Two men suspected of heading a major crime ring based in Orange County's Little Saigon have been charged with stealing $3.7 million in computer chips, according to an indictment to be unsealed today in Oklahoma.
The indictment of Dinh Huu Tran, 33, of Santa Ana and Phat Viet Doan, 20, of Garden Grove stems from a 17-month interstate investigation by the Treasury Department and the FBI.
The crime ring allegedly preyed on an AT&T; manufacturing facility in Oklahoma City, recruiting Vietnamese employees there to steal hundreds of thousands of chips by putting the tiny 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 Agent Paul Elledge said Monday.
"They did business throughout Orange County," he said.
The AT&T; theft is the latest evidence of a network of Vietnamese gangs--many of them based in Westminster and Garden Grove--that have been linked to the growing problem of microchip thefts.
Some of the thefts have been carried out in paramilitary-type operations. Bandits have struck some of Southern California's best-known computer companies, binding and gagging employees and threatening them with death.
"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 companies.
The Oklahoma City indictment says 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 alleged 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 issued by a federal grand jury last month but placed under seal to give local law enforcement officials time to seek the two men.
Tran and Doan are each charged with conspiracy, interstate transportation of stolen goods and multiple counts of money laundering. The two men, who each face 135 years in jail if convicted, were last seen at the Tet celebrations in Little Saigon at the end of January and are now considered fugitives, Elledge said.
Tran's attorney, Nolan Stringfield, refused to comment, saying he had not seen the indictment.
The alleged crime ring was first detected 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 first suspected an illegal drug operation.
"We normally investigate major narcotics cases," Elledge said. "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 of 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 which accompanies the indictment. "C.D. Computer did not have an office location."
The indictment alleges that Doan and Tran hired Son Manh Nguyen of Oklahoma City 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, the indictment alleges, sold the AT&T; chips to numerous electronics shops in Little Saigon that police have said handle stolen chips and are a key cog in a vast international black market.
"There are a lot of middle men," Elledge said. "There are little computer companies on every block in Little Saigon."
Elledge said the shops that bought the chips included P.H. Computer in Fountain Valley and Telecomputer Inc. in Westminster. Neither company has been charged with any wrongdoing.
"If we did (buy the chips), we weren't aware of it," said Mark Walsh, a Telecomputer vice president. "We only deal with reputable dealers."
PH Computer salesman Peter Chang denied that the company had purchased any stolen chips.
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 explained.
The crime ring allegedly bought microchips from AT&T; employees for approximately $6 apiece and then sold them for as much as $35 each, Elledge said. The Treasury Department apprehended 12 employees in the scheme as part of an undercover operation that led to Doan and Tran.