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California and the West

3 Men Held in Loansharking at Card Casinos

Crime: Suspects are charged with preying on Asian American gamblers, charging them 10% weekly interest. Officials feared imminent violence against victims.

September 09, 1998|JOHN CANALIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

WESTMINSTER — Three men accused of targeting Asian American gamblers at Los Angeles-area casinos and offering loans at exorbitant rates were charged Tuesday with loan sharking and extortion.

Authorities arrested the three men Friday and Saturday because of concerns that they may have been poised to take action against some of the victims, who were charged interest rates of 10% per week, authorities said.

"We had information that one of the victims was beaten up on Friday, and at that point we went and rounded up the ones we had cases on," Westminster Police Chief James Cook said.

Duong "Benny" Trung Lam, 26, of Los Angeles, David Quan Tran, 40, of Bell Gardens, and Chanh Trong Hoang, 31, of Huntington Beach, face up to 20 years in prison if found guilty.

The men are suspected of loaning money to Chinese and Vietnamese gamblers playing pan and other Asian card games at the Bicycle Club in Bell Gardens and the Commerce Casino in City of Commerce. The men loaned large sums to players and threatened to hurt them and their families when they couldn't pay, authorities said.

"These loan sharks frequent the clubs and target those Asian players who are down on their luck," Cook said.

The largest loan that authorities have been able to document was $40,000, authorities said. Although only four victims have come forward, authorities suspect that they number in the hundreds and that hundreds of thousands of dollars were loaned, Cook said.

One of the victims told investigators that he borrowed $20,000 and was told his girlfriend would be killed if he didn't make the payments.

"They charge an extortionist rate, which preys on the victims and is very hard to pay back," said Stephen P. Steinhauser, assistant special agent in charge of the FBI's Santa Ana bureau.

Tran, who allegedly goes by the nickname "the Executor," collected the debts, Cook said. Hoang is suspected of issuing the loans and threatening borrowers. All three were arrested in restaurants in Westminster.

The arrests were jointly announced in Westminster by the FBI, Westminster police and Orange County district attorney's office.

The three-agency crime team was formed to address Asian criminal enterprises victimizing residents and businesspeople in Little Saigon. A multi-agency cooperative was created since crime syndicates based in Westminster are believed to reach throughout Southern California.

The investigation began four months ago at the clubs and in Westminster's Little Saigon, authorities said.

"Many, many of these victims--we believe several hundred--are in the Orange County area, in the Little Saigon area," Cook said.

Times correspondent Jason Kandel contributed to this story.

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