SANTA ANA, Calif.—A years-long criminal investigation led to authorities arresting seven people on May 25 who allegedly operated a string of illicit casinos throughout Orange County that involved drug trafficking, violence, and police corruption.
“Organized criminal activity and illegal gambling schemes will not be tolerated in California,” California Attorney General Rob Bonta said in a May 25 statement. “Families throughout our state deserve to raise their children and live in safe neighborhoods, free from illicit and illegal activity.”
In three indictments, authorities charged nine people with an array of criminal conduct, including drug trafficking, attempted extortion, robbery of a small business, and bribing a Santa Ana police officer. Two of them are still at large.
The defendants allegedly operated gambling dens known as “nets” and “slaphouses” through intimidation, lies, money laundering, and bribery, generating thousands of dollars in daily profits.
In the first indictment, four people allegedly opened, operated, and used violence to protect four illegal casinos in Santa Ana.
The 46-year-old Niem Ngoc Ha, of Fountain Valley, allegedly opened and operated the casinos and paid approximately $128,000 to the now-convicted Steven Lopez, a former Santa Ana police officer.
In 2020, Ha paid Lopez to avoid police intervention after Lopez told him that the police department was planning to raid one of his casinos.
Lopez pleaded guilty in December 2020 to accepting the bribes and is scheduled to be sentenced on October 17.
Mindy Bui, 36, of Westminister, and Honganh Thi Pham, 40, of Garden Grove, allegedly managed Ha’s casinos.
Sammy Cardona, 36, of Santa Ana, used violence to protect Ha’s casinos. Cardona is still being sought out by authorities.
A second indictment charged two other defendants who allegedly robbed small businesses.
Vincent Randal Pimentel, 30, of Santa Ana, and Steven Gallegos Saenz, 39, of Whittier, are accused of hitting stores that refused to pay “taxes.”
Saenz allegedly went to a Santa Ana video rental shop claiming to be part of a mafia to demand payment. The shop owner refused, and Saenz and Pimentel robbed the store later the same day, stealing $17,500 in cash and digital gambling machines.
Pimentel is currently a fugitive.
Another indictment charged three other defendants—Ricardo Alonzo Nunez, 44, of Anaheim, Marcus Jason Loomis, 37, of Barstow, and Vanessa Maria Galloway, 37, of Barstow—with the intent to distribute methamphetamine and heroin at an illegal gambling business in Anaheim.
The defendants allegedly possessed and transported the narcotics.
Depending on the charge, each defendant faces up to 20 years in federal prison.
“We will continue to work with our local and federal law enforcement partners to eradicate this blight in our communities,” stated United States Attorney Tracy L. Wilkison.
Authorities said gambling dens exploded during the pandemic in the county, creating public safety issues in the community.
“Illegal gambling locations create an increase in violent crime, adversely impact the quality of life of our communities, and cause disruption to our neighborhoods and our law-abiding business partners,” Santa Ana Police Chief David Valentin said in a statement.
Launched in February 2021 and joined by local, state, and federal agencies, “Operation Community First” is an investigation project to dismantle networks of illegal gambling, narcotics, and gun trafficking in Sana Ana.
The primary investigatory agencies are the FBI, the Santa Ana Police Department, the California Department of Justice, Bureau of Gambling Control, IRS Criminal Investigation, and the United States Postal Inspection Service.