18 indicted on charges linked to prison gang

Five men who were convicted of felony crimes in 2nd Circuit Court are among 18 defendants indicted on federal racketeering-related charges involving the “USO Family” prison gang, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Hawaii said Tuesday.

According to the indictment unsealed Tuesday when several defendants were taken into custody, USO Family is alleged to be the dominant prison gang in Hawaii, operating inside and outside the state prison system. The indictment also says the gang “is present enough on the Mainland to be recognized as a major prison gang nationally.”

One of the gang’s main activities is having prisoners sell crystal methamphetamine and marijuana to other inmates for profit, according to the indictment. Gang members obtained the drugs from Hawaii and the Mainland through suppliers, and it was brought into prisons by personnel and distributed to prisoners, the indictment alleges.

Another activity is filing fraudulent tax returns to get refunds used to fund gang activities, including bribing prison guards, the indictment alleges.

The indictment charges six men with a racketeering conspiracy consisting of multiple acts of fraud, methamphetamine and marijuana distribution, and bribery occurring from at least January 2004 to Sept. 12. They were identified as Oahu residents Charlie Esera, 46; Billy Wond, 38; Opherro Jones, 39; David Kahui, 34; Robin Lee, 52; and Feso Malufau, 54.

Thirteen men were charged with assaulting three people to gain entrance to or to maintain or increase position within the USO Family. The 13 include James Moser, 24, who is charged with a July 9, 2009, assault in Hawaii that caused serious injury. In November 2008, Moser was sentenced in 2nd Circuit Court to an eight-year prison term for two counts of first-degree robbery.

Second Circuit defendants Potaufa Ula, 27, and Daniel Kenolio, 38, are charged along with five other men in a July 26, 2010, assault in Arizona. Records show Ula and Kenolio are incarcerated at Saguaro Correctional Center in Arizona. Ula was sentenced in June 2006 to a 10-year prison term for first-degree assault. Kenolio was sentenced to a 20-year prison term in October 1999 for two counts of first-degree robbery.

William Shinyama, 43, and Travis Nishioka, 24, who also were sentenced in 2nd Circuit Court, are among five men charged with a Feb. 17 assault in Hawaii. Records show Shinyama and Nishioka are incarcerated at Halawa Correctional Center on Oahu. Shinyama was sentenced to a five-year prison term for second-degree assault in August 2008. Nishioka was sentenced to a five-year prison term on drug charges last November.

The FBI said that the USO Family gang operates in Hawaii, Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada prisons after being started by Hawaii inmates in an Oklahoma prison in 1998.

Hawaii sends about one-quarter of its inmates to private prisons on the Mainland because of a lack of space at island facilities.

Vida Bottom, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Honolulu Division, said USO stands for United Samoan Organization, but the gang has no known presence in Samoa. What started as a small, ethnic prison group has evolved into large multiethnic operation with 800 members nationwide, she said.

According to the indictment, members are “referred to as soldiers and USO Family members frequently refer to each other as ‘uso,’ the Samoan word for brother.”

Lee is charged with making false claims for income tax refunds for four of the other defendants.

Authorities began the investigation in 2010. One defendant is a former prison guard.

* The Associated Press contributed to this report. Lila Fujimoto can be reached at lfujimoto@mauinews.com.