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.
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.