Gangs Keep Tight Grasp on Their Members


   Susan Khamsiharath recently prepared her boyfriend's body for burial, knowing a family was
performing the same Buddhist rituals for one of his childhood friends.
   Now, Khamsiharath, 18, hopes their deaths will convince other young people to leave the
violent world of gang life.
   "I really hope his friends learn from this," she said. "This shouldn't have happened."
In January, Keelakorn "Tommy" Bouaphaphanh, 19, killed fellow gang member Viengsay
Boudsady, 24, over an imagined betrayal, then, fearing lifelong guilt, fatally shot himself the next
day, police say.
   The shooting and suicide have parallels to the 1994 deaths of Torrie Lambrose, 17, and
Theodore Davis, 16, rival gang members who shot each other to death in a grocery store
parking lot. The teen-agers had known each other for years and lived three blocks apart.
   Then, as now, the friends and family left behind beseech gang members to see the deaths as a
signal to change.
   Police, however, acknowledge members who want to leave face significant obstacles -- from
resistance by the gang to the difficulty of finding a new support network of friends and mentors.
   Khamsiharath said her boyfriend, Bouaphaphanh, told her he wanted out of his West Valley
City gang. He said he didn't want to disappoint his family anymore, she said, and was tired of
watching his friends go to prison and die in gang-related fights.
   "He still hung out with his friends who were in gangs, but he stopped doing gang things,"
Khamsiharath said. "He started wearing polo shirts instead of gang stuff -- trying to look
   But losing the baggy pants and baseball cap wasn't enough.
   For Bouaphaphanh, fear that his childhood friend -- and fellow gang member -- had
implicated him in a stabbing pulled him back into the gang code of revenge, Khamsiharath said.
   On Jan. 22, Bouaphaphanh went with friends to a West Valley City parking lot. Witnesses
said he called Boudsady a snitch and then shot him six times.
   By the next day, he had discovered Boudsady had not told police anything. Bouaphaphanh
asked his girlfriend to accompany him to a Midvale motel to spend one last night alone together,
she said.
   Bouaphaphanh paced the hotel room, but Khamsiharath believed she had convinced him not
to commit suicide.
   Then he went into the bathroom and she heard a gunshot.
   "I ran over there and he was just bleeding," she said, tears rolling down her face. "I didn't
know what to do. I wrapped my arms around him and started helping him breathe with CPR. I
said, `Babe, wake up. Babe, wake up.' But he couldn't."
   West Valley police Det. Willy McKnight said he was unaware of the stabbing Bouaphaphanh
feared his friend had described to police. Khamsiharath said the two friends were involved in a
1995 stabbing near Brighton High School that left a teen-ager seriously injured.
   However, McKnight said, police had built a case against Bouaphaphanh for his friend's
murder and planned to arrest him.
   Salt Lake Area Gang Project Det. Robin Howell said the friends' gang "has been involved in
some pretty serious activities -- drive-bys and stabbings." Howell added: "I hadn't heard that
Tommy [Bouaphaphanh] was trying to leave the gang, but we haven't arrested him for anything
Police say it is nearly impossible for members to leave a gang.
   "If someone leaves a gang, there will be retaliation," said West Valley police Sgt. David
Shopay. "They don't want someone getting out and talking. Gangs are organized for criminal
activity -- whether it be drugs or stealing cars -- and they don't want people who leave to have
that kind of information."
   Some teen-agers realize the danger of being in a gang -- seeing their parents' homes shot at
or their friends dying -- and want out, Shopay said. But the troubles that cause a teen-ager to
join the gang, such as drug abuse or family conflicts, will still be there. Gang members have to
find stability to replace the gang's support and friendships, Shopay said.
   Bouaphaphanh joined his gang, Khamsiharath said, because he was fighting another
teen-ager and wanted help.
   Since the deaths, Khamsiharath has dreamed about what could have been. She said
Bouaphaphanh always took care of her and wanted a life with her; and was intelligent and
wanted to study computers.
   "I will always love him," she said. "He told me if he ever died to remember that movie, `What
dreams may come.' He said we were like that -- soul mates."
   Khamsiharath recently graduated from high school and plans to go to college. She hopes
Bouaphaphanh's friends will realize he was not himself when he shot his friend and himself, and
that they also will try to move away from gang life, she said.
   "Find that special girl, maybe a hobby -- just find something to do," she said. "This shouldn't
have happened."
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