BEHIND THE bulletproof window in her West Philly eatery, an Asian American business owner recalled the horrifying night last month when four or five men broke into her family's Haverford Township home, terrorized them and fled with $500.
To force their way in, the thugs, some masked, smashed the glass pane of the family's front door, and the woman and her husband heard it from the second floor.
It was about 8 p.m. April 26. The couple, both 62, and their handicapped adult son were watching TV in his room.
The woman - she's still too scared to allow her name to be printed - said she was about to check on the noises when she was stopped in the hallway by the men, who had rushed upstairs. One put his hands on her shoulders, yelling, "Money, money, money!" and forced her onto her knees.
She covered her face with her hands.
One thug wrapped duct tape around her hands and head. A gun was pushed into her neck. The robbers, described as black, stole the $500 she had in her back pocket and took her wallet, which had no cash or credit cards.
Her husband tried to call 9-1-1 from the son's bedroom, but another thug put a gun to his side, ripped the phone away and stomped on it, his wife said. One bandit smacked her wheelchair-bound son in the face. The family's two white Maltese dogs barked and barked.
The robbers fled, but one returned and found the woman in the kitchen. He yelled for "more money," she said, but she told him that she had none. "Maybe he know soon police" would come, and so "he run away," she said.
Speaking inside the store, taking payments from customers purchasing food while her husband sold lottery tickets, she said that, contrary to rumors about Asian business owners, the family doesn't keep cash at home.
The Haverford home invasion was just the latest targeting Asian American business owners outside their places of business. This and other recent attacks - including a March home invasion in Oxford Circle and a December robbery and shooting outside a Cheltenham bank - have so alarmed a regional task force of law-enforcement authorities that it has resumed meetings on the issue and is giving safety pointers to Asian Americans.
On June 1 in Atlantic City, the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association eastern regional conference will include a panel discussion on Asians targeted in acts of violence, including the Philly-area home invasions.
Specifically, Lt. John Walker, of the Southwest Detective Division, a key member of the task force, says authorities are looking into whether the Haverford, Oxford Circle and Cheltenham robberies were committed by associates of a Philadelphia man, Oronda Ligon, who was arrested for an Upper Darby home invasion last May.
The task force was created in 2008 when home invasions against Asian business owners spiked, and authorities learned from one suspect, Nuri Murray, that criminals were following Asian business owners to their homes because they thought Asians kept large amounts of money there.
Through the task force, authorities arrested two Philadelphia crews responsible for many of the 2008 attacks. Then, another crew, associated with Terrance Downing, began to commit similar robberies in 2010, contributing to another spike.
"Once we see a crew get arrested, these things halt and slow down," Walker said. Since the Downing crew's arrest, he said, fewer home-invasion robberies took place. "Now that we've identified [Ligon's] crew, hopefully this will slow this group of events down. Obviously, one is too many."
The task force includes the FBI, the U.S. Attorney's Office, Pennsylvania State Police, Philadelphia police and the District Attorney's Office and local police and prosecutors in Delaware and Montgomery counties.
Pearl Kim, an assistant district attorney in Delaware County and another key member of the task force, said she's brought the issue to the attention of the Governor's Advisory Commission on Asian American Affairs.
Executive Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert K. Reed said that in some cases, prosecutors can indict under the federal Hobbs Act, which targets criminals who rob businesses engaged in interstate commerce. If convicted federally, the suspects typically get substantially longer sentences.
Authorities don't regularly track the number of robberies against Asian business owners outside their businesses, but the task force has compiled some data.
Combining that with an analysis of past articles, the Daily News found at least 15 home invasions or other attacks on Asian business owners outside their businesses in Philadelphia, Delaware and Montgomery counties in 2008, followed by another spike of at least 19 actual or attempted home invasions or burglaries in those three counties plus Chester County in 2010.
Two Asian business owners were killed in 2009 - Robert Chae in his North Wales home, and Joseph Ha, a half-block from his dry-cleaning business in Olney.
Last year, at least six robberies or attempted burglaries of Asian business owners were reported at a home or bank in Montgomery, Delaware and Philadelphia counties. And this year, in addition to the family in Haverford Township, a couple was robbed during a home invasion in Oxford Circle.
Targeting Asians for cash
Reed has said that criminals have targeted Asian business owners because they believe Asians keep money in their homes rather than in banks. The criminals also think Asians may not report the crimes, possibly because of a language barrier, he said.
According to a federal criminal complaint, Murray, the thug from whom authorities learned of the pattern of attacks, "initially got the idea to rob 'Chinese people' from his associates, including Cheron Humphrey, who had been robbing 'Chinese people who owned stores for months.'" Murray said he and his associates robbed "'Chinese' citizens because 'Chinese who owned stores had a lot of money and took it home each night,'" the complaint said.
At a January meeting between the task force and Asians at the H Mart supermarket in Elkins Park, Walker offered these safety tips: Alter your routine, don't display valuables, call 9-1-1 and go to a public place if you see anything suspicious, and avoid being alone.
Capt. John McGinnis, of the Northeast Detective Division, doesn't think criminals are targeting business owners based on their race, but rather from "word out on the street" that the victims "have a lot of money." He says home invasions against business owners have been occurring since he joined the department about 40 years ago.
"It comes and it goes," he said. "You [arrest] a gang that robs them," and then it stops. "If they're successful, they go back to their neighborhoods" and tell others "and others try it."
In the Oxford Circle home invasion this year, six thugs and one possible lookout stole about $30,000 from a Korean American business owner and his wife about 7 p.m. March 18.
A home-surveillance video, with a camera on the back driveway, showed the attack outside and has since been made public by police.
The husband - who has wanted to be identified only by his nickname, Kenny - said that he and his wife have since moved out of the house.
At a West Philly cellphone store owned by Kenny, 42, next to his beer-distribution business, he recently talked about how much his life has changed.
"We were happy," he said. "My friends came to my house visiting. Now, my house is gone. My life is gone."
He said he has "no choice" but to keep his businesses open for their livelihood.
Former neighbors in Oxford Circle have told him that they've started to buy guns, he said.
Not far from Kenny's businesses, Jenny Ly, whose husband, Peter Ly, 55, was robbed and shot outside the Woori America Bank in Cheltenham about 11:35 a.m. Dec. 27, said that her husband is doing better, but still suffers pain and can't work in their West Philly store because he can't stand all day long.
She said she also has no choice but to keep their Market Street deli open. "I have to pay the bills," said Jenny, who came to the U.S. with her husband from China.
Surveillance video showed the robbers outside the bank in a black Volvo S60 or S80, with tinted windows and a sunroof. Even though Peter Ly handed over his bag of money, one thug shot him.
"Hopefully, [police] catch them," his wife said. "It's terrible."