By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
The would-be bandits plotting an Orange County home-invasion robbery with a $500,000 cash payday couldn't be classified as amateurs. They were highly trained ex-law-enforcement officers who'd taken pains to mask travel from Chicago and New Orleans to Room 110 at a Ramada Inn in Fountain Valley. They purchased prepaid, throwaway cell phones, bulletproof vests, camouflage clothes, heavy-duty zip ties for handcuffing and, because the targeted house was in a tranquil neighborhood, silencers. Resistance wouldn't be tolerated. In addition to more than 600 rounds of ammo, they collected potent armaments including an AR-15 machine gun, a Colt M4 carbine assault rifle, a .22-caliber Ruger Mark II semi-automatic gun, a 38-caliber Smith & Wesson, and a 45-caliber Glock 21. They also displayed finesse, attaching a netting pouch to retain shell casings expended after firing a primary weapon.
On the night before the scheduled July 2008 robbery, the organizers—Vo Duong Tran, formerly an FBI special agent who performed top-secret service for the U.S. Senate during President Bill Clinton's term, and ex-Illinois cop Yu Sung Park—met other accomplices in the hotel room to finalize plans. The participants, including four Korean hoodlums from Los Angeles, would perform specific roles inside and outside the targeted residence, a narcotics stash house used in Southern California cocaine trafficking. To minimize risk, the bandits planned to avoid carrying personal identification, clear each room by using one of the occupants as a human shield and execute anyone who attempted to flee. They'd even decided to greet the potential arrival of police by unleashing the AR-15, a move that Tran boasted would kill five officers in one second.
But the robbery never happened because two of the men meeting with Tran and Park had been posing as criminals when, in fact, one was an active, undercover FBI agent and the other the agency's confidential source. A raid of the hotel room resulted in arrests, weapons confiscation and damning covert recordings of the plot. In 2010, following guilty verdicts in a jury trial, U.S. District Court Judge Andrew J. Guilford sentenced the men to terms of 30 years in prison each.
From his penitentiary cell in Louisiana, Tran—who arrived in the U.S. as a 10-year-old boat refugee from communist Vietnam in 1978 and has Americanized his first name to Ben—recently filed an appeal inside Orange County's Ronald Reagan Federal Courthouse in hopes of overturning his conviction. He blames his defense lawyer for gross incompetence and his old colleagues inside the FBI of framing him in a vendetta after a decade of service that ended with his firing in 2003. According to Tran, agency officials resented him for filing formal complaints against a Caucasian supervisor prone to uttering anti-Asian slurs. In contrast, according to the FBI, he was an ethical nightmare involved in bribery, document falsification and posing as an agent after he'd been placed on administrative leave. They also claim he failed to surrender such special-agent gear as his gun, entry tools, binoculars and night-vision equipment.
Tran's most fascinating assertion, however, involves Alex Dao, a convicted felon and the FBI's confidential source in the home-invasion robbery case, according to court records. He claims he faked the robbery plot as a way to expose Dao, impress agency officials with his crime-fighting skills and win reinstatement to his special agent post with a dramatic citizen's arrest. Instead, he says, the agency secretly paid Dao untold sums to help build a case against him and hid impeaching information that rendered his trial unfair.
At a glance, the ex-agent's tale is preposterous. A fired, 10-year veteran of the FBI thought it was wise to conduct his own undercover criminal investigation in California when he lived in New Orleans and owned 10 Verizon franchises? Does it make sense that someone would simultaneously argue the FBI was out to destroy him and that he thought an unauthorized stunt involving an AR-15 would place him back in good graces?
Yet Tran has allies. His younger sister, as well as a supervisory FBI agent and an attorney friend, insist the robbery plan was well-intended. "Even in his final years with the FBI, when Ben Tran was on administrative leave, he still sought to enforce the law," attorney Frederic W. Whitehurst says. "I had many conversations with Ben in which I would tell him that he was no longer a law-enforcement officer and that when he received information concerning illegal activity, he should simply report that information to the appropriate authority rather than attempt his own investigations. He never really got it."
If you can hear somebody laughing in contempt, it's Assistant United States Attorney Robert J. Keenan, who has a history of convicting dirty cops. He prosecuted Tran and Park, and his views aren't cloaked. "The insouciant nihilism exhibited by these defendants make them very dangerous to society," Keenan memorialized in a sentencing memorandum. "By their words and deeds, these defendants have made clear they care only for themselves and recognize no moral limitations on their behavior."
Guilford is giving the veteran prosecutor until June 30 to reply to Tran's appeal.
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A Newport Beach parolee convicted in 2013 of conning seven victims out of nearly $200,000 while pretending to be a financial wizard for National Basketball Association superstars Kobe Bryant and LeBron James this month sued the Orange County Sheriff's Department (OCSD) and The Orange County Register.