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Nowhere to run (continued)

CHHEM belonged to the Tiny Rascal Gang, according to police, a group of about 20 teens who claim Willow Street in the West End as their turf. But there are many other gangs in the city. Kennedy estimates that altogether there are about 15 "hardcore" gangs in Providence, which together have about 300 members.

"Our gangs are predominately Asian," Kennedy says. The gangs emerged in Providence over the last 20 years and reflect an influx of Southeast Asian immigrants to the city following the Vietnam War. Unlike the more sophisticated Latin Kings, who once ran a substantial, criminal enterprise in Providence, todayís gangs are juvenile in nature, Kennedy says. Typically, they are composed of neighborhood kids, who have gotten together to protect their turf. "Itís about socialization," Kennedy says. "Itís about staying with your group."

This is not a new phenomenon. Historically, gangs have risen up in poor neighborhoods, where people feel vulnerable and disenfranchised, notes Dr. James Greer, clinical director of the Providence Center, a community mental health agency. They fill a power vacuum left by working parents, who are forced to leave their children for long periods of time, and by authorities either too overworked or indifferent to care, Greer says.

In immigrant families, the problem is compounded by the how the children often speak better English than their parents. As a result, parental authority is undermined, making it easier for a gang to step in and take the parentsí place. "Very often they [gang members] have caring parents who donít know how to handle the situation," Greer says. The parents only know that suddenly their child isnít coming home anymore and they have begun to skip school ó considered two telltale signs of gang activity.

At the Providence Center, gang-related issues come up on almost a daily basis, Greer says. Some kids complain about the pressure to join a gang, while others talk about not being able to get out of one once they are in. These kids are "at sea," feeling damned if they join a gang and damned if they donít.

Typically, gang members are in their early to late teens. But thatís not always the case. "Iíve seen kids as young as nine years old connected with gangs," Greer says. And not only boys are swept up into the gang world. According to one gang member, who asked not to be named, there is girl gang in Providence called Hot Gurlz, who have aligned themselves with the Oriental Rascals

The Oriental Rascals is one of the cityís largest gangs, with between 30 and 50 members, Kennedy says. "What these kids like to do is go to their enemy school and wait for them to come out so that they could jump or shoot them," the young gang member says. "Their favorite color is blue. They carry blue bandannas in their left pockets or on their neck or heads."

A petty dispute between the Oriental Rascals and the Tiny Rascals led to Sokís murder, Kennedy says. It happened on a pretty September afternoon shortly after Providence schools let out for the day. Ticked off by something Sok had said to him two weeks earlier, Marvin Rubio allegedly asked his friend, Scotti Chhem, for a gun. The state says Rubio told Chhem he intended to kill an "O.R.," but defense lawyer Donley says the then-14-year-old Chhem did not know Rubioís plans. "I donít think there was a plan," Donley said.

Chhem retrieved a stolen .22-caliber rifle from under his bed in his Hudson Street apartment and handed it to Rubio, police say. Rubio, Chhem, and McCoy then walked towards the intersection of Hudson and Messer streets, where they would encounter Ricky Sok ó and their fates.

A student at the Nickerson Vocational School in Providence who came from a large Cambodian family, Sok was ambling down Messer Street with three friends on the day he died. He was joking around, and at one point, riding double on a bicycle with his pal, Vanny Prouen.

When Rubio saw Sok, police say he pulled the gun from his pants and fired two shots. Sok crumpled to the ground, a bullet in his brain. Until an ambulance arrived, Prouen held his dying friend, as the soft September air became dark with pain.

"Donít go and die on me," Prouen cried.

But within 24 hours, Sok was pronounced dead at Hasbro Childrenís Hospital. The cause: ". . . brain injury due to gunshot wound to the head," the stateís medical examiner said.

WHEN POLICE SEARCHED Chhemís apartment shortly after the murder, they say they found a gray bandanna and other paraphernalia indicating his membership in the Tiny Rascal gang. A detective asked Chhem why Rubio shot Sok.

"Because he was the enemy," Chhem replied.

Why was he the enemy?

"I donít know."

Chhem is the oldest of five boys born to a Cambodian woman who, when she was 17, escaped the violence of Pol Potís regime. Her name is Heang Chhem and she still wears the long, colorful cotton skirts native to her country.

After the shooting, Heang had to find a new apartment in Providence as a condition of the courtís January 2003 decision to release Scotti on $2500 bail. Prison officials had determined that the familyís Hudson Street apartment was unfit for Chhem to return to. Among other problems: no furniture; Scotti and his brothers slept on mattresses on the floor.

The familyís new home in another section of Providence is no bargain, either. Plaster is falling in chunks from the hallway, and the stairway is covered with dirt and dust. Inside Heangís third-floor apartment, there is evidence of another tragedy that has befallen this family, one that happened shortly after Scottiís release from the ACI last May.

Heangís longtime, partner, Savorth Sim, a man whom she had met and loved since her time in Cambodia, was shot dead by a stranger while he was coming out of a downtown Providence nightclub. Simís murder was unrelated to the trouble facing Chhem, police have said. Photographs of Sim, a handsome man with thick black hair, fill Heangís apartment. In one small room, which served as a living room, the photographs are arranged like a shrine.

Heang speaks in broken English, so she doesnít feel comfortable talking to reporters. Regarding her son, she has said she knew nothing about his being in a gang. All she knew was he stopped going to school when he was in the seventh grade and started to hang around with boys she didnít approve of.

Recently, Heang threw some vegetables in a wok, while Scotti sat in a straight-back kitchen chair to answer a reporterís question. Some subjects were off limits, per Donleyís instruction, most notably Sokís murder and Chhemís alleged gang involvement. When asked about the purple tattooed dots on his knuckles, which reportedly denote gang membership, Chhem shook his head.

"I donít want to talk about that," he says.

But Chhem was free, if hesitant, to talk about his six months in the ACI. It was scary, he says. Lonely, too. "It was the first time without my family," Chhem says, his eyes filling with tears.

Since his release last May, he has spent his days listening to rap music on the radio and reading, he says. Lost Boys, a science fiction yarn about boys who disappear into the Internet, is one of his favorite books. Periodically, a tutor visits because the law requires it, but thatís it as far as contacts with the outside world.

What about his pals from the West End? Donít they ever visit? Chhemís eyes grew wary and he shook his head. Does he talk to them on the phone? Again, he shook his head.

"Iím just worrying about myself," Chhem says.

If he is convicted of the two felony charges against him at trial ó murder in the first degree and conspiracy to commit murder ó heís looking at a sentence of 25 years to life.

The state seeks waiver in a small minority of juvenile cases, says Kennedy of the Providence police. Of the 2000 or so juvenile arrests in Providence each year, fewer than 10 percent are for violent crimes, and, correspondingly, less than 10 percent ó or 20 cases ó are waived. "Itís a very small percentage," he says.

In a perfect world, there would be no need for the waiver process, but kids in Providence are dying over nothing and it canít be tolerated, Kennedy says.

Ricky Sok was murdered in broad daylight not far from an elementary school that had just let its students out for the day, Kennedy notes. Itís bad enough Sok died, but what if a child had been hit by that bullet? Or another innocent bystander? "There are certain kids and certain crimes," Kennedy says, "that rise to level that we, as a city, have to hold the kids accountable."


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Issue Date: February 20 - 26, 2004
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