SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- In a quiet suburb, four armed and masked men torture a woman by blowing hot air from a hair NTC dryer into her face, then make off with $1,200 in cash and hundreds of dollars worth of jewelry.
In nearby Stockton, robbers pour boiling water on an elderly woman's leg until her husband, whom they have forced to watch, reveals where their money is stashed.
Four hundred miles south, in Orange County, bandits dunk a 2-year-old's head in the toilet bowl until his mother hands over $500 in hidden cash.
These scenes are part of a growing wave of carefully orchestrated crimes by Vietnamese youth gangs who target fellow Southeast Asian refugees in California and in other states across the nation.
Dubbed home invasions by the police, the robberies are executed in tenements and on suburban streets with paramilitary-like precision and often include torture. The victims are tied and gagged, and their homes are ransacked.
"They are vicious," said Kristine Yoshida, an Asian gang expert for the Bureau of Organized Crime and Criminal Intelligence at the California Department of Justice. "In some cases, they had gotten what they wanted, so they tortured their victims for the fun of it."
The gangs pick their targets by perusing a telephone directory, or they stake out lucky gamblers or business owners known to keep cash on hand and follow them home. The gangs usually leave behind few clues and victims too frightened to talk.
As a result, law enforcement officials are uncertain how many home invasions the gangs have committed in California, which is home to 250,000 of the nation's 600,000 Vietnamese refugees. But they estimate that hundreds are committed every year.
"They know their victims' routines. They follow them around sometimes for more than week," said Officer Mike Niehoff, gang investigator for the San Jose Police Department. "They know when they leave, when they come home. They're pretty thorough."
The systematic psychological warfare practiced by these gangs was captured live on national television April 4, when four armed Vietnamese set siege to an electronics store in suburban Sacramento and held 41 people hostage.
The gunmen, members of the Oriental Boys, bound some victims with electrical wire and shot two in the legs. They were coolly flipping coins to decide who would die first when sheriff's deputies stormed the store in a blaze of gunfire that left six dead, including three gunmen, and 11 people wounded.
While some investigators say the gunmen were seeking fame and attempting to lash back at a society that had failed them, other law enforcement experts believe the siege was a robbery gone bad.
A report by the state attorney general's office in 1990 found that California's Vietnamese gangs have expanded their operations to include car thefts, murder and extortion, targeting all types of businesses from ethnic diners to high-tech computer firms. The report also found the gangs are recruiting youths of Cambodian, Laotian and Hmong descent.
"It's been cooking and simmering for 15 years and now it's breaking out," said William Cassidy, a former intelligence consultant for the U.S. government who specializes in Vietnamese gang crimes. "We ignore the crimes until they happen outside the Asian community."
Experts think the home invasions began a decade ago in Orange County, where 100,000 Vietnamese live. The gangs, which started as rag-tag bands of teen-agers, now have more than 6,000 members in California, officials said.
The gangs are well-organized and highly mobile. Some wander the freeways, staying in cheap motels or safe houses, as they search for victims.
Gang members often drive to distant cities with Vietnamese enclaves. There, they commit crimes previously planned in conjunction with local gangs, many of whose members began migrating from the West Coast in the early 1980s.
"They are rapidly expanding," said Sgt. Harry Hu, of the Oakland Police Department's gang crimes unit. "They're well-connected. They have a sophisticated network going."
Police say they also have spotted gang members from six states in the quiet Ozark town of Carthage, Mo. Every August, 170 Vietnamese monks are host to the nation's largest gathering of Vietnamese Catholics in Carthage, so the gathering also is a source of potential victims.
According to experts on gangs, many of the Vietnamese gang members either were part of the second wave of refugees commonly known as boat people or their children.
The boat people were poor and uneducated and they landed in dead-end jobs. Even today, nearly half these refugees rely on some form of government assistance to make ends meet.
"Many came here without parents or guidance. When they got here, they had no support," said Hoang Dang Nguyen, president the Bach Viet Association of Sacramento, a social service agency. "We failed to have them adapt socially and economically. We failed to provide jobs."
Many young Vietnamese turn to street gangs for emotional and economic support, experts said.
"Vietnamese youths have been abandoned by their families and by American society as a whole," Cassidy said. "They have no sense of belonging. They feel very isolated in this country. The gangs become their surrogate families."
Some experts say the years spent in Southeast Asian refugee camps, where lawlessness often ruled, made many gang members ruthless.
"A lot of these kids were forced to grow up quickly," said Marcus Frank, a detective with the Westminister Police Department in Orange County. "They witnessed mutilations, mayhem, robberies when they were 4- or 5-years-old. We send them to state prison, and it's like summer camp to them."
Their victims, who have the same memories of a war-torn land where terror was common and police corrupt, are the perfect prey.
"The intimidation works well in the community," Mr. Hu said. "They know the threat is real. They just let it go. They don't want to make waves about it."
An Oakland gang member committed home invasions for five years before someone finally reported him to the police, Mr. Hu said.
Many Southeast Asians are skeptical of a law-enforcement system that quickly returns criminals to their streets.
"We fear. We feel very scared," said a Vietnamese man in Sacramento. "There's real danger. We don't know who's good. We cannot do nothing."