The scheme was simple but clever. Two Chinese immigrants, seeing a lucrative opportunity in a growing Asian community, opened a car sales and leasing firm in Alhambra in July, 1985.
Word quickly spread that Tony Lam and Peter Wong were offering Mercedes-Benzes at $1,000 to $1,500 less than competitors. On the strength of a booming trade, Lam and Wong soon found themselves courted by Chinese community leaders and Chinese bankers eager for their business.
Agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation say the two men relished the attention. They wore diamond rings and heavy gold chains and began dating employees of some of the eight banks where they opened business accounts.
Their reputations firmly established after six months of operation, Lam and Wong decided to cash in. They told bank managers they were attempting to buy the Jim Marino Mercedes dealership in Alhambra and needed large sums of cash.
Checks for $1.6 Million
On a Thursday and Friday in late January, 1986, the two men wrote checks totaling $1.6 million at eight banks in Monterey Park and Chinatown in Los Angeles. Bank managers, who had no reason to distrust them, honored the checks.
By the following Monday, the checks had bounced and incredulous bankers searching for Lam and Wong found only a vacant business office and a bare Rosemead condominium where they had been living. Both had been emptied over the weekend.
The two fugitives, who entered the country illegally on forged Thai passports and whose names are aliases, are wanted by federal authorities on suspicion of using a three-day "float" period to embezzle the $1.6 million and another $1.4 million from a ninth area bank.
But the ensuing investigation into their crimes and whereabouts has been hampered by a reluctance on the part of the victimized banks to cooperate with law enforcement agencies. Investigators from the FBI's West Covina office and the Monterey Park Police Department say the bankers would rather forget the monetary loss than risk a public court case that could result in a loss of face.
The case highlights one of the chief problems facing local and federal police agencies investigating crimes in the Asian community: Asian newcomers often choose to be silent victims.
The failure to report crimes, law enforcement authorities say, results from fear of reprisal, traditional distrust of police and a belief carried over from their native countries that bribery, extortion and other similar practices are merely a cost of doing business.
"Asian criminals are successful because they prey upon their own people, they prey upon the culture and the fact that extortion and other crimes are a way of life back home," said Jones Moi, a Monterey Park police detective who specializes in crimes involving Asians. "It makes our job that much tougher."
Even more elusive, police say, are crimes committed against Chinese newcomers who are in this country illegally. Unlike the Mexican national who crosses the border poor and without documentation, the Taiwan native often arrives in the United States with a temporary visa and lots of money, immigration experts say.
When the documentation expires, police say, the newcomer becomes illegal and is vulnerable to criminals who view him and his money as a "safe mark."
"It's one of our biggest problems," said Monterey Park Police Chief Jon Elder. "We can't break the grip of these criminals because their victims many times are illegal aliens who remain silent for fear of being deported."
In the past few years, responding to the continuing flow of Asian newcomers, local police agencies have taken a number of steps to counter such problems. They have hired Chinese and Vietnamese-speaking officers, established a network of Asian volunteers to assist in translation and formed Asian-gang task forces.
While more Asian businessmen are now reporting extortions and attempted extortions, police acknowledge that their efforts have fallen short in both reaching out to a new community of immigrants and combating a growing threat from Chinese and Vietnamese gangs.
In Monterey Park, for instance, which has a 40% Asian population, the Police Department has hired a Chinese-speaking community service officer whose sole job is to perform home-security inspections and to enlist Asians in the Neighborhood Watch crime prevention program.
But Capt. Joseph Santoro said Asian participation in Neighborhood Watch remains low. "I don't think it's because they're unwilling as much as it's a matter of overcoming cultural barriers," he said.
In addition, Santoro said, the city often finds itself ill-equipped to uproot local gambling, extortion and prostitution rackets that appear tied to Chinese and Vietnamese crime groups nationwide and overseas.
"This is a 72-man police department. We simply don't have the manpower to deal with criminals who can network from Los Angeles to Houston to New York to Toronto and then overseas," he said.