been changed to protect his identity.
Although the younger man's parents divorced when he was growing up, he took part in normal activities such as minor sports, church groups and skiing.
Brian figures his son first got to know members of one gang after spending time in custody following minor legal scrapes.
"I believe he is a friend or associate -- I still don't even know the extent of his involvement," he says.
"I've asked him and he's said he hasn't done anything wrong. But if he had, I don't think he would tell me. Why would he tell me he's committed a crime?"
Brian is under no illusions about the dangerous company his son keeps--so much so, he fears for his son's life and even worries about his own safety.
"I've come home many, many nights and watched for suspicious vehicles,"he adds. "My hope is that he leaves the city of Calgary, because I don't believe he can survive in Calgary."
REVENGE, FEAR AND THE CODE
As Pheng's friends rapped those lyrics in his memory, there's no mistaking their message: justice comes from the barrel of a gun, not from a courtroom.
Gang members intent on revenge and witnesses too afraid to come forward have formed a formidable wall of silence that has played a large role in thwarting police efforts to solve all but two of the 25 killings with confirmed connections to the war between FOB and FK.
"We're dealing with the fact these groups have instilled fear in other people who have knowledge about what's going on," Eiriksson says.
But the code of silence is only part of the challenge.
Over the years, the gangs have become increasingly sophisticated and found new ways to hide their activities. That makes for complex, time-consuming police investigations.
Further clouding the picture are the ties FOB and FK have with other gangs:FOB has connections to the Crazy Dragons in Edmonton, while FK has aligned itself with the Redd Alert aboriginal gang in that city. Calgary police have also publicly identified an FK member as an associate of the United Nations gang, a notorious group from B. C.'s Lower Mainland.
Following the murder of FOB member Roger Chin last summer, one of his friends vowed the gang would bring in reinforcements from other cities.
FOB and FK have proven they won't hesitate to use deadly violence against each other, but they have also demonstrated little regard for the lives of anyone who crosses them.
Pheng stabbed and killed Jason Dang on New Year's Day 2004 in a fight over a woman.
Investigators found Pheng's DNA on property left at the scene, but he was murdered before police could charge him.
If you want to get out of a gang, police say there are only three ways to do it: getting killed, getting thrown in jail, or getting help.
Pheng got out the first way.
One of his enemies, FOB member Roland Chin, has taken the second route -- though not by his own choosing.
But Chin, 25, will soon be afforded a chance to try the third option and leave the gang behind.
Chin, serving a 32-month sentence for drug and weapons offences at Bowden Institution in central Alberta, is due to be freed on supervised release sometime in the coming months.
"I have been very busy with work and schooling inside the institution,"Chin wrote last fall in a letter to the Herald.
Chin was behind bars when someone killed his younger brother, Roger, in a drive-by shooting on Centre Street N. last July.
Roland didn't discuss his plans after he's released from prison, or whether his brother's killing will influence the path he chooses.
"I am trying to move on with my life and avoid the media attention . . . (and) I feel that the media just want a story to sell newspapers, which will jeopardize what I am trying to accomplish with my life," he wrote.
Only time will reveal whether Chin succeeds.