Asian residents of south Sacramento describe wave of robberies
A Chinese barbecue chef said two muggers followed him home from an Asian market one afternoon, robbed him of $700 and shot him in the right leg during the struggle. Another man said someone broke into his car and stole a backpack containing more than $1,200 from his beauty salon business. A woman said she and her husband drove to south Sacramento for an after-work massage, only to come out and find both their windshields shattered.
Over the past year, a crime wave has swept over a largely Asian portion of south Sacramento. On Tuesday, community leaders went to the Sacramento City Council to plead for more patrol cars and a faster police response to muggings, robberies and home invasions.
Some residents have become so fearful that they’ve packed up and left Sacramento, said Tom Phong, owner of Welco Supermarket, who brought 2,000 signatures to the council demanding action. “We have nearly a dozen families who have moved out, even selling their house below cost just to get the hell out,” said Phong, who has lived in Sacramento for 35 years.
At least 300 to 400 Chinese immigrants in Sacramento have been victimized over the past few months, but many are reluctant to call police because of language and cultural issues, said community watchdog Winnie San, who has helped several victims.
Immigrants who come from totalitarian regimes in China and Vietnam are often afraid to share information with law enforcement, said Stephanie Nguyen, executive director of Asian Resources Inc. a nonprofit group on Stockton Boulevard that helps immigrant families. In the past year, she said, “We’ve gotten a lot of families that come in here really scared. They left a country with violence and hatred and are wondering, is it better here or better there?”
Police are focusing much of their attention on the Avondale, Fruitridge Manor, Glen Elder and Southeast Village neighborhoods. More than 40 percent of residents in those areas are Asian – the highest concentration in the city, census figures show. Many struggle to make ends meet: The poverty rate among Asians in those neighborhoods is about 39 percent, much higher than the citywide poverty rate of 22 percent.
Robberies have increased sharply in the area, according to a Bee review of the city’s crime report database.
Through Aug. 24, police have taken 63 reports of robberies this year in the area, up from 38 robberies during the same period of 2015 and 28 robberies during the same period in 2014. Reports of home invasions in the area rose from six by this point in 2015 to 14 so far this year, city police data show. Police say they have arrested at least 10 people this year who targeted Asian Americans.
Police reached out to residents earlier this year, posting a notice on the social media site Nextdoor that robberies in the area were on the rise and asking residents to be vigilant. Sacramento police Officer Matthew McPhail said he did not want to speculate on why the increase has occurred. It is not the work of a single individual and it is likely not the work of a single criminal network, he said.
“It is a trend,” McPhail said. “How or why that trend exists is beyond my scope.”
Police have responded to the increase through community outreach, as well as increasing technological resources and personnel in the area, McPhail said. The city and Sacramento police will hold a community meeting this Sunday at 6 p.m. at the George Sim Community Center, said Crystal Strait, chief of staff to Mayor Kevin Johnson.
Strait said police told her they initially believed many victims were not reporting robberies because of their involvement in “underground” economies such as illegal pot grows or casino gambling. But now police think the problem is more widespread, she said.
Phong said a significant number of Asian American pot growers have been targeted because they tend to have cash around. Other victims are simply hardworking people who have been robbed in business parking lots or followed home.
“In this neighborhood, there’s a gun pointed or fired almost every night,” Phong said. He complained that the police response has been too slow. “Even if you call police it takes 40 to 50 minutes for them to get here,” he said.
About a half dozen victims who gathered at Phong’s large, elaborate house in the Avondale neighborhood Wednesday afternoon described how they had been robbed in daylight, often in front of their homes, while going about their regular business. All of the victims did not understand English and spoke with a Sacramento Bee reporter in Mandarin.
The people gathered at Phong’s house said their assailants were not Asian.
Hua Cai Chen said he was shot during a robbery Aug. 23 about 2 p.m. in his driveway. He was returning from the grocery store with $15 worth of flour and other ingredients so he could prepare dim sum at home. As he exited his 2006 Acura, he was suddenly rushed by two unidentified men, one of whom pulled a gun and shot him in the calf during the struggle, Chen said Wednesday.
“I have no idea why they shot me,” Chen said, adding that the suspects took $700 in cash from his wallet before fleeing. “They think Asians have a lot of cash, so they want to target us.”
Chen, 46, moved to Sacramento from Seattle about a year ago and bought a house. He now regrets the purchase. “Sacramento is too scary,” said Chen, a native of Hainan Island off the southern coast of China. “I don’t know how to live now. I have a mortgage to pay, a wife and child to feed. But I can’t work anymore.”
Jason Su, a beauty salon owner, said his wife and son were attacked just as they pulled into their garage. His wife and son escaped into the home, but the assailants soon kicked down the door.
“My wife ran into the backyard and yelled for help,” said Su, 49. “The neighbors heard and called police. Then, the criminals fled.”
In a separate incident, Su said he had about $1,200 in cash stolen from his vehicle, which he caught on surveillance tape.
In a brazen ambush described by restaurant worker Kevin Li, four assailants allegedly robbed him at gunpoint as he exited his car in the Lemon Hill area about 1 p.m. one August afternoon. “They pointed a gun. There was no way to resist,” said Li, a native of Fujian province who arrived from Brooklyn two weeks ago. He said they stole $700.
Chinese community members have organized an informal working group to help victims of crime. They established a group on WeChat – a social media app popular in mainland China – to share safety tips and report suspicious activities. The WeChat group has maxed out at 500 members. Several dozen volunteers have responded in person to check on people or help them report crimes.
This grass-roots effort has been a godsend for many Chinese immigrants who speak little or no English, said San, who helps victims with translation and to report crimes to police. “Chinese people are handicapped because we don’t understand (English) and we can’t say anything,” she said.
“We need to protect ourselves,” San said.
Nguyen said if immigrants call 911 they can be transferred to native speakers of Cantonese, Mandarin or Vietnamese.