Vancouver Struggles With Gang Violence
Police describe the problem as a closed cycle of murder and revenge.
"One day suspect, and the next day victim," said Heed, the police commander. "One day you are the shooter. The next day you're lying in your coffin."
He said the killings can be traced to a dispute between Bindy Johal and Ron Donsanjh, two notorious drug dealers. First Donsanjh's brother Jimmy was killed in February 1994.
"Johal was the supposed suspect," Heed said, and Ron Donsanjh heard about it. "They challenged one another. 'Come get me! No, come get me!' " Heed recounted.
Two months later, Ron Donsanjh, 29, was killed in a drive-by shooting.
Johal was arrested in connection with both slayings. Johal's trial was one of the most expensive in Canadian history, officials said, because it was surrounded by intense security measures. But the trial ended in acquittal.
A juror, Gillian Guess, was later charged and convicted of obstruction of justice, because she had a relationship with one of the co-defendants, authorities said.
But Johal was freed. Four years later, in December 1998, he was killed at a Vancouver nightclub. Police said a masked man shot him in the back of the head, then fled. No one has been charged in Johal's slaying.
The story of Johal inspires young men who have been recruited in high schools to become gang members like him, Heed said.
"We still have Indo-Canadian males who want to be the next Johal," he said. "When you talk to them they don't realize they have a short life span. They have the image of Johal's lifestyle: the cars, the money, the women. They did not see Johal in jail crying and scared."
The gang members are often from well-off families, local leaders and officials said. "Unlike in other countries, people involved in the gang activity here are not the poor or disadvantaged," said Wallace T. Oppal, a justice of the Court of Appeal of British Columbia. "For the most part, kids involved here are people who come from middle-class and upper-class homes. They get involved for the glamour."
Oppal said parental neglect is sometimes a factor. "Parents are devoted to not only buying the first home, but the second home and third home," he said from his chambers. "They provide their children with the means, but not the guidance."
Oppal said he also knew some of those involved in the violence. "The community is relatively small," he said. "People know one another. I get stopped all the time. People want to talk about it. This is the number one issue in the community."
Oppal cited the manslaughter conviction of Hardip Uppal, a bright student who had won a scholarship. "He was a person with impeccable background," Oppal said. "He killed someone in a drug deal."
Uppal organized the killing of Gurpreet Sohi on Sept. 14, 2000, according to testimony, because he was seeking revenge for the wounding of his brother a few days before. Another man was the gunman, but Uppal was the setup man, making sure Sohi was home at the appointed time.
"He put his own skin ahead of his friend's life," said Paul Williamson, the judge who sentenced him to five years in prison.
He called the killing a "coldblooded execution of a victim sitting in his home. This dreadful, amoral cycle of bloodletting, violence and vigilante-like retribution must end," Williamson said at the sentencing hearing.
Gill, the president of the Sikh temple, said police have said they need more leads. "Some people are scared to open their mouths because they are afraid they will get killed," he said.
Heed acknowledged that police are criticized for not stopping the violence, but said the families of gang members need to help solve the problem. Family members, he said, deny their sons are involved in crime.
"We've gone to notify people their son was killed and they have been in such denial they slammed the door in the police officer's face," Heed said. "They don't want to believe their child is involved. . . . They will ask the question to their dying day after their son is murdered why they didn't do something."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company