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Police fear gang feud is escalating

Officers, Tongan leaders to discuss recent incidents

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Salt Lake City police planned to meet with leaders from the Tongan community Wednesday to discuss what appears to be a growing feud between two rival Polynesian gangs.

Capt. Scott Atkinson said gang detectives believe several recent incidents across the valley could be related, including the slaying of a West Valley man Monday morning and a shooting at a wedding in West Jordan over the weekend where a University of Utah football player was hurt.

Investigators Wednesday planned to ask community leaders if they're seeing the same connections and if action needs to be taken before something boils over.

"We want to facilitate a meeting. Find out what's going on and why," Atkinson said.

Sgt. Paul Brenneman of the Metro Gang Task Force said the two gangs are prominent in the area and have a violent history.

Gang detectives have seen an increase in activity between the two sides, and Atkinson said that has officers concerned.

The Salt Lake City Gang Unit and the Salt Lake County Metro Gang Task Force conducted a special surveillance Monday night and stopped a car with three people inside. Two of them were arrested on warrants while the third escaped. A hunting rifle with a scope was also recovered from the vehicle.

It appears these people had planned a drive-by shooting, but we intervened, said Lt. Mike Roberts, Salt Lake City Gang Unit.

The daily watch log by the Salt Lake City Police Department Tuesday said the surveillance was conducted to watch for retaliation by gang members over the slaying of a West Valley man.

Feleti Liti was shot and killed while standing in his kitchen just after midnight Monday. His mother said her son was not a gang member.

"He was just a homebody. All he does is put flowers in the yard," Evelini Liti said. Evelini Liti said she believes the assailants may have shot the wrong person.

West Valley police said as of Wednesday morning, they had no evidence to suggest Feleti Liti was a gang member or that the shooting was related to any other incident.

"But when we get all done (with the investigation), we may find a correlation," Lt. Lance Call said.

Call also agreed the homicide may have been a case of mistaken identity.

"The shooter intended to shoot someone in that house. Now, whether he shot the right person we don't know. It's purely speculative to figure out a motive at this point," Call said.

About a half-hour after the homicide, a drive-by shooting was reported to police near 1300 South and 1200 West. No one was injured. But detectives believed that incident could also be related.

Furthermore, police are looking into whether the shootings of two people Saturday night at the National Guard Armory in West Jordan are related. Ben Allison, a backup tight end for the U. football team, was shot in the chest while trying to break up a fight. He is in serious but stable condition.

West Jordan police would not comment on whether the shootings at the armory and the slaying in West Valley are related. But Atkinson said police have reason to believe they are connected.

Roberts said, "There are a number of events that lead us to believe the problem is ongoing."

Brenneman said Monday night's surveillance is nothing out of the ordinary.

"We're trying to prevent future incidents of retaliation," Brenneman said. "We do this on a regular basis when these types of incidents occur."

Brenneman said when one gang strikes, it's easy to predict where the retaliation will occur.


E-mail: preavy@desnews.com