COVER

INSIDE THE GANGS

AN UNDERWORLD REIGN OF TERROR

DAN BURKE March 25 1991
COVER

INSIDE THE GANGS

AN UNDERWORLD REIGN OF TERROR

DAN BURKE March 25 1991

INSIDE THE GANGS

COVER

AN UNDERWORLD REIGN OF TERROR

It began as a simple pursuit of a speeding automobile one night last March. But when the Montreal police pulled over the Buick Le Sabre with Massachusetts plates, they could see that the car—and its four Vietnamese occupants—had clearly been involved in breaking more than just the speed limit. The Buick’s rear windshield had been shattered, presumably by the same gunshots that left eight spent slugs scattered in the car’s interior. During a subsequent search of the pursuit route, the police also discovered a restricted .38-calibre revolver and an illegal automatic Sten gun—both apparently jettisoned during the chase. Police charged the men with possession of the weapons. Only later did police learn that the men had also been involved in an unreported shootout in Montreal’s Chinatown— and were associates of Trung Chi Truong, 32, a rising young kingpin whose expanding influence in North America’s Asian underworld was finally checked with his arrest last week.

Truong’s arrest in Toronto on charges of being an accessory to murder brought an end to a 28-month international manhunt. Since November, 1988, Truong, known on the streets of Chinatown by his nickname “Ah Sing,” had successfully eluded police in the United States and Canada after escaping from a Massachusetts prison where he was serving a sentence for armed robbery. In that time, according to police sources in three Canadian provinces and as many U.S. states, Truong had emerged as a shadowy figure within an expanding criminal network with a reach that included Calgary, Boston and New York, as well as Montreal and Toronto.

Disciplined: The extent of that network became evident to Asian specialists with the Montreal Urban Community police force’s anti-gang squad as their investigation of the March shootout involving the Buick progressed. The investigators learned that the violence erupted after members of one longestablished local Oriental gang argued with rival adherents of Truong’s group of about 60 followers in Montreal. In the past year, say police and underworld sources, that group has seized control of organized crime in Montreal’s Chinatown and introduced a highly disciplined and chillingly violent new style of urban vice and extortion. Said Det. Sgt. Mario Lamothe, an anti-gang squad member who has been

investigating Truong for more than a year: “We don’t know who won the Buick shootout—but we know who won the war.”

Until last week, Truong appeared intent on extending his influence to Toronto—and the lucrative gambling, prostitution and protection rackets of that city’s Chinatown. That ambition, police sources in Montreal and Toronto told Maclean’s, pitted Truong against Toronto’s reigning Vietnamese crime boss, a café

owner and convicted extortionist who arrived in Canada as a refugee in the early 1980s. At first, Asian-crime experts asserted, the newcomer Truong struck a mutual non-aggression pact with his Toronto-based Vietnamese rival. But by late last year, the power struggle between the two men had erupted into violence. In one incident in February, an unknown armed assailant shot Vinh Duc Tat, a 29-yearold Truong associate, to death on a Chinatown sidewalk. But according to those who know Truong, violence was unlikely to deter him. Said Homer Moy, a Boston police detective who often met Truong in Massachusetts: “He is a vicious, vicious person.”

Indeed, Truong, an ethnic Chinese who is originally from Saigon, displayed the extraordinarily mobile and violent nature of North America’s emerging Vietnamese gang lords. Like many of his criminal associates who fled

Vietnam, he spent time in a refugee camp, in his case in Malaysia. In 1979, then just 20, he and his younger brother gained entry to the United States as refugees. The Truongs landed in Texas, but they quickly moved to Boston, where Truong’s brother opened a beauty salon. Truong, by his own claim, once worked there as a hairdresser.

But Massachusetts police officers familiar with the five-foot, six-inch Truong say that it is unlikely that he ever picked up a pair of scissors—not, at least, to cut hair. “Ah Sing used to hang around the salon and fetch coffees and stuff,” said Capt. Curt Wood, the Massachusetts state correctional officer assigned to recapture him. “When he needed money, he would just go out and extort some from an Asian business.” Added another detective: “He could very easily put fear into people.”

Cocaine: According to police, that fear was well founded. In Boston, they say, Truong initially went to work as a strong-arm man and debt collector for a local leader of the Ping On, until recently z Boston’s dominant organized I Asian crime group. In De^ cember, 1986, Truong and a - group of associates that included Ming Luong, a resident of Brooklyn, N.Y., flew to Oakland, Calif. Their assignment, according to police intelligence sources: to look for Son Van Vu, a 28-year-old former gang member with a cocaine and gambling problem.

Vu, police say, had fled to Oakland after stealing back his losses from an evening’s play at one of the gaming houses owned by Truong’s employer. Truong and Luong located Vu in an Oakland nightclub. The next day, Vu was found murdered in a motel room in Hollywood. Det. Dennis Kilcoyne, a homicide investigator with the Hollywood police department, later questioned Truong, who admitted meeting Vu but denied killing him. No one has been charged in the slaying.

While continuing to work for his Boston gang boss, however, Truong quickly began to strike out on his own. Police believe that in the same month that Vu was murdered, Phuk Lee and Khanh Truong, two Truong cohorts from Cali-

fornia, twice travelled to Toronto, where they are now wanted on charges that they held up jewelry stores. Then, in January, 1987, Truong, Luong and the Californians held up a jewelry store in Lowell, Mass., 40 km northwest of Boston. The owner resisted and prevented the robbery—but not before one of the gang assaulted his wife. Said Lowell police Insp. Jeffrey Davidson: “They pistolwhipped the woman. Damn near killed her.”

Prison: Shortly after, police arrested Truong, Luong and the two Californians, as well as three other members of Truong’s gang. Luong and the Californians were tried and convicted for the robbery and pistol-whipping. That trio, together with Truong, were also convicted for an earlier robbery in the same city. For his part, Truong received an 18-year sentence on June 29, 1988. But when he was transferred five months later to a minimum-security prison in Shirley, Mass., he promptly escaped.

Shortly thereafter, “Ah Sing” appears to have moved his base of operations to Canada, while his continent-wide network of criminal

associates became stronger than ever. Police in Montreal told Maclean ’s that his headquarters for operations in that city were provided by two natives of Hong Kong—one of them recently arrested for carrying an unregistered handgun—who operate a downtown restaurant. At the same time, Truong also recruited an expanding cadre of criminal foot soldiers.

Among them was Quang Tran, 26, the driver of the Buick stopped last March after the Chinatown shootout. Tran now faces weapons charges related to that incident. In an earlier encounter with the law in 1989, U.S. customs officers arrested Tran along with two other Vietnamese men at the New York border when the officers found close to $10,000 in counterfeit U.S. currency concealed in the door panel of their car. Last April, Tran failed to show up for his scheduled appearance in U.S. Federal Court to face charges arising from that arrest. He now works as a waiter at a downtown Montreal bar where, police sources told Maclean ’s, the owner was forced to hire members of Truong’s gang. Meanwhile, police estimated

that by the beginning of this year, Truong’s syndicate was extorting up to $10,000 a week from Montreal Chinatown businesses. Said one restaurant owner, who complained that Asian Montrealers now avoid Chinatown at night: “The whole thing is like a bad Hollywood movie.”

Arrest: Truong’s growing influence produced enemies as well as profits. Said one Toronto Asian-crime specialist before Truong’s arrest: “He’s not only wanted by police, but by other gangs. He’s probably got a price on his head from gangs across the United States and Canada.” As Truong rose to the top of authorities’ most-wanted lists as well, frustration increased among the agencies pursuing him. Last year, a detective in Boston received a tip that Truong would be travelling into the city—where his wife and seven-year-old daughter still live—to meet his teenage girlfriend. “I had surveillance set up at her mother’s house and everything,” he said. “We waited and waited. He never showed.” Finally last week, more than two years after his escape, Truong’s freedom came to an abrupt end. And with his arrest, so too—at least for the present—did his career as a rising kingpin of the underworld.

DAN BURKE in Montreal with PAUL KAIHLA in Toronto

PAUL KAIHLA