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17 Indicted for $10-Million '95 O.C. Chip Heist

Crime: Suspects in Irvine takeover robbery, a record haul, are linked to 'Asian organized crime syndicates,' prosecutors say.

June 03, 1997|DAVAN MAHARAJ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LOS ANGELES — Seventeen people from across California have been charged with the takeover robberies of two Southland computer firms, including the largest heist of computer chips in U.S. history, authorities said Monday.

Those charged are linked to "Asian organized crime syndicates" that have been pillaging California's high-technology computer firms, said Assistant U.S. Atty. Christopher D. Johnson.

A federal grand jury indictment handed down Friday accused the defendants of staging the May 16, 1995, robbery of Centon Electronics Inc. in Irvine, which reported losses of more than $10 million. It was the largest such robbery in the nation's history, according to the U.S. attorney's office.

In that robbery, as many as 13 men dressed in sport coats and ties drove to the company in a small rental truck and two cars, forced their way inside and held three employees at gunpoint as they removed boxes of computer chips.

Centon Electronics is a privately held computer components company with 180 employees that was founded in 1978.

The grand jury indictment alleges that two weeks before the robbery, 11 of the defendants robbed Multi-Industry Technology of Cerritos of nearly $400,000 in computer chips.

According to Johnson, the organizer of the two Southland robberies is 25-year-old John That Luong, who is currently in custody at a federal facility in San Francisco, where he is awaiting trial on other computer business robberies.

Two of the defendants, Thanh Lam Nguyen, 22, of Glendale and Tam Trong Nguyen, 24, of Santa Ana, appeared Monday before U.S. Magistrate Judge Rosalyn Chapman in Los Angeles and were ordered detained until their June 23 arraignment.

Authorities said they are looking for the two other Southland defendants, 24-year-old Khuong Lay Tang of Santa Ana and Duc Tan Nguyen, age unknown, who is believed to be a San Gabriel Valley resident.

Eight other defendants are in custody, and four others remain at large.

Johnson said the defendants belong to organized crime gangs that operate in the lucrative black market for computer chips.

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In the Silicon Valley alone, computer companies lose $1 million a week to thieves. These stolen silicon chips, such as central processing units that power personal computers and memory chips that store information, often are shipped to Asia and other destinations, where they are installed in personal computers and sent back to the United States.

Johnson said prosecutors sought the grand jury indictment after an investigation involving authorities in San Francisco, San Jose, Sacramento and Portland.

If convicted, the men could face up to 40 years in federal prison.

The robbery was a traumatic experience for Centon employees. Moments after the robbers invaded their offices, one employee was forced to unlock the warehouse containing computer chips and memory boards. Other employees were then ordered to the ground and bound with duct tape. The employees managed to free themselves nearly an hour later.

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