Orange County Suspects Named in Chip Theft Ring

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Two men who allegedly headed a major crime ring based in Little Saigon in Orange County have been charged with stealing $3.7 million in computer chips, according to an indictment to be unsealed today in Oklahoma.

The indictments of Dinh Huu Tran, 33, of Santa Ana, and Phat Viet Doan, 20, of Garden Grove, stem from a 17-month interstate investigation by the Treasury Department and the FBI.

The purported crime ring allegedly preyed on an American Telephone & Telegraph manufacturing facility in Oklahoma City, recruiting Vietnamese employees there to steal hundreds of thousands of chips by putting the precious parts in their pockets and in tubes that were hidden under their clothes.

The chips were then transported to the Orange County area by car and commercial jet and fenced through at least 30 Vietnamese-owned computer stores, Treasury special agent Paul Elledge alleged Monday.

"They did business throughout Orange County," he said.

The alleged AT&T; theft is the latest evidence of a network of Vietnamese gangs--many based in Orange County--that have traveled around the nation stealing microchips.

Some of the alleged thefts have been carried out like paramilitary operations. Bandits allegedly struck some of Southern California's best-known computer companies, binding and gagging employees and issuing death threats against them.

"This thing is so massive now that federal agencies are finally looking seriously at it," said Lee Roberts, a Santa Ana private investigator employed by several computer giants.

The Oklahoma City indictment claims that the thefts at AT&T; occurred between May, 1988, and January of last year.

The two Orange County men are named in the indictment as the leaders of the crime ring, which Elledge said involved at least 16 people. Further indictments are expected.

The U.S. Attorney's Office in Oklahoma City has scheduled a press conference today to announce the indictments and explain the complicated scheme. The indictments were originally filed last month but placed under seal to give local law enforcement officials a chance to find the two men.

Tran, 33, and Doan, 20, are charged with conspiracy, interstate transportation of stolen goods and multiple counts of money laundering. The two, who each face 135 years in jail if convicted, were last seen at Tet celebrations in Little Saigon at the end of January and are considered fugitives, Elledge said.

Tran's attorney, Nolan Stringfield, refused to comment until he sees the indictment.

"There isn't really much I can say at this point," he said.

The alleged crime ring was first suspected by Internal Revenue Service agents in August, 1988, after they noticed that hundreds of thousands of dollars were being moved between Oklahoma City and Orange County. They suspected an illegal drug operation.

"We normally investigate major narcotics cases," said Elledge. "We attempt to try and track the flow and movement of large amounts of currency. When we initially started this investigation, we thought it was probably narcotics-related because, based on our experience, the only thing we knew that could generate such large amounts of money over a short period of time was drugs. We were quite far into the investigation before we discovered it was, in fact, microchips."

Federal authorities allege in the indictment that Doan and Tran started the crime ring, using the fictitious business name C.D. Computer as a cover.

The address given for C.D. Computer on Westminster Avenue in Santa Ana "was in fact a furniture store, which belonged to Dinh Huu Tran," Elledge said in an affidavit that accompanies the indictment. "C.D. Computer did not have an office location."

The indictment claims that Doan and Tran hired Oklahoma City resident Son Manh Nguyen to persuade AT&T; employees to steal the chips. Nguyen is under investigation in connection with the scheme, officials said.

Doan then allegedly brought the stolen chips "from Oklahoma to California for distribution by the organization," according to the indictment. He allegedly earned $5 per chip for transporting them to Orange County.

Tran and Doan allegedly sold the AT&T; chips to numerous electronics shops in Little Saigon that police have said fence hot chips and are a key cog in a vast international black market.

Microchips, which are used in everything from toasters to missiles, make good booty because they are small but valuable. Just a handful can bring thousands of dollars, and they are difficult to trace because few have serial numbers.

AT&T; has not recovered a single chip stolen from its Oklahoma City plant.

"This is better than moving dope," Elledge said. "If a cop stops you and you have a trunkload of chips, so what?"

Tran opened six bank accounts in the Little Saigon area "for the purposes of receiving and distributing the proceeds of the stolen computer chips, and to obtain the needed currency to promote the carrying on of the unlawful activity," the indictment alleges.

Bank records show that Tran was moving around hundreds of thousands of dollars.

"They had to generate large amounts of cash to purchase the chips," Elledge said.

The crime ring allegedly bought microchips from AT&T; employees for approximately $6 a piece and then sold them for as much as $35 a piece, Elledge said. The Treasury Department caught 12 employees in the scheme as part of an undercover operation that led to Doan and Tran.

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