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Trial begins for former FBI agent in holdup plot

Former lawman arrested in sting operation is accused of plan to rob drug house. Defense says he was only after evidence.

February 19, 2009|Christopher Goffard

In his scheme to raid a Fountain Valley drug house for a bounty of loose cash, prosecutors say, a former FBI agent equipped himself for war with bulletproof vests, silencer-equipped handguns, assault rifles and 630 rounds of ammunition.

Prosecutors say Vo Duong "Ben" Tran was meticulous in planning for the mercenary-style raid, assembling his arsenal with care and peppering a would-be accomplice with questions about the targeted house, such as how many people would be there and when drug deliveries arrived.

In reality, the drug house -- said to contain $500,000 cash -- was the invention of federal agents mounting a sting operation. And a supposed accomplice who turned Tran on to the plan was an FBI informant named Alex Dao who secretly recorded conversations with Tran over six months in 2008.

As Tran, a New Orleans man, faces trial this week in U.S. District Court in Santa Ana, those recordings form the heart of the government's case against him. But in his opening statement Wednesday, Tran's attorney, Alex Kessel, told jurors the tapes aren't what they appear.

A Vietnamese native who came to the United States as a boy, Tran never gave up his lifelong dream of being a lawman even after his 11-year career with the FBI ended in April 2003, the attorney said. "He was an outsider," the attorney said, but was perpetually on the lookout for information to feed to authorities about criminal networks.

So Tran played along with the supposed drug house scheme with the goal of gathering enough solid evidence against Dao, a convicted felon, to bring to agents.

"My client knew they needed a certain amount of evidence," the defense attorney said. "My client was always trying to find information on people. . . . He always was looking for a target."

Authorities found the arsenal of weapons at a Ramada Inn in Fountain Valley where Tran and his co-defendant, Yu Sung Park of Chicago, had checked in soon before their arrest in July 2008. Yet most of the guns were legally registered to Tran, the attorney said, and "using guns in your own name is not what real robbers do."

A real criminal would also know not to create a paper trail, the attorney said, yet Tran had Dao send a money order to Park to buy a bulletproof vest. Tran's real goal, the attorney said, was to create a paper trail on Dao.

"My client's play-acting, clearly play-acting," the attorney said. "My client never intended to do a robbery."

Tran, who worked as a special agent for the FBI in Chicago, was fired after 11 years with the agency on the grounds that he had impersonated an officer while he was on administrative leave, the government said. Tran's attorney, Brian Steel, said Tran was acquitted of the impersonation charge in court.

Prosecutor Robert Keenan told jurors Wednesday that the secretly recorded audiotapes will feature Tran giving Dao lessons on how to be a better criminal, cautioning him not to talk in the car, to use coded language and rely on "battle ready" associates.

Tran also preached on the necessity of taping mesh netting around the discharge port of a gun to catch the casing, the prosecutor said, adding that the arsenal that Tran assembled -- including 30 loaded magazines -- was meant as a precaution against trouble.

"The defendants were deadly serious," Keenan said. "If things went bad, they'd be able to reload."

The prosecutor said the tapes will feature the co-defendant, Park, discussing strategies for subduing resistance at the drug house with the suggestion that he use plastic zip ties to incapacitate an occupant for use as a "shield" against others.

Tran and Park could face life in prison if they are convicted on charges of conspiracy to commit a home invasion robbery, interstate travel and firearms possession in furtherance of the crime, and knowing possession of a machine gun. The case is expected to continue this week and next in the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Andrew J. Guilford.


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