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Gang activity, violent crime impact generations of Alaskans

By Kirsten Swann 6:18 PM December 17, 2013

When parents are involved in gang activity or commit violent crimes, police said, their children are exponentially more likely follow the same path.

ANCHORAGE –Scott Lofthouse remembers nearly everyone with whom he’s ever worked.

Despite everything, Jayson Kelemete and Tupou Manumalo were “good kids,” he said. He still recalls the day he met the duo at an apartment complex near the corner of Boniface Parkway and 26th Avenue.

“I used to harass him every time I saw him; ‘You gotta get out of the gang life, Tupuo, you’re gonna end up dying,’” Lofthouse said. “He was always telling me, ‘I know, I know, I need to do that.”

That was in 1994.

In the following years, the two Hamo Tribe gang members would have numerous run-ins with the law. Manumalo faced charges ranging from trespassing to theft to joyriding. In 1995, 19-year-old Kelemete stood trial and was acquitted for shooting a man to death in the parking lot of the Northway Mall.

And one weekend during the summer of 1996, the two men were found shot to death in a trailer on Muldoon Road.

Lofthouse wasn’t surprised.

“That was their lifestyle, that was what they did,” he said. “You see a lot of kids that get into that kind of lifestyle and they think that’s the only way to survive.”

Over nearly twenty years as a patrol officer, detective and gang intelligence officer for the Anchorage Police Department, Lofthouse said he’s seen the destructive cycle play out time and time again. It didn’t end with Kelemete.

Children were often the ones to feel the lasting, reverberating effects of violent crime, Lofthouse said. When parents are involved in gang activity or commit violent crimes, he said their children are exponentially more likely follow the same path.

Patricia Manu watched her nephew begin the cycle at a young age.

He was born just a month after her own son; raised in her home like one of her own eight children. But despite her guidance, her love and her admonitions, she said he’d always end up with a certain crowd.

“He’d follow where trouble is,” she said. “He wanted to be part of it.”

Throughout her nephew’s high school years, Manu watched him struggle in class and spend time at McLaughlin Youth Center.

Then one afternoon in late October, Manu heard her nephew’s name on the radio.

Michael Liufau, 22, was in jail.

He was arrested along with three other men for the September beating of 18-year-old James Clinton, who was discovered unconscious and battered in the basement of an abandoned house in Downtown Anchorage. Clinton remained in a coma for nearly a month.

Court documents describe a violent scene. Witnesses told police Clinton, Liufau and half a dozen other young men and women were hanging out in the old Barrow Street house, drinking, when a fight broke out. The details of the assault — provided by scared girlfriends and reluctant acquaintances — are fuzzy. But when police found Clinton’s body more than two days later, the teenager was unconscious at the bottom of a basement stairwell, bludgeoned nearly to death.

Manu didn’t know anything about that. She didn’t really want to, she said.

Liufau is like a son to her.

She was driving her teenage daughter to hockey practice when she heard his name in a radio news update. She felt shock. Disbelief washed over her, followed by something else entirely.

“I was kind of relieved because I knew where he was,” she explained. “Every day, I wonder where he was.”

Then, she thought of his children.

Liufau has two sons of his own. Like their father, 2-year-old Rayden and 1-year-old Christian were often raised by their great aunt.

With their father jailed at Goose Creek Correctional Facility on charges of assault and coercion, they’d see a lot more of her.

Manu said she called the boys’ mother when she heard the news about her nephew.

“I never mentioned anything about him being in jail,” she said. “I just wanted to see the kids. My heart went out to the kids.”

Rayden and Christian weren’t alone.

According to the University of Alaska Anchorage Justice Center, several thousand children statewide have at least one parent in prison. Over the past 15 years, Lofthouse said he’s noticed a disturbing trend.

While federal data shows violent crime has decreased over past decades, Lofthouse said gang membership appeared to be on the rise.

“We’re seeing more and more kids that are joining gangs, and more and more violent crime is being committed by gangs,” he said.

The trend points to an uncertain future for Alaskan youth.

Anchorage gangs are different than most, Lofthouse said. They’re multiracial. They flag multiple colors. They’re unorganized and unpredictable, and they form suddenly and dissolve just as quickly when members go to jail.

In 2011, when 34-year-old John P. Ha was sentenced in federal court for selling cocaine, the former Hamo Tribe member said his gang was inactive. The other members of Kelemete and Manumalo’s old group had “grown up,” Ha purportedly told law enforcement agents.

Lofthouse said it’s an ever-changing landscape, further influenced by a strict state statute governing the definition of an Alaska gang.

Under state law, “criminal street gangs” include at least three members. They identify by a common sign, symbol, style or marking. At least one member has committed (or attempted to commit) at least two felony crimes “for the benefit of, at the direction of, or in association with the group.”

“The only thing I don’t like about the statute is the requirement that the crime be a felony,” Lofthouse said. “Because most of our gangs are very loosely organized and not as hardcore as the Lower 48 we lose a lot of validations because of that requirement.”

Under state law, there are currently about 450 “validated” gang members in Anchorage. There are 74 validated gangs, many of which have fallen apart, and Lofthouse said he’s looking into another 10 potential gangs and as many as 50 new members.

But for every validated gang, the officer said there are countless other groups that don’t quite meet the legal definition, and handfuls of kids and teens emulating generations before them.

Liufau fit the latter definition, Manu thought. From elementary school onward, he’d heard stories of his father from family and friends. Manu said the stories left him seemingly confused, overwhelmed and unsure.

She said the loss of his father propelled him down a reckless, uncertain path.

The day Kelemete’s body was discovered on the floor of an East Anchorage trailer changed Liufau’s life forever.

Her nephew has “been through a lot,” Manu said. She described him as a good father, a beloved cousin and a boisterous member of a tight-knit family. At the end of the day, though, other things pulled him away.

Until the afternoon he didn’t, she said Kelemete “always knew when to come home.” But Michael Liufau — raised by his aunt and his young mother after his father’s death — was different.

“Michael’s his own person,” she said.

She didn’t speak to him for weeks after his arrest — she was angry at him and kept busy watching her grand-nephews, raising her own teenagers and working a night shift in retail.

She said she didn’t want Rayden and Christian to see their father through a glass window.

Meanwhile, the cycle of youth crime and gang-related violence continues in Anchorage.

“It’s really an unseen element of our community,” Lofthouse said. “People just don’t realize it.”

Manu said she’s not sure what could have changed things for Liufau. She didn’t want to make excuses; she said her nephew always made his own decisions. But there was one thought she couldn’t shake.

“Maybe, if his dad was here, things would be different,” Manu said.

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