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A winter night brought more than chills to a Thai family. Four armed members of an Asian gang invaded the small home in Layton and terrorized the family for more than a half-hour.

They tied up and gagged the father and oldest son, then took the mother into another room where at least two of them raped her. They looted the home and stole the family's car.Metropolitan Gang Unit Detective Dave Browning learned the first name of one of the suspects after questioning the family, which picked the suspects out of a photo album Browning and his partner, Kent Cravens, had com-piled.

Browning was at a Salt Lake pool hall and saw one of the men the family had identified. Within a short time, four suspects were behind bars.

The Layton incident was what police call a "home invasion robbery," the most common crime committed by Asian gangs, an increasing concern to law enforcement not only in Utah, but throughout the nation.

A 60-page report issued this week by the U.S. Senate subcommittee on investigations noted that American police are ill prepared to cope with the sophisticated international criminal from East Asia. Among other things, the report noted that Chinese gangs now dominate the U.S. heroin trade once ruled by Italian gangs and that Vietnamese gangs roam the United States, invading and robbing households.

Salt Lake area police are all too familiar with the Senate's concerns. Browning said Salt Lake City is a hub for traveling gang activity.

Though gangs are a small percentage of Utah's Asian community, they are becoming more brazen and more like other street gangs.

"They are committing regular gang crimes like armed robbery, drive-by shootings and street fighting," Browning said. "The younger gang members are starting to wear rags (gang colors). They're threatening police officers. I have to carry my gun everywhere."

By making themselves more visible to the Asian community, police are hoping to keep the numbers of Asian gangs low. But they are expecting an increase of Asian gang members to come to Utah to escape the crime that will accompany the estimated 50,000 Southeast Asians expected to immigrate to the Western UnitedStates between now and 1995, Browning said.

Investigating Asian gang activity is difficult. Usually the victims are reluctant to cooperate with police. Their crimes are well-planned and hard to solve for a number of reasons.

Asian gangs are usually older and more secretive about membership than other gangs. They don't usually have "turf" or "colors." Asian gangs rarely use tattoos as a means of identification, seldom fight among themselves and are driven mainly by money.

"A lot of other street gangs make themselves real obvious . . . It's more of an ego thing," Cravens said. "(Asian gangs) would rather stay low. All of their activity is profit-oriented."

Police have a hard time catching the criminals because the Asian gangs are nomadic, traveling from one community to the next, usually across state lines, picking up additional gang members along the route.

Many of the crimes committed by Asian gang members in Utah are perpetrated by residents of other states, assisted by locals, Browning said. Just a week ago, Browning and Cravens learned someone in a Cadillac with California plates was selling guns, probably stolen during the Los Angeles riots. One of those weapons - an M-60 - has a $10,000 price tag, Browning said.

Out-of-towners usually have a relative, friend or contact in town and knowing who's who is the key. Browning said they will go to local pool halls and ask them in gang slang "if they want to play."

Asian gangs tend to thrive in Vietnamese and Chinese communities, preying mostly on their own people, probably because many Asian business owners come from countries where the government is almost as bad as the gangsters. They don't trust the police, and some gang members make it a point to talk to police in front of store owners, leading them to believe the criminals and the cops are on the same team.

Last Wednesday morning, Cravens and Browning introduced West Valley Police Detective Kevin Nudd to some of the business owners. While talking to one store owner, Browning learned that a young man was passing himself off as a West Valley police officer, using Browning's name to make contacts.

Area business owners are tired of being victimized and have begun working with police to keep gangs from getting a handhold in the Salt Lake Valley. They are learning the laws and learning that the police here are very different from the police in Vietnam and China. (See related story on Page B2.)

"I try to get to know the owners so they'll call the police when something happens," Browning said. He says most gang members know him before he ever meets them. He talks with them, gets to know them and hopes to deter them from becoming entrenched in the gang lifestyle.

But money is the major draw for any gang member. The gangsters think, "Why work for minimum wage when you can make hundreds of dollars illegally?" Browning said. Many Asian business owners don't take checks or credit cards and don't use banks, instead keeping large stashes of cash at home. That's why home-invasion robberies are so common.

During a home robbery on Halloween night in Salt Lake City, the gangsters left with thousands of dollars, Browning said. But, he added, all but one are now behind bars.

Asian gangs usually plan their crimes more carefully than other gangs, which tend to act or react on impulse, but even retaliatory crimes are well-planned by Asian gangsters.

Are they more dangerous than the average street gang?

"I think they're more deliberate," Cravens said. They're in business to make money and access to cash means access to guns. Although they remain unique in most ways, they're beginning to adopt characteristics of other gangs in America, Browning said.

Having access to stolen guns, the Asian gangs are starting to sell them to people outside of their circles, increasing the danger to society at large, he said.

Gang members in S.L. County

Number of gangs in Salt Lake County 157

Number of gang members 1,207

Age breakdown:

Adults 807

Juveniles 400

Race Breakdown:

Asian 59

Black 198

Caucasian 186

Hispanic 607

Indian 12

Pacific Islander 137

Unknown 8