Look at Alex Phu and you'd never guess what recently landed the tall, slender 22-year-old in front of a jury: his reaction to an unflattering remark about the size of his penis.
During his three-day trial for assaulting a female acquaintance, Phu wore button-down shirts, neckties, khaki pants, spotless black shoes—and at times it seemed he tried to draw jurors' attention to his silver wedding ring. Phu's friends testified that while he'd once been a Little Saigon hoodlum, he'd turned his life around, attended Irvine Valley College and taken a job as an escrow officer. A defense attorney called him a victim of dirty police work. Completing the portrait was Phu's soft-spoken wife, a real estate agent. She wouldn't marry a gangster, she volunteered, and then noted that Phu would become a daddy in four months. Phu looked at jurors and smiled.
Cops say the appearances of local Asian gang members are often deceiving. Members have included straight-A high school and college students—even ones with decent jobs. Deputy District Attorney Brett Bryan told the jury that Phu is a cold-blooded thug affiliated with the Viet Boys (a.k.a. V Boys). This gang has perhaps 15 or 20 members—mostly teenagers—who sell drugs and commit robberies, burglaries and assaults as well as auto and identity thefts. They cherish Dallas Cowboys' jerseys with the number 22 because V is the 22nd letter of the alphabet; also because the Cowboys hired the NFL's first Vietnamese football player, Dat Nguyen. The gang has attacked rival Asian gangs and innocent citizens with baseball bats, batons, knives and guns. Real or imagined public disrespect against its members often provokes them to violence, which takes us back to Phu.
After the bars closed on Feb. 16, 2006, Phu and seven of his friends drove two black SUVs to an all-night Mexican restaurant in Westminster. In the parking lot, he saw a 20-year-old girl, a fellow Vietnamese American. They'd been brief acquaintances several years earlier. Phu and the girl traded insults. According to witnesses, he told her she was classless and that "you just want my dick." The girl replied that she wasn't interested in him or his "small penis."
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"You'd better shut up," Phu said as he approached the girl. Cursing ensued. A crowd gathered.
"I'm not going to hit you," said Phu seconds before he cocked his arm and delivered a fist into her face. A witness recalled hearing a crushing impact. Bloody, the girl fell backwards to the concrete. She struggled up and called Phu an "S.O.B." and a "woman beater."
One of Phu's pals—never identified because of courtroom amnesia exhibited by defense witnesses—threw the girl down again and punched her face six or seven times, according to testimony. While a large number of bystanders stood idly by in the parking lot, Phu executed the coup de grace: he acted as if he were a field goal kicker and the girl's head was a football. His kick slammed into her temple near her ear.
Not everyone was apathetic. Two Latinos in their 20s had been eating inside the restaurant, saw the assault and went to the parking lot to protect the girl. They lifted her off the ground. One of the good Samaritans was rewarded with a baton strike that left him oozing blood from his forehead.
The five-minute ordeal ended as quickly as it had begun. Phu and his friends jumped into their SUVs, flashed their gang signs and yelled "V Boys!" (Police work is perhaps easier when criminals identify themselves as they flee.)
"As soon as they finished the beating, they yelled their gang name so the victim and witnesses would know who not to mess with," said Bryan. "They were enhancing their reputation for violence."
At trial, veteran defense attorney Thomas Avdeef conceded the punch but denied that the girl had been kicked. He also offered an excuse.
"She started the argument," said Avdeef. "Sure, he hit her with his fist, but the prosecution would have you believe she's clean, pure white. Remember, she'd been drinking . . . Her credibility is questionable."
But Avdeef saved his most strenuous attack for Westminster Police Detective T. Walker, an Asian gang expert who told jurors about Phu's ties to the V Boys. The allegation was key because the prosecutor had also charged him with being an active participant in a criminal street gang, a felony separate from the assault charges.
"What Walker says is gospel?" Avdeef questioned. "There's nobody who challenges him. He could come in here and name any of us as a gang member and we'd have to defend it. Is that reasonable?"
Jingling coins in his pants pockets, the feisty silver-haired defense lawyer with a New York accent insisted that Phu had been "jumped out" of the gang years ago, had informed cops of his exit and that Walker had exaggerated the crime with "garage sale evidence" in hopes of proving otherwise.
"[Walker] is a gang detective who wants to build a gang case," said Avdeef, who called the assertion that Phu had yelled "V Boys!" at the crime scene "imaginary."
He added, "Why would they have yelled the gang's name if there weren't any gang members there? It doesn't make sense. . . . Once a gang member, according to Walker, always a gang member."
Avdeef, a former prosecutor, also asserted that V Boys wasn't even a criminal street gang. Backing him up in court was Glend Padua (a.k.a. "The Cripster"), a self-proclaimed ex-member of the Asian Boys, a Little Saigon gang closely allied with V Boys. Padua testified that he joined the gang when he was 16 years old "just to be part of a group." During his four-year stint with Asian Boys, he'd never heard of them committing a single crime, he said.
"We'd just hang out, you know, go out," Padua testified. "We're just a group of friends. . . . We'd fight to defend ourselves but we didn't go out looking for trouble."
This witness also claimed that he'd watched Phu being "jumped out" of the V Boys in December 2000—six years before the assault on the girl.
"They [the remaining gang members] beat you for as long as they want to show you you made a mistake [by leaving]," Padua explained to Avdeef's questions. "It's a ritual. You get out so you have no allegiance to them and you can go on your merry way."
The prosecutor ridiculed Padua's testimony and derided the attack on Walker but said he understood its motive. The detective's work had placed Phu at a July 31, 2005, V Boys shooting at a Westminster restaurant. Moreover, he'd put Phu under surveillance for a month after the 2006 assault on the girl and found him living at a V Boys "crash pad" on McClure Avenue in Westminster. When Walker conducted a search there, he found several Dallas Cowboys number 22 jerseys pinned to walls, photos of gang members flashing hand signs and a memento celebrating the life of a dead V Boy.
Said Bryan in his closing argument, "Is that how you'd expect to find Phu living if he'd really given up that life?"
On Jan. 23—after less than two hours of deliberations—the jury convicted Phu of committing aggravated assault with a deadly weapon (his foot) and for participating in a gang. (They voted not guilty on a second assault charge because police were unable to find the injured Latino who'd rescued the victim.) The bailiff immediately slapped handcuffs on Phu and sent him to the Orange County Jail. Superior Court Judge Daniel Didier is scheduled to announce punishment on March 9. For five minutes of stupidity, Phu faces as much as four years in a California prison.
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