Game room operators facing charges, forfeitures

Tu Anh-Thi Tran and Robert Huynh

Oct. 29, 2014, more than 60 law enforcement personnel from multiple agencies raided five game rooms and the Beaumont residence of the woman they say was running the show, seizing roughly $150,000 in cash and property, including an ATM. Just last week, on March 30, 2016, Tu Anh-Thi Tran, the accused leader of the illegal gambling operations, and her associate Robert Huynh, were indicted on multiple state felony charges stemming from the raid.

After officers with the Beaumont Police Department (BPD) received numerous complaints from community members disgusted by illegal gambling dens setting up shop in their neighborhoods and the crime that accompanies the criminal operations, law enforcement officers and agents from BPD, the Port Arthur Police Department, the FBI and others converged upon the five businesses and Tran’s home on Major Drive in October 2014. 

The team served search and arrest warrants at two private residences; Shanghai Amusement Game Room, 4380 S. Fourth St.; Happy Mood Amusement Game Room, 3229 Washington Blvd.; Seashell Gift Shop, 3890 Highland Ave.; Lala Gift Shop, 2949 College St., No. 215, all in Beaumont; and the Life of Luxury Gift Shop, 4948 Griffing Drive, Port Arthur.

Police said that while serving multiple warrants simultaneously, the investigators were looking for suspects, physical and digital evidence, and financial records that implicated the owners of the targeted game rooms in state offenses including gambling promotion, keeping a gambling place, possession of gambling devices, and engaging in organized criminal activity.

Jefferson County prosecutor Gary Reaves said that is exactly what they found, and in excess. He said investigators had to delve into boxes upon boxes of documents and evidence, meticulously poring over it, ultimately leading to the charges Tran and Huynh face now.

“There was a very lengthy investigation that led up to that raid, which was quite some time ago,” said Reaves. “There were hundreds of hours of video to review, evidence to examine and boxes of paperwork.” 

Tran and Huynh each face three state jail felony charges of engaging in organized criminal activity. They are accused of conspiring to “operate and participate in the earning of a gambling place … by allowing 8-liner machines to be operated at said location and collecting and distributing monies from said machines,” thereby profiting from criminal activity; conspiring to “knowingly use a building as a gambling place, namely a place used for 8-liner machines,” thereby profiting from criminal activity; and conspiring to own 8-liner machines they knew were designed for gambling, also allowing them to profit from the criminal activity. If found guilty of the crimes, Tran and Huynh each face 180 days to two years in state jail and a fine up to $10,000 for each count.

In addition to the fines and jail time the defendants could accumulate, they also face losing tens of thousands of dollars and property seized during the raid as part of civil forfeiture proceedings currently pending against them. That includes the cash.

“The cost of doing business for criminals just went up in Jefferson County,” former District Attorney Cory Crenshaw, who was instrumental in the investigation, stated following the raid. “Often these game rooms are a breeding ground for various criminal activities, including narcotics, and violent crime such as aggravated robbery. The coordinated effort of law enforcement in this case was not to just make arrests, but pursue the seizure of significant financial proceeds and develop cases for crimes with more severe penalties.”

BPD Sgt. Mike Custer participated in the raid and championed an ordinance to force game room operators to get permits for their businesses and machines, also allowing unfettered access inside the businesses to officers and city inspectors, something not generally provided in the past.

He said after the raid, he saw little illegal gambling activity for some time, and asserted that the ordinance also helped discourage the criminal enterprises. However, he said he has seen a few crop up quietly since the October 2014 raid, and several are still in operation around the city. He’s confident that the city will continue to eliminate them.

“Slowly but surely, we’re putting illegal gambling operations out of business,” Custer asserted. “One at a time, we’ll pick them all off.”

He warned that game room operators take advantage of their clientele, creating gambling addictions, allowing elderly persons on fixed incomes to spend their limited funds with no limitations and adjusting odds to pad the proprietor’s own pocketbooks.

Illegal game rooms also attract other crime, the veteran officer said.

“There are so many crimes associated with illegal game rooms,” Custer previously told The Examiner. He said he has seen aggravated robberies, drug crimes, assaults, and even murders related to illegal game room activities.

Defendant Tran was herself the victim of a burglary at her Major Drive home in June 2011. At that time, she reported that $30,000 in cash and $20,000 in jewelry was taken from her residence. The suspect in that robbery was subsequently sentenced to five years in jail for aggravated robbery. Police investigating the crime also made another discovery. According to them, Tran owned an outbuilding filled with gaming machines – a very interesting detail to investigators looking into the current cases against her.

After the raid and passage of the city gaming ordinance, Tran is apparently still interested in the game room business. She attempted to procure a permit from the city for Seashell Gift Shop, one of the shops targeted in the raid, said Custer. Her application was denied due to the ongoing investigation into her criminal activity.

Tran and Huynh were arrested but are out on bonds awaiting their day in court.