Though he is one of the most memorable characters in modern Los Angeles International Airport history, Little Saigon's Sony Dong stood waiting in the passenger arrival section on Dec. 3 as if his presence wouldn't trigger law enforcement intrigue.
In April 2009, federal agents at LAX caught Dong exiting a plane from Vietnam with 14 illegally imported Asian songbirds underneath his pants and attached to his calves as non-ticketed travelers during the 20-hour flight.
Animal droppings soiling his socks provided the final clue for customs inspectors.
A photograph of the tiny, endangered birds hanging on Dong understandably went viral.
Prosecutors won convictions against him and the mastermind: Duc Le, a Garden Grove man who'd funded multiple smuggling operations, turned his backyard into a bird breeding site and suffered a 2002 conviction for engaging in cock fighting.
But Dong's four-month prison punishment apparently wasn't much of a deterrent because there he was earlier this month back at LAX and waiting with $8,000 cash in his pockets for Westminster's Quang Truong to arrive from a China Airlines flight originating in Ho Chi Minh City.
Truong became an obvious target for special agents of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services when they learned that Vietnamese officials had arrested him in April for smuggling and, sure enough, each of his two suitcases had been modified to include 15 bird cages covered in white paper, tin foil and clothing to evade detection.
Agents recovered 30 living birds, including Chinese Hwamei (Garrulax canorus), which cost less than $30 in Vietnam but fetch around $400 or more on California's black market.
(Past illegal trafficking operations have resulted in numerous bird fatalities during flights.)
According to a criminal complaint, Truong admitted he'd successfully smuggled on multiple prior occasions and received free plane tickets plus a $2,000 fee for each mission.
Those same court records reveal that Dong denied any knowing role after his arrest; he explained he was a bus driver tasked with transporting Truong to an airport parking lot to retrieve his vehicle.
Dennis Mitchell, an assistant U.S. attorney in the Department of Justice's Environmental and Community Safety Crimes Section in Los Angeles, is handling prosecution duties.
R. Scott Moxley has won Journalist of the Year honors at the Los Angeles Press Club; been named Distinguished Journalist of the Year by the LA Society of Professional Journalists; and hailed by two New York Times Magazine writers for his “herculean job” exposing Southern California law enforcement corruption.