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Vutha and Terry Au seemed like ordinary young men, working on their cars, helping neighbors with chores or mowing the lawn outside their family's spacious west Santa Rosa home.

"The boys were always respectful. There was never any drama at the home," said a neighbor of the Au family, who until recently lived across the street from Live Oak Park near Fulton Road.

It came as a shock when Vutha Au, 24, was kidnapped March 2, allegedly by members of an Asian gang, and driven to a secluded beach near Jenner, where he was shot nine times and left dead.

Authorities believe he was killed so that he couldn't testify on behalf of his brother, 22-year-old Terry Au, who has alleged he also was kidnapped and tortured by the same gang -- the Asian Boyz -- when he decided to stop running drugs for them.

The brothers' story offers a revealing look into Asian gangs, which have operated below the radar in Sonoma County, generating far fewer headlines and concern than their Latino counterparts.

Vutha Au's alleged execution raises that profile. Even those who have become numb to gang violence were shocked by such viciousness, which law enforcement officials say is a hallmark of Asian gangs entrenched in communities nationwide.

"These guys are ruthless. They're killers. They're not to be taken lightly," Long Beach Police Det. Joe Pirooz said.

Long Beach is considered the birthplace of California's Asian gangs, which rose out of that city's large southeast Asian population in the early 1980s and spread across the state.

The state Department of Justice now estimates there are 500 Asian gangs in California.

Smaller membership

In Sonoma County, the number of Asian gang members is thought to be in the low hundreds, as contrasted with Latino gangs, which are believed to have about 1,500 members.

But Asian gangs, whose members are mostly Vietnamese, Cambodian, Chinese, Laotian, Hmong and Mien youth from refugee families, have helped bring a harder edge to the county's gang culture.

Vutha Au's slaying was not the first time in Sonoma County that a witness has been threatened or killed in a case involving Asian gangs.

In September 2003, friends of slaying victim Roeun Kloat, 18, of Santa Rosa threatened two women and a child, family members of the Asian Boyz' defendants, at a preliminary hearing. Kloat, a Loked Out Khmer Bloods gang member, was shot to death on a Rohnert Park basketball court four months earlier.

"Kill 'em, Kill 'em," the young men said in the hallway, according to court documents.

That case was preceded in 2002 by the slaying of 18-year-old Jonathan Townsend of Windsor, who was gunned down outside his mother's Stony Point Road apartment complex when he confronted a group of teens who were trying to break into his car.

One of the teens, Pongsony Khaoone, pleaded no contest to gang, weapons and accessory charges in exchange for a murder charge being dropped.

Now 19, Khaoone is one of the men accused of kidnapping and torturing Terry Au.

While the 2002 and 2003 killings involved rash acts of brutality, experts say many Asian gangs operate like organized crime syndicates, using extortion, home invasion robberies, drug dealing and prostitution to turn an illicit profit.

In June 2007, Stockton police working with state law enforcement agencies broke up a Cambodian street gang called Loc Town Crips that authorities said was responsible for extensive drug and gun trafficking across the nation.

The gang used the Internet, text messaging and FedEx to funnel the drugs. The money was used to pay for weapons that gang members used in drive-by shootings targeting rival gangs, authorities said.

Although these gangs claim certain colors -- in the case of the Asian Boyz, blue -- and have specific symbols to designate their affiliation, they generally aren't as flashy as other ethnic gangs.

"To them, it's not about turf, graffiti or colors, like it is for Hispanic gangs," said Sonoma County Sheriff's Sgt. Carlos Basurto, who is assigned to the department's gang enforcement team. "For them, it's about making money. They're still a street gang, but it's more like the mob. When you cross them, especially if you're Asian, they take it out a lot harder than another gang would."

Not all members poor

This doesn't mean Asian gang members necessarily come from poor upbringings. Many, in fact, come from good homes and excel in school and other areas of their lives.

The former neighbor of the Au family said she watched the brothers grow up and never suspected they were involved in gangs. She described their father as a self-made businessman dealing in restaurants, real estate and insurance.

"We never saw an aggressive or hostile side, not even with their dad," said the neighbor, who asked not to be identified out of concern for her safety. "If he told them to mow the lawn or wash the cars, they did."

But on some level, the brothers led double lives that would lead to them becoming victims of violence -- violence that experts say has its genesis with the fall of Saigon in 1975, which sparked a wave of southeast Asian immigrants to California.

Distrustful of authority and struggling to learn a new language and culture, these refugees formed tight-knit communities to help one another. But they were still vulnerable to prejudice.

A single event in the mid-1980s -- a fight between a Latino student and a newly arrived Cambodian immigrant in Long Beach -- led to the formation of the Tiny Raskal Gang, which is considered the largest Asian gang in the United States, followed by the Asian Boyz.

Preying on community

The irony is that Asian gangs tend to prey on their own communities, perceiving that those victims won't report crimes to police.

The gangs often follow a hierarchy. The "dai los," or big brothers, preside, providing money and issuing orders through their lieutenants and other associates. The "sai los," or little brothers, are at the bottom level, acting as foot soldiers.

Pirooz said "riders" carry out shootings.

"Like the cowboy, they'll ride out and take care of business, so to speak," he said.

To become the most feared Asian gang, a faction of the Asian Boyz went on a rampage in 1995, killing seven people, including three teens shot to death along a Southern California freeway.

These gangs enforce a strict code of silence, with the penalty for betrayal often being death.

One of the men accused of killing Vutha Au, 22-year-old Phongsuvane Khaoone of Santa Rosa, is the brother of two suspected Asian Boyz gang members who are awaiting trial in the kidnapping and torture of Terry Au.

Terry Au testified in a preliminary hearing last fall that he was dealing for Perry Khaoone, a defendant in the kidnapping, until he decided he wanted to stop.

He said he was assaulted Oct. 1 in his family's home, then kidnapped and tortured by Perry Khaoone, Pongsony Khaoone and two other men, one of whom threatened to chop off his fingers in an extortion attempt.

Each finger was going to cost $1,000 to get back, Terry Au testified.

Witness relocation

Vutha Au had entered the state's witness relocation program ahead of his scheduled testimony in his brother's upcoming trial. But detectives said he broke that agreement and was spending time in Santa Rosa on the weekends.

The fact his killers found him and dragged him to the coast speaks to their level of brazenness.

"It doesn't seem like it was something really difficult for them to do," Basurto said.

The suspects accused in the slaying -- Quentin Glenn Russell, 24; David Prak, 19; Sarith Prak, 21; and Preston Phongsuvane Khaoone, 22 -- delayed entering pleas in court Friday.

All four are from Santa Rosa and potentially face the death penalty.

Authorities also arrested Jack Houmpheng Sengsourith, 29, of Santa Rosa and Tyrone Rosenblad Tay, 26, of Suisun City for allegedly taking part in a conspiracy that led to Vutha Au's death.

Detectives said Sengsourith and Tay were with Vutha Au in a car when he was forced into another car by the other four defendants.

Sengsourith was released March 7, however, after the District Attorney's Office decided not to file charges. Prosecutors have not publicly disclosed the reasons for their decision.

What effect Vutha Au's death will have on Sonoma County's ever-shifting gang culture remains to be seen.

Media criticized

One law enforcement official expressed concern that media attention surrounding the killing could embolden gang members and lead to more violence.

"It's a recruitment tool for them," Sheriff's Cpt. Dave Edmonds said.

But Edmonds also acknowledged that Vutha Au's slaying is yet another warning that Sonoma County is suffering some of the same gang problems as harder-hit communities.

"Continued events like this tip us in that direction," Edmonds said. "We need to have an awareness of that, and those in leadership positions need to pay attention to the level of violence and criminal activity that's being caused by gang enterprises in our community."

Basurto noted one possible bright spot in having so many suspected Asian gang members off the street.

"I'm not going to say we're not going to have to deal with Asian Boyz in Sonoma County anymore, but it's going to take time for them to get back to where they were," he said. "I think it's a big blow to them."

You can reach Staff Writer Derek J. Moore at 521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com.