BY MALIA ZIMMERMAN – The United Samoan Organization prison gang, started by Hawaii prisoners incarcerated in an Oklahoma prison 15 years ago, is considered one of the largest and most formidable prison gangs in the country.
The members, now of various ethnicities, will extort, threaten, bribe guards, import and deal drugs, sell contraband behind prison walls, and commit violent acts and even murder on command of their “shot callers.”
They have schemed to get federal tax refunds of up to $7,000 by filing false returns that claimed tax credits and then used the money to bribe prison guards and invest into expansion of their criminal enterprise.
On Tuesday, officials from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Internal Revenue Service and U.S. Attorney unveiled details of a major racketeering case targeting the USO enterprise now operating in Hawaii, New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada prisons, and announced 18 members were indicted September 12. The indictment remained under seal until September 24.
“This indictment details multiple instances of violence, drug activity, fraud, and bribery that have not been confined to the jail cells or the exercise yards, but instead they have infected our local communities,” FBI Special Agent In Charge Vida Bottom said Thursday.
“One of the principle activities of this gang is to distribute controlled substances,” U.S. Attorney Florence Nakakuni said. “Another major activity was to file fraudulent tax returns with the Internal Revenue Service to obtain refunds to fund their activities inside and outside the prisons.”
Kenneth Hines, Special Agent in Charge of the Seattle Field Office at the Department of Treasury’s IRS Criminal Investigation, said, the money USO gang members wrongfully received through tax fraud “was turned into money they used to bribe, buy drugs, pay people.”
“They basically funded their operation stealing from the treasury,” Hines added.
Bottom said the indictment shows law enforcement “will not sit idly by while USO’s power grows.”
USO, which means “brother” in Samoan, has expanded to 800 members nationwide, and includes 100 prisoners incarcerated in Hawaii facilities and up to 500 “family” members in Hawaii. Most USO members have gang tattoos on their bodies and proudly display the logo on their property including their automobiles.
“The power of the USO family organization is utilized to create fear and intimidation that shields members. Violent retribution is an important activity of the enterprise. Violent retribution helps enforce loyalty to the organization, which is necessary to ensure that the business of the enterprise operates smoothly. The secondary purpose of the gang is to make money,” the indictment said.
Three of USO’s top leaders including Opherro Jones, leader from Halawa Prison, William Shinyama, former leader in an Arizona prison where Hawaii prisoners are incarcerated, and Vaopele Iiga, a founder of the criminal enterprise, were included in the indictment.
While one of the allegations is USO members bribed prison guards, so far just Feso Malufau, a 54-year-old former corrections officer from Halawa Correctional Facility, has been arrested.
Federal agents had no comment Tuesday on additional pending arrests or the extension of corruption of prison employees here or on the mainland.
While some of the USO members were already serving time in state prison, the indictment and arrests disrupt the organization and will likely lead to key members of the criminal enterprise serving time in federal rather than state prison.
Six defendants – Charlie Esera, 46; Billy Wond, 38; Opherro Jones, 39; David Kahui, 34; Robin Lee, 52; and Feso Malufau, 54, were charged with racketeering conspiracy including fraud, distribution of methamphetamine and marijuana and bribery.
Thirteen defendants – James Moser, 24; Paul Togia, 33; Vaofele Iiga, 35; Clarence Butler, 34; Potaufa Ula, 27; Shadrach Unea, 28; Moses Thompson, 34; Daniel Kenolio, 28; Opherro Jones; William Shinyama, 43; Tineimalo Adkins, 33; Akoni Davis, 24; and Travis Nishioka, 24 – were charged with assaulting three people as a means of initiation into the USO gang or to get a promotion within the USO Family.
Lee is also charged with six additional counts of filing false income tax returns for four defendants.
Each of the four racketeering counts could get the defendants up to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000, while false claim charges could land them five years in prison and a fine of $250,000.
Honolulu Police Chief Louis Kealoha and Deputy Director of Corrections Max Otani joined FBI, US Attorney and IRS officials at Tuesday’s press conference.
FBI’s Bottom did not offer an estimate for manpower or hours invested in the investigation by several law enforcement agencies in Hawaii and mainland states, only saying the indictment was a “team effort.”
The case will go to trial on Nov. 26 in Honolulu before U.S. District Judge Leslie Kobayashi. Assistant United States Attorney Michael Nammar will handle the prosecution.