Probe Starts to Lift Veil on Asian Organized Crime

TIMES STAFF WRITER

After a murderous campaign, Wo Hop To, a Hong Kong-based "triad"--a centuries-old criminal society--has taken command of burgeoning and volatile Asian organized crime in the San Francisco Bay Area.

In contrast, Asian syndicate crime in Southern California appears to be "in a state of turmoil," with no one organization dominant, Senate investigators have concluded.

With members of several such groups subpoenaed to testify today and Wednesday, the Senate Government Affairs permanent investigations subcommittee hopes to raise the curtain of secrecy from a brutal struggle--one that has terrorized many law-abiding but close-mouthed Asian-Americans in California and other centers of Asian organized crime.

Citing testimony by victims of Asian criminals, Sen. William V. Roth Jr. (R-Del.), the panel's ranking minority member, said Monday that most crimes committed by Asian groups go unreported because of fear of retaliation and the expectation that nothing will be done to catch the criminals.

"While there is only a small percentage of an otherwise hard-working and law-abiding Asian community engaged in organized criminal activity, that small percentage appears to be wreaking havoc on the larger community," Roth said.

The Wah Ching gang, which lost out to Wo Hop To in Northern California, operates in Los Angeles' Chinatown and, to a lesser extent, in Monterey Park and elsewhere in the San Gabriel Valley, Senate investigators say. The United Bamboo gang, a Taiwan-based organization active in Houston and New York, also operates in the San Gabriel Valley.

Both Southern California groups depend on Chinese-Vietnamese gangs for intimidation and street crime, ranging from violent invasion of homes to protecting gambling establishments, according to the Senate investigators.

Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), the subcommittee chairman, said "a very frightening picture" emerged from the initial hearing, making him "wonder how much grimmer this picture can get." Exploring the "hierarchical structure of Asian organized crime" may provide "a better sense of the increased threat" the groups represent, he said.

At today's hearing, the subcommittee plans to name major leaders of Asian organized crime, mirroring the effort it made more than 25 years ago to unmask the Mafia.

Like the Mafia, the Asian organizations give their members colorful names: "Shrimp Boy," "Fat Dragon," "Dog Boy" and "Sweet Plum."

But measured by sheer violence, the Asian groups may be outdoing their Italian counterparts. In the Bay Area power struggle, at least five members of Wah Ching and Wo Hop To have been murdered, most recently Wah Ching's reputed leader, according to the California Department of Justice's criminal intelligence forecast.

As an example of Wo Hop To's dominance, subcommittee investigators said the triad is behind the growing extortion of merchants in Oakland's Chinatown. On Sept. 15, more than 30 Wo Hop To members and associates, pretending to belong to a Chinese tong, went door to door, extorting funds on the pretext of selling tickets to a concert by a well-known entertainer, Amy Yip, sometimes referred to as the Madonna of Hong Kong.

Subcommittee investigators cited estimates by Orange County authorities that as many as 80 Indochinese gangs operate there. Often "hyperviolent," the gangs commit home invasion robberies, extortion, auto theft and auto burglary.

Gambling is "an enormous source" of funds for Asian organized crime in Southern California, investigators said, with illegal gambling parlors in Los Angeles County numbering between 150 and 200.

Several large legal card clubs operate in the county, and subcommittee investigators said gang members are known by law enforcement officers to work at the clubs as pit bosses and dealers, with other gang members providing loan shark services.

Subcommittee investigators said California's lack of a gaming commission is "a serious problem" because the absence of regulation allows clubs to operate with little accountability.

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