It was the early morning hours of May 25. The Santa Ana Police swooped down on a quiet neighborhood in Orange County. Police raided several suspected OC slap houses and arrested nine people.
A years-long investigation by the Orange County Asian Organized Crime Task Force preceded the raid. In it, they uncovered crimes including drug trafficking, bribery and a shooting.
Slap houses ‘hide’ in residential neighborhoods
Seven out of nine defendants were charged in three indictments that allege an array of crimes. Two establishments — an assumed illegal casino and the EZ Boba Cafe — were also shut down.
According to a statement from California Attorney General Rob Bonta, these supposed slap houses were operating inside residences in suburban Santa Ana and surrounding areas of Orange County.
A slap house is an illegal gambling business operating inside a home or a place of trade. Players slapping the controls of the games, which could be heard outside, is where the term came from.
“Our goal is to eradicate as much as we can, this problem of slap houses in our city,” said Sgt. Maria Lopez, Public Information Officer for SAPD.
Lopez said early morning raids are a typical procedure for police. It’s hard to know what type of activity is taking place behind closed doors. Catching the perpetrators unaware means they have less time to hide their doings.
Neighbors notice people going in and out of these homes or businesses, but they don’t necessarily know what’s going on inside. They do however register an uptick in crime in their neighborhoods, Lopez said.
“We start seeing a lot of narcotics, controlled substances in the area. Potential for weapons or violent crimes that tend to occur from these locations.”
Problem has worsened during pandemic
Last month’s sting operation was part of a string of raids on slap houses by local, state, and federal agencies. They aimed to dismantle an illegal gambling network that had generated a lot of criminal activity.
“The number of illegal gambling dens has exploded during the pandemic, dramatically impacting the quality of life in many Orange County neighborhoods,” said U.S. Attorney Tracy L. Wilkison.
Assistant Director in Charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles Field Office Kirsti Johnson underlined that the defendants “flouted the law and used enforcers with rival gangs to get victims to comply through intimidation and violence in order to further their illicit network and generate profits.”
“These illicit businesses are a breeding ground for drug trafficking, violence and even police corruption. We will continue to work with our local and federal law enforcement partners to eradicate this blight in our communities.”
Shooting occurred at one slap house
One of the three federal indictments unsealed alleged a string of illegal casinos in Santa Ana and cites a shooting at one of the slap houses where an employee was wounded in the neck.
Authorities charged four people with conspiracy and operating an illegal gambling business. The businesses allegedly generated thousands of dollars in daily profits.
- Niem Ngoc Ha, aka “Dung Body,” 46, of Fountain Valley, who allegedly opened and operated four illegal casinos
- Mindy Bui, aka “Thuy,” 36, of Westminster, who allegedly managed Ha’s illegal casinos
- Honganh Thi Pham, aka “Hong,” 40, of Garden Grove, who allegedly managed the illegal casinos
- Sammy Cardona, aka “Peanut,” 36, of Santa Ana, is one of two defendants still being sought, who would use violence to protect operations
Activity found in Little Saigon area of OC
Gambling has long been popular in the Vietnamese community. They found a home in Orange County shortly after the fall of Saigon in 1975. Their population has since grown steadily to nearly 200,000.
Police said they have found more than a dozen slap houses operated by gangs in the largely Vietnamese enclave known as Little Saigon.
Inside the homes, players try their hand at blackjack or video poker. A six-seater table featuring a video game is the most-popular attraction. It’s from this game that dens earned their name “slap houses.”
In many cases, neighbors tipped off police because they were tired of the noise and traffic. Quite often, however, police were led there after a fight landed one of the gamblers in a hospital. That these illicit activities are run out of residential homes makes it difficult for police to detect them. Out of fear neighbors also regularly turn a blind eye to these activities and don’t report them to the police.
Lopez said that the Santa Ana Police managed to also seize 14 illegal gambling machines.
“In essence, it does clean up the neighborhood, and obviously, that’s our goal, that’s why we’re here.”
Santa Ana Police is urging residents to remain vigilant for any suspicious activities in residential areas or businesses.