Leader of Criminal Organization Sentenced to 6 Years in Prison for Role in Operation of Illegal Gambling Dens

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

SAN DIEGO, CA – The U.S. Attorney's Office Southern District of California is reporting that Long Ngoc Tran (42) has been sentenced in federal court to 72 months in prison for his role in the operation of dozens of illegal gambling dens that fostered drug trafficking, violent crime, and gang activity within a small San Diego neighborhood.

On April 9, 2021, Tran was indicted for Conspiracy to Operate an Illegal Gambling Business and Maintaining a Drug-Involved Premises; in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 371; Operating an Illegal Gambling Business; in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1955; and Maintaining a Drug-Involved Premises; in violation of 21

U.S.C. § 856(a)(1). On April 14, 2021, Tran was arrested, made his initial appearance, and pled not guilty.

On July 28, 2022, pursuant to a plea agreement, Tran pled guilty to the first three counts of the Indictment, admitting to committing all three crimes.

During his sentencing, United States District Court Judge Marilyn Huff noted that Tran was affiliated with numerous gambling premises, and that drug trafficking was prevalent at these dens. Judge Huff also took into consideration Tran’s prior 2015 state court conviction for operating or maintaining a drug house. According to the indictment, Tran operated at least nine illegal gambling dens.

Based on publicly available filings, as far back as 2013, San Diego Police Department (SDPD) Street Gang Unit Detectives began to observe a steady increase in the prevalence of illegal gambling dens. Investigators learned that Asian gang members and associates were often involved in operating these illegal gambling dens and that methamphetamine was being used and sold at these illegal gambling dens. The illegal gambling dens were often located inside houses, apartments, and outbuildings in residential neighborhoods predominantly in City Heights, in the East San Diego area. It was common for gambling den owners to pay rent in cash to the owners of these properties and, in some cases, a percentage of the profits, as incentive to cast a blind eye to all the foot traffic.

In 2015, these locations began to draw more attention due to the frequency of violent crimes occurring in and around them, including robberies, shootings, stabbings, and assaults. Investigators learned that the patrons were often gang members, career criminals, habitual drug users, and fugitives.

In the fall of 2019, the San Diego Violent Crime Task Force - Gang Group (VCTF-GG) initiated an investigation dubbed “Marble Lion,” into the illegal gambling dens operating in the City Heights neighborhood of San Diego, often within homes and small businesses. At the time, more than 24 such dens were operating on any given day. These gambling dens attracted other criminal activity, including the use and distribution of illegal of narcotics, sales of weapons, and prostitution.

From July 2018 through July 2020, there were over four hundred crime cases and over three hundred arrests within 150 feet of the thirty-six illegal gambling locations investigated, causing this area to be the highest crime neighborhood in the East San Diego area. Law Enforcement investigated homicides, shootings, stabbings, felony assaults, robberies, arson, auto thefts, burglaries, identity theft, firearm possession, drug sales/possession, and other crimes in and around these locations.

The illegal gambling dens were equipped with electronic gambling machines which were programmed with several games of chance such as poker, blackjack, keno, jacks or better, and slot games. Most locations of these establishments were open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with some shutting down in the early morning hours and starting up again in the afternoons. Investigators were also aware that most of these locations were outfitted with exterior and interior video surveillance cameras, which were often monitored remotely by the establishment owners and managers.

Investigators learned that these illegal gambling dens were also drug involved premises, commonly involving methamphetamine use and sales, as well as other drugs, which were sold by both employees and independent drug dealers. It was also common for employees to hand out small amounts of methamphetamine and “comp” customers who were playing. One owner described how he would give methamphetamine to patrons because it drew them to the location and kept them playing on gambling machines.

Between the fall of 2019 and the spring of 2021, VCTF-GG conducted more than 30 controlled drug and weapons purchases, performed extensive surveillance, and executed numerous search warrants. This culminated, in April 2021, with a large-scale midnight arrest and search operation involving more than 450 law enforcement officers from the FBI, HSI, BOP, DEA, ATF, IRS, San Diego Police Department, San Diego Sheriff’s Office, Chula Vista Police Department, National City Police Department, California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation, and the San Diego District Attorney’s Office. This operation alone resulted in 37 arrests, the seizure of 287 gambling machines, pound quantities of methamphetamine, 2 firearms, and over $200,000. Subsequent operations have resulted in total arrests of more than 100 federal and local subjects, as well as total seizures of 13 pounds of methamphetamine, 47 firearms, over $590,000, over 400 gambling machines, and ounce quantities of cocaine, fentanyl, heroin, and MDMA.

On April 9, 2021, the Grand Jury returned 17 related indictments (21CR1109-H through 21CR1124-H) charging 47 defendants for offenses related to illegal gambling, firearm offenses, and drug distribution.

“This operation shows the real public safety benefits that can be achieved through strong local and federal law enforcement partnerships,” said U.S. Attorney Randy Grossman. “It is telling and rewarding that law- abiding residents noticed a positive impact on their communities and have expressed gratitude for law enforcement’s efforts.” Grossman praised the federal and county prosecutors as well as the team of FBI Special Agents, San Diego Police Department detectives/officers and other law enforcement agencies who worked so hard on this investigation.

"Today, the sentencing of Tran represents not only the end of the illegal gambling network he operated, but the termination of all violent crimes perpetrated due to the existence of these illegal gambling dens,” said Special Agent in Charge Stacey Moy of the FBI’s San Diego Field Office. “Our focus is and always will be on protecting our communities from violence. We thank our partners that make up the Violent Crime Task Force – Gang Group for their coordination in ensuring that Tran returns to where he belongs—behind bars.”

“The top priority of the San Diego Police Department is violent crime. The success of this operation means safer neighborhoods for our City Heights community and our city as a whole,” said Police Chief David Nisleit. “I want to thank our officers and partner agencies for their hard work on this investigation.”

“By working together, we were able to bring peace back to a neighborhood that was being overrun with crime because of these illegal gambling dens, which are magnets for gang violence,” said San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan. “The District Attorney’s Office investigated and filed criminal charges against 30 defendants on the state side for a murder, robberies, shootings, illegal possession of firearms, and drug sales. I am grateful to the U.S. Attorney, FBI, San Diego Police Department and the Violent Crimes Task Force for their commitment to shutting down these illegal operations.”


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