Invisible Communities, Part 3: Cambodian Gang Members Seek Redemption In Lowell



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Illegal immigration has gotten a lot of recent attention with the passage of Arizona’s controversial law. What often gets lost, however, is how immigration — legal and illegal — changes our country and our state. But few really know what goes on within these communities — to many, they are “invisible.” This is Part 3 of a WBUR Series: Invisible Communities.

Ricky Le, left, and Johnny Chheng talk on the steps of the Lowell Courthouse. (Jess Bidgood for WBUR)

LOWELL, Mass. — Johnny Chheng grew up feeling invisible.

“I feel like I was just left out of the community,” Johnny says. “People looked at me like, uh, ‘This dude doesn’t know how to speak English. He doesn’t know anything about American and how they work and the system work.’ ”

His family life wasn’t much better. His parents didn’t talk about their traumatic experiences in Cambodia. And he couldn’t share his school troubles with them.

“I don’t really speak Cambodian proper,” he says, “so we don’t really communicate right, you know? I’m speaking American and they’re speaking in Cambodian, then, we’re just bumping heads.”

Johnny Chheng (Jess Bidgood for WBUR)

So Johnny found comfort on the streets, where other Cambodian kids were struggling with similar things.

He also found something he was good at: Management. He quickly rose to the top of the Moonlight Strangers gang. You’ve probably heard of the Bloods and the Crips. Johnny’s gang was sort of a local Bloods chapter.

“At that moment, I liked that,” Johnny says. “That was power, you know? That was power. That was reputation. That was everything to me.”

Johnny’s charisma was a magnet for younger teenage boys.

“I was just a follower,” says Ricky Le, one of Johnny’s recruits. What happened between them is a classic tale of American gang life complete with tragedy and redemption.

Ricky got into Johnny’s gang with a ritual called a “jump-in,” in which members beat up a new recruit to initiate them and test their survival. “It was in the bathroom,” Ricky says. “Had five against one.”

Ricky did survive. And for a while he enjoyed being a gangster. He and his buddies drove stolen cars, drank and smoked weed. But the fun stopped in high school.

“I started seeing the real side of gang-banging,” Ricky says. “It was too much for me.”

What really bothered him was when he was supposed to fight his friends in rival gangs. He didn’t want to do that. So Ricky told Johnny, his boss, or “shotcaller,” that he wanted out.

“At that moment we didn’t have a lot of people in my set,” Johnny says. “We only had, like, a few, like 12. We were trying to recruit more people. But every time we recruit people, they ended up ratting on me, or doing something he is not supposed to do. So if he’s not following the rules, the consequences are getting jumped-out.”

According to newspaper and court reports, something like 15 people brutalized Ricky. They kicked him, stomped on his head and swung crowbars at him. Some pummeled him with padlocks inside socks.

“Jumping-out” of the gang is like “jumping-in” — but a lot worse.

Ricky and three others went to a park where Johnny and the rest conducted the ceremony. “They started jumping-out a few people before me,” Ricky says. “So I just waited there. I was nervous because they were giving my friends a good beating.”

Ricky went last. “They jumped me-out,” he says, taking a long pause. “There were a lot of guys.”

“I didn’t really want it to go that route,” Johnny says. “It was really bad, you know. It was supposed to be a 30-second jump-out, but he was like a 99 percent vegetable.”

According to newspaper and court reports, something like 15 people brutalized Ricky. They kicked him, stomped on his head and swung crowbars at him. Some pummeled him with padlocks inside socks.

When they realized Ricky wasn’t responding, Johnny and the others took Ricky’s limp body and left him in the emergency room. Ricky was in a coma for 10 days.

“It was the hardest part of my life and still is,” Ricky says.

When he woke up, Ricky had tubes down his throat. He couldn’t eat real food. When the physical therapist took him out of his bed, he crumpled to the ground. He couldn’t walk. His brain was injured. It’s been seven years since the jump-out, and Ricky still hasn’t finished high school.

Johnny and Ricky play pool at the United Teen Equality Center in Lowell. (Jess Bidgood for WBUR)

“It’s so frustrating,” he says, because most people think he looks “normal.” Ricky wears black thick-rimmed architect glasses and edgy black T-shirts. He has no visible scars.

He says people often come up and say, “‘Haven’t seen you in a long time’ and ask, ‘Are you working? Are you in school? Are you driving?’ My answer is ‘no.’ And they’re like, ‘Oh, you’re just lazy.’ ”

While Ricky was trying to recover, Johnny went to prison. He got five years for attempted murder.

“When you locked up in the cell for a 23-hour lock-down, you gonna have a lot of madness coming out of you,” Johnny says.

Johnny was mad at Ricky for wanting out of the gang, and he was mad that he went to prison when he says half of the men who participated in the jump-out didn’t do any time.

When it was time to leave prison, Johnny had to make a decision: Go straight and face the world with the reputation of an ex-convict, or go back to his old gang with even better street credentials.

“I could easily do the same thing and flood Lowell with gangs and flood Lowell with drugs,” Johnny says.

“But I feel like there’s another positive side that I could do that could change my group to make the hood a better place. I probably can’t save the whole hood, but I could save certain pieces.”

As Johnny was thinking about leaving the gang, he says he started to feel better. He started to “heal.”

“That’s when I started asking for Ricky,” Johnny says. “I was like, ‘I should be more mad about the person who lost his life.’ So I started opening up my arms for Ricky. I started asking for Ricky, but I couldn’t come near him.”

There was a court order barring Johnny from going within 100 feet of Ricky.

“But I feel like there’s another positive side that I could do that could change my group to make the hood a better place. I probably can’t save the whole hood, but I could save certain pieces.”

– Johnny Chheng

“Every night I go to sleep and I was like, ‘I want to leave Lowell,’ ” Johnny says. “I want to start a new life. I want to be in a countryside somewhere, down south. Start a business or something.”

Johnny says he gets a lot of attention because of his past. “Sometimes I feel bad for myself because I don’t want that reputation,” he says. So Johnny got serious about turning his life around. He proved it to officials and friends. Those same friends helped him ask Ricky for a meeting.

Ricky was nervous about seeing Johnny. His friends and family thought it was a reckless idea. But Ricky agreed. He needed to know what Johnny would say. And he still worried that Johnny blamed him for everything that happened.

“(I) thought that he’s pissed at me for the fact that he went to jail for beating me up,” Ricky says.

But it didn’t go that way.

“When we see each other, I smiled and it was the best thing,” Ricky says. “Then we got to hug each other. I’m going to remember that for a long, long time.”

Ricky says hugging Johnny helped him “rest (his) soul.”

“I was angry, all these mixed emotions, they laid to rest,” he says. “At least somebody came up and said, ‘Ricky, I’m sorry.’ People might think he’s lying. But I don’t think he’s lying when he says sorry.”

When confronted directly about how Ricky could possibly forgive someone who caused him as much pain as Johnny did, Ricky has a hard time coming up with words.

Ricky Le (Jess Bidgood for WBUR)

“There’s just something about him,” he says.

But seeing Ricky with Johnny, the connection is visible. Ricky lights up and laughs. And he easily explains why he likes him.

“Johnny was like an older brother,” Ricky says. “I looked up to him. He showed me that he cared for me when we played ball together. My older brother never done that with me. Still doesn’t!”

Johnny and Ricky now frequent the same teen center in Lowell. It’s a decent life compared to many of their old gang friends, who are either still in jail, dead or deported back to Cambodia.

Johnny works there counseling teenagers. And Ricky has been trying to complete a GED program for almost four years.

Johnny talks a lot about doing a road show with Ricky. He wants people to know about their reconciliation. He wants to be known for something other than the jump-out. It’s all part of his project to “save the hood.”

But if you really push him, he’ll admit he’s also saving himself.