A weekend in Houston turned into a 20-year stretch in a Mississippi prison for two Vietnamese men, including one from Gretna, who made the mistake of traveling through Rankin County with $170,000 hidden in a spare gasoline tank.
Though no drugs were found in the truck and state prosecutors never proved where the money came from or where it was going, the defendants were given the maximum sentence for money laundering allowed under Mississippi law.
Biloxi lawyer Tim Kottemann thought the state's case was so weak that he didn't even bother to call a defense witness.
"They didn't know where the money came from, so if they didn't know, how can they say it came from an illegal activity?" Kottemann asked. "It is guesswork, and in America you can't send somebody to the penitentiary for 20 years based on guesswork. Unless you are in Rankin County."
Mike Guest, the assistant district attorney in Rankin County who prosecuted the case, sees it differently.
"It is not uncommon for drug-trafficking organizations to not carry drugs and money together," he said. "They know that if they carry both together, it makes my job much easier as a prosecutor to prove money laundering."
North Carolina resident Quang Tran, 26, and Johnson Nguyen, 27, of Gretna, were on their way to Houston with Tran's girlfriend on Dec. 10, 2002, when they were pulled over by a Rankin County sheriff's deputy for driving over the fog line -- the white line that separates the shoulder from the highway. The violation is so obscure that one of their attorneys had to look it up when he first heard about it.
After getting Tran's consent to search the vehicle, the deputy crawled underneath the truck, where he discovered that the spare gas tank had been disconnected. Suspicious, he ordered the trio to follow him to the sheriff's department, where the tank was removed and examined. Inside the tank, wrapped in aluminum foil, was $170,000.
Though the money was Tran's, he lied to the deputies when they asked whether the money was his, Kottemann acknowledged. He and his passengers also gave a somewhat vague description of their trip to Houston. They couldn't remember the last name of the person they were staying with, or provide a phone number. They also disagreed on the exact number of days they were staying.
Guest said those discrepancies cost the defendants credibility with the jury, which Kottemann said was all white and predisposed against his clients.
"Their stories were just unbelievable," Guest said. "It wasn't their truck. It wasn't their money."
Despite the deputies' suspicions the day they were arrested, all three of the travelers were allowed to leave without being charged with a crime. But the department confiscated the money.
Five months later, when Kottemann tried to get Tran's money back through a civil proceeding, he was told that the trio had just been indicted for money laundering.
"If they had not tried to get their money back -- which they had a legal right to -- they would be out fishing today," Kottemann said.
In February, the case went to trial. The state put on just two witnesses: the deputy who pulled them over and an agent from the Drug Enforcement Administration.
In his opinion, the DEA agent told the jury, this looked like a money laundering case. Guest said the agent's opinion was based on the fact that cell phone records showed that all three of the truck's passengers had been in contact with people who were, or had been, under investigation for drug trafficking.
"I asked point blank: Are any of my three clients on the DEA's list? And he said no," Kottemann said.
In fact, the DEA agent didn't testify that any of the people who showed up in the cell phone records had either been arrested or convicted of a drug offense, Guest acknowledged.
But he said the fact that nobody testified for the defense was telling.
"There was no way this was legitimate currency," Guest said. "At trial, they brought in nobody, and they produced no bank records or income tax records to show it was legitimate money."
Kottemann said he didn't produce those records, or call any witnesses, because the state failed to meet its burden of proof that the money was connected to illegal activity. The case is under appeal.
He said Tran got the money from his parents, who are wealthy businesspeople in North Carolina. He said they own a grocery, a fleet of shrimp boats and a shrimp processing plant. Tran earned the money through the business, Kottemann said.
"I tried to get it across to the jury that the Vietnamese deal in cash, that they are historically afraid of banks and institutions and police officers," Kottemann said. Both men were convicted of money laundering, but Tran's girlfriend was acquitted.
Quan Huynh, president of the Vietnamese American Community in Louisiana, said this emphasis on cash goes back to his native land, where a small percentage of the population uses banks. He said those habits die hard.
That often causes problems. For instance, he said, a Vietnamese couple living in eastern New Orleans accidentally threw away $8,000 that was hidden in the trash can because the husband never told his wife what he had done with the money.
"Most Vietnamese carry their property and try to hide it," Huynh said. "They never deal with the banks or the financial institutions like the Americans do."
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