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Little Saigon Raids Dismantle Crime Ring, Authorities Say

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Federal and local authorities said Thursday that they have dismantled Orange County’s largest Asian organized crime syndicate, which supplied the majority of illegal gambling machines in the county.

In a predawn raid in Little Saigon, authorities arrested 15 people. The alleged gang leader, Son Thanh Nguyen, 32, already was in custody on a weapons charge. Nguyen, authorities said, masterminded a sophisticated operation that installed “stealth” video games in cafes. With the flip of a switch, the machines offer illegal gambling.

The machines are fixtures in most of Little Saigon’s Vietnamese cafes, authorities said, and are proliferating in outlying cities. Gang members, they said, often threaten merchants who refused to allow them to set up the machines.

“I truly believe that the Little Saigon community will be a better place to live,” said FBI Supervisory Special Agent Randy D. Parsons. “The syndicate was involved in a significant amount of loan-sharking [and] Ecstasy trafficking as well as illegal gambling.”

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Police said they believe the gambling attracted other crime, including loan-sharking and extortion. The FBI estimated that the gang received more than $300,000 a year from the video machines alone, though police say the amount may have reached the millions.

The crackdown is part of a larger effort to curtail organized crime emanating from Little Saigon. The gang’s criminal activities, police said, were typical of other gangs whose reach extends across states and sometimes around the world. Westminster Police Chief James Cook said the problem is so serious that the department now has an investigator in Vietnam.

Investigators Used Wiretaps, Informants

“Because of the refugee settlement in our city, the Little Saigon area, the tentacles of crime from that area spread out across the country and around the world,” Cook said.

The arrests cap a one-year FBI investigation that used wiretaps and community sources to infiltrate the syndicate.

In addition to the gambling counts, gang members were charged with running an international ring trafficking in the “club drug” Ecstasy. Nguyen also was charged with weapons possession in connection with an alleged plot to kill rival gang members.

The investigation focused on the wiretapped conversations between Nguyen and an Anaheim video game dealer allegedly used by the ring to rig regular video games with illicit electronic components. With a flip of a remote control switch, video games like Pac-Man would be replaced on the screen by illegal games of chance with names such as “Dancing Dolls.”

The machines accepted quarters and bills up to $20; winners normally claimed the money from the cafe or restaurant operator because the machines don’t dispense cash.

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Authorities say the machines were big moneymakers. They cost $2,300 apiece and generate up to $150,000 annually, they said.

A major breakthrough in the case came when FBI agents were able to build identical remote controls to activate the machines. Screens switched to video games by merchants at the sight of police were quickly flipped back.

“We were able to mimic their frequency,” said Assistant U.S. Atty. Marc Greenberg. “When a merchant hit a remote to Pac-Man, we would switch it back to the gambling game.”

The suspects face possible five-year prison terms on the gambling charges. The drug charges also could yield five-year terms.

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