Face Off

A Little Saigon identity-theft ring pounded OC businesses until one cop saw a tear in its veil of secrecy

The clue was the break Tucker needed. Cingular Wireless officials told him that the number belonged to Thuy Huynh—one of Tina Thi Tran's aliases—at a Westminster address. The detective obtained Huynh's driver's license data. The image looked familiar. He compared the photo with surveillance footage from identity thefts committed at Neiman Marcus at Fashion Island. They matched.

Tucker then checked court records for Huynh. He learned that someone with that name had been ticketed for failure to obey a red light in Santa Ana. A picture of the violation clearly showed Huynh sitting in the driver's seat of a Mercedes-Benz SUV at an intersection and holding a cell phone to her ear.

But the SUV was registered to Harold Nguyen, who lived in a Santa Ana house. He'd been part of the Bose heist. When questioned, Nguyen said he only knew Huynh as "Liz" and thought she might be a key player in the ID theft ring, records show.

In a final stroke of luck for police, Nguyen's cell-phone memory listed calls to the same 626 number Mohamed had contacted.

*   *   *

If Tran had any clue that Tucker's net was tightening, she didn't show it. Why should she? She'd compartmentalized her crew. She'd avoided using a hot ID by keeping detailed dossiers of information in storage units rented in other people's names. She'd made sure the fake IDs were manufactured in places with no visible link to her. She'd been careful, she thought, to cover her sources for the insider credit data. She'd used trusted underlings to carry out missions with the newest members of her ring. Many of her transactions took place quickly at various Little Saigon cafťs.

From a distance, it even appeared she'd lived a quiet, humble existence. Her only vice—other than being a criminal mastermind—seemed to be her interest in partying and gambling in Las Vegas or at the Hawaiian Gardens Card Club Casino in Los Angeles.

"This group had many built-in safeguards," prosecutor Henderson says.

She explains that ID thieves like Tran understand that law-enforcement agencies have limited resources and that violent crimes get priority. Also, police officers often don't have the skill or the patience to track paper or electronic crooks and that committing crimes in multiple jurisdictions usually creates nightmares for detectives, Henderson adds.

All of that is true—unless someone like Damon Tucker is on the job. As a countywide detective, he's able to help coordinate investigations. In Tran's case, he relied on help from cops in Newport Beach, Santa Ana, Costa Mesa, Brea, Huntington Beach, Westminster, Orange, San Gabriel, El Monte, Garden Grove and the Orange County Sheriff's Department.

"We could do nothing but arrest the runners who hit the businesses all day," Tucker says. "But I knew that if we took out the heart of this ID-theft ring, the organization would wither and die."

*   *   *

Back to the beginning of this story: On June 14, 2005, undercover teams watched Tran leave her Little Saigon rental house on Forrest Lane just after lunch, and then drive her beat-up Dodge van to Schooner Street in Garden Grove. There, officers saw her get into a silver 2002 Mercedes-Benz SUV with ID thief Loc Nguyen, 35.

Tucker had another piece of the puzzle.

Officers tailed the duo for four hours as they drove throughout Orange County but, oddly, never stopped. When they returned to Schooner, Tran's time in obscurity ended. Officers swarmed. Inside Loc Nguyen's room, they found fake IDs, counterfeit credit cards and stolen merchandise.

Tucker arrested them both.

But Tran had no clue how much Tucker knew. She was carrying a fake Arizona driver's license, and she lied about her residence, claiming she lived in Garden Grove, nowhere near Forrest Lane in Little Saigon.

Tran couldn't explain why she carried false ID or why she was in stores when ID thieves struck, recalls Tucker. She also played dumb—English was suddenly confusing—about her knowledge of a crime ring.

Later, during a search of Tran's home, Tucker came face-to-face with a man he'd seen on video-surveillance tapes: Trung Ngo.

Yet another piece of the puzzle.

"I'd say that was really bad luck for Ngo and Tran," Tucker says.

Like everybody else in the house, Ngo initially claimed he didn't recognize a photograph of Tran. Officers found pictures of the two posing as a couple and evidence they shared the same bedroom. Ngo was arrested for ID theft and criminal conspiracy.

Confiscated documents showed that Tran used Santa Ana, Fountain Valley and Westminster storage units leased by other people or by her using one of her aliases. Searches of the units found more than $90,000 in cash, counterfeit credit cards and licenses, hundreds of victim profiles stolen by insiders in legitimate companies, and forgery tools. The search was a 17,000-page gold mine for prosecutors looking for a paper trail.

One piece of evidence made Tucker want to cry: Recovered records indicated that members of the crime ring were getting government welfare checks, too.

Another made him chuckle: Though making a nice living as a crook, Tran had a cheap side. All of the victims' dossiers were stored in large overnight envelopes provided free at U.S. post offices.

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