A father and son have been sentenced to prison in a rhino horn trafficking… (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service )
Behind an unassuming storefront in Orange County's Little Saigon, prosecutors say, was the driving force behind an illicit international trade in rhinoceros horns.
Vinh Chuong "Jimmy" Kha and Felix Kha may never have journeyed to the savannas of Africa, but by trafficking in hundreds of pounds of the prized horns that some Vietnamese and Chinese believe can cure cancer, the father and son were responsible for the hundreds of rhinos targeted by poachers, prosecutors said.
"Their fingers might as well have been on the triggers of poachers' guns," Assistant U.S. Atty. Joseph Johns said.
On Wednesday, the Khas were sentenced to prison by a federal judge in Los Angeles who said she wanted to send a message against the "extremely serious" crime of trafficking in the horns. U.S. District Judge Christina Snyder remarked that she had traveled to Africa and personally witnessed the effects of poaching as she sentenced Jimmy and Felix Kha to 42 and 46 months in prison, respectively.
The Khas, who prosecutors said "sat at the apex of the rhino horn smuggling pyramid within the United States," pleaded guilty last year to charges including conspiracy, smuggling, wildlife trafficking, money laundering and tax evasion for their part in the trade.
"There are parts of Africa where rhinos are completely gone," Snyder said from the bench. "Lord knows if they'll ever come back."
However, Snyder shaved more than a year off each of the men's sentences after listening to descriptions of their lives and pleas from their family. Evan Freed, an attorney for Jimmy Kha, the 50-year-old father, described how his client fled the communist rule in Vietnam, then built a new life in the U.S. by waiting tables and working at swap meets while raising two sons as a single father.
The Khas were never in direct contact with poachers and dealt primarily with decades-old horns that people already had in their homes in the U.S., Freed told the judge.
"His rationalization was that … what he was doing was not as bad as the actual slaughter of animals," Freed said.
Felix Kha told the judge he stumbled across the horns at an auction site while searching for items for his father's Westminster business, which sells Buddhist and Chinese cultural artifacts. He said he did not realize the sale would be illegal.
But prosecutors contended that by creating a market for the horns, the Khas were directly responsible for driving up prices and creating the incentive for poachers to hunt rhinos. They said the period that the Khas were trading in the horns, beginning in 2008, coincided with a dramatic increase of poaching in South Africa.
They also noted that the pair indirectly paid a $150,000 bribe to a Vietnamese official who had stopped a shipment of the horns, which can net close to $25,000 a pound.
"We may be dealing with this carnage and this slaughter for another decade," said Johns, the prosecutor.
The men were also ordered to pay taxes owed as well as a fine of $10,000 each. The Khas were arrested as a result of Operation Crash, an 18-month investigation into the trafficking of rhino horns that led to arrests in a dozen states.