9 charged in Orange County illegal gambling bust

Nine people have been charged in connection with a crackdown on illegal gambling, extortion and drug trafficking in Santa Ana, according to federal indictments unsealed Wednesday.

Five defendants were arrested Wednesday morning. Two others were arrested Tuesday afternoon. Two others are at-large.

Four defendants charged with conspiracy and operating an illegal gambling business are accused of operating the illegal casinos in Santa Ana. They are:

-- Niem Ngoc Ha, 46, of Fountain Valley, who is accused of opening and running four casinos, known as "nets" or "slaphouses;"

-- Mindy Bui, 36, of Westminster, who allegedly managed the casinos;

-- Honganh Thi Pham, 40, of Garden Grove, another alleged manager and;

-- Sammy Cardona, 36, of Santa Ana, who is at-large and is accused of being an enforcer.

Ha is also charged with paying a $128,000 bribe to convicted former Santa Ana Police Officer Steven Lopez, who tipped Ha to a raid in September 2020 and is awaiting sentencing on Oct. 17, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.

Another indictment alleges two men extorted small businesses operating the casinos.

Vincent Randal Pimentel, 30, of Santa Ana, and Steven Gallegos Saenz, 39, of Whittier, are accused of robbing businesses that housed the illegal gambling machines when they did not pay "taxes," federal prosecutors said.

Pimentel and Saenz are accused of demanding payments from a video rental store on April 19, 2019. When the business owner balked, they returned and robbed the business at gunpoint, taking a digital gambling machine worth $11,000, two other machines worth $3,000, two desktop computers and about $3,500 in cash, prosecutors said.

A third indictment alleges drug dealing out of a casino in Anaheim. The defendants named in that indictment are Ricardo Alonzo Nunez, 44, of Anaheim, Marcus Jason Loomis, 37, of Barstow, and Vanessa Maria Galloway, 37, of Barstow.

"The number of illegal gambling dens has exploded during the pandemic, dramatically impacting the quality of life in many Orange County neighborhoods," U.S. Attorney Tracy Wilkison said. "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."

Santa Ana Police Chief David Valentin said 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. This is something our agency will not tolerate. Today's collaborative efforts, following a years-long extensive investigation with our local, state and federal partners, leverage our police department's strong enforcement strategy -- coined Operation Community First -- that was launched in February 2021 to target illegal gambling, narcotics and gun trafficking."

The state Attorney General's Office also collaborated on the crackdown.

"Organized criminal activity and illegal gambling schemes will not be tolerated in California" Attorney General Rob Bonta said. "Families throughout our state deserve to raise their children and live in safe neighborhoods, free from illicit and illegal activity. I am grateful for the collaboration and partnership of the U.S. Attorney's Office, the FBI, the Santa Ana Police Department, IRS Criminal Investigation and the United States Postal Inspection Service in conducting this investigation."