Lost in America

When the feds busted the "Black String Gang," they scratched the surface of the Vietnamese youth problem in South St. Louis. But no one's bothered to dig deeper into how it started.

Black-and-white shots of a store aisle, shelves bulging with dried noodles, cans of coffee, a bin of gnarled roots.

Sudden color: a woman seated at the cash register, obviously pregnant, a toddler clambering onto her lap.

Black-and-white again, a side doorway. A man entering, face concealed by a white cloth tied in back.

Out of the security cameras' reach, two customers are idly browsing through red-and-gold party favors. One feels a hand grab her neck from behind and looks up to see a gun pressed to her friend's temple. They're shoved to the floor. Back on the color camera, a robber in a brown leather jacket, blue bandanna over the face, knocks a man off a stool to the ground.

The video is eerily silent, but by now there's a lot of harsh yelling in Vietnamese. The American-born customer will later swear she heard one of the robbers say, "I'm sorry, ma'am" — in English — as he put the gun to her head. "We were so obviously not the targets," she remarks. "I was lying face-down on the ground, my wallet in my hand, and they never took it."

The Vietnamese robbers of the Grand Trading Co. focused on the store's Vietnamese proprietors, seizing their money, jewelry, purses. To this day, the Oct. 30, 1996, robbery remains unsolved. But law-enforcement officials feel sure it was the act of what they call the Black String Gang.

The name has plenty of Asian mystique — but, as it turns out, the cops made it up themselves. Five years ago, they seized upon their first clue: a black string worn like a bolo around the neck. Now, someone close to one of the defendants swears he never wore a black string and adds that the ties were simply a fashion fad at the time. Someone else remembers teenagers roaming South Grand with black cords around their wrists. A young Vietnamese woman says she always figured "Black String" referred to their tattoos, because many Vietnamese favor single-color tattoos that cost less than a rainbow of ink.

Investigating a Vietnamese gang is not hard science.

Still, this March, after years of work, federal agents and police arrested 21 of these alleged gang members in a single swoop. For the indictment, they trotted out a new name: Hieu's Group. An Amerasian immigrant named Hieu Vo, they said, had been leading a highly sophisticated, organized, violent street gang. The 23-count federal indictment cited crimes ranging from simple bookmaking to armed home invasions and conspiracy to murder.

At first glance, the indictment's long list of Vietnamese names and overlapping crimes looks seamlessly sinister. With a little more data, it rips into patchwork. The defendants range in age from 22-48. Some went to college and had full-time jobs; others never finished high school. Some are indicted for a long list of crimes involving threats of violence; some for credit-card fraud; others only for bookmaking. (As Truong Nguyen, a veteran of the South Vietnamese army, told his lawyer, "Who you think teach me to gamble? American soldiers teach me to gamble!")

Back in 1994, when word of a Vietnamese gang first filtered into the local media, it was presented dismissively as a group of five youths with maybe 10 hangers-on. Their crime? Intimidating South Grand Vietnamese restaurant owners (or what one openhearted Vietnamese clergyman describes as "staying too long over coffee and maybe asking to borrow some money").

By 1999, about 600 FBI wiretaps and video-surveillance transcripts had the U.S. attorney's office convinced that the gang was doing far more damage than just tough-punk extortion and that it stretched even further than the 21 men arrested on March 24, with links to Boston; San Jose, Calif.; and Columbia, S. Carolina. Federal racketeering statutes allowed U.S. prosecutor David Rosen to reach back, citing the early crimes and then adding more recent robberies and credit-card, mail and bank fraud.

For some members of St. Louis' Vietnamese community, the announcement broke a long, tense silence. They'd been terrified of trusting the police, terrified of reprisals from criminals, terrified that outsiders would begin to associate their orderly, self-sacrificing, elaborately coded Vietnamese culture with organized crime. The Vietnamese population had exploded in the past five years — from 3,200 to 14,000 in the St. Louis metropolitan area, counting babies born here — and their lives were finally beginning to take root; about 60 percent lived and worked in South St. Louis, where the South Grand commercial district was thriving.

For those outside the Vietnamese community, the indictment and attendant hoopla provided a sense of closure, a sense that the guys on white horses had ridden through town and cleaned up. What they'd cleaned up, nobody seemed quite sure. How it started, nobody bothered to ask.

Most St. Louisans think "Vietnamese" begins and ends with a couple of restaurants in the six blocks between Arsenal and Iowa on South Grand. But if you continue south on Grand, you reach the frayed edges of "Little Vietnam." There, teenage boys played billiards in an empty building, above the soaped windows of the defunct Pizza-a-Go-Go, and rumors flew about a police raid that had kids dropping from the windows. Up Gravois, past the tiny Truc Lam restaurant listed as one of the extortion targets, was an apartment where young boys allegedly gathered to smoke dope. West on Chippewa, the scrubby-Dutch border was studded with a nail shop and the black-lit Karaoke Club, another alleged extortion target and a popular gathering place for Vietnamese young people.

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