UPDATE, 1:30 p.m., Wednesday, Sept. 14: The first five defendants arrested at Eden Center on Aug. 11 all won their cases Wednesday in Falls Church General District Court. One man was found not guilty of illegal gambling and the city prosecutor then dismissed the same charge against four other people. You can read the full story for the print edition here.
The Eden Center, near Seven Corners in Falls Church, is the heart of commerce and social life for the large Vietnamese community in Northern Virginia. It’s a vast shopping mall backed by winding halls of coffee shops, restaurants, businesses and bars, each with their own personality and history. Eden Center had some violent crime problems about 10 years ago, but seems to have quieted down in recent years.
So it came as a surprise to many business owners and customers when the Northern Virginia Regional Gang Task Force launched a massive raid of the center on Aug. 11, and then arrested 19 people only for misdemeanor gambling violations. The surprise turned to anger when the task force held a press conference the next day and declared that the ”Dragon Family” gang was terrorizing the place, featuring shootings, stabbings and extortion in their repertoire.
“We don’t know the Dragon Family,” said Thuan Tran, who owns a pho restaurant and a music shop.
Said coffee shop customer Ziai Nguyen: “I’ve lived here 14 years, I’ve never heard of the Dragon Family.” Nguyen said his 59-year-old wife was arrested while sitting in a shop, he said.
Gang investigators remain confident they acted properly and that gangs had infested the mall. Search warrants for one business indicate that video game machines were used for illegal gambling, and that the business owner admitted it, though there was no mention of gangs.
On Monday night, numerous Eden Center merchants and officials with the Vietnamese American Chamber of Commerce spoke to the Falls Church City Council decrying the perceived overkill by the police, and the harm it’s done to their businesses.
Last week, a rally for the 19 defendants raised $17,000, and on Wednesday morning Vietnamese business leaders gathered outside Falls Church City Hall before the first court cases were heard.
Falls Church Police Chief Harry Reitze did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.
Below is video from three pleas from Vietnamese leaders to the Falls Church council to improve relations with the Eden Center, and the rest of the story is after the jump:
Relations between Eden Center merchants and Falls Church police in particular seem to be deteriorating. Business owners said officers harass customers, pose an intimidating presence by parking in the middle of the center lot, and ban people from the center without any sort of due process.
In Cafe Metro, owner Hung Bui said one particular officer walks in, shines his flashlight in customers’eyes, and has wrongly ticketed Bui repeatedly for being drunk or “drinking on duty” because his eyes appear glassy, the result of an eye disorder. When Frank Huy Do, a partner at New York Life, went around Eden Center asking about the raid on Sept. 1, he said he was yanked out of Cafe Metro into the parking lot, given a ticket for being drunk in public, handcuffed and thrown in the Arlington County jail, though he hadn’t been drinking.
“It was unbelievable,” Do said. “And we’re in America.”
Hoang Tho, a well-respected barber in the Eden Center since 1984, said, “Everybody’s very upset. Very sad. When the police do what they’re supposed to do, I support that.” Shown TV news video that associated the South Vietnamese flag with gangs and gambling, Tho became animated and upset.
“I’ve been here more than 20 years,” said Mindy Trang, a restaurant proprietor. “I never heard about any gangs. We never had any problem. The customers are scared. That’s not the right thing to do. We pay tax. We pay everything here.”
Thuy Hoang, 60, said she stopped in for a Vietnamese coffee on the afternoon of Aug. 11, while her husband waited in the car. She was detained for more than an hour, given a full body search, and then charged with illegal gambling.
Lt. Daniel Hess, a Prince William County supervisor detailed to the regional task force, said at a press conference on Aug. 12 that gang activity had “paralyzed” the Eden Center and that stabbings, assaults and extortion were occurring there, connected to the Dragon Family.
At the Falls Church city council meeting Monday night, Vietnamese attorney Due Tran said, “If there are so many crimes at the Eden Center, for such a long duration of time, the only conclusion that one comes to is failed policing. If these crimes do not in fact exist,” Tran continued, “then we face a worse problem: racism.”
Reitze said at the Aug. 12 news conference that he had invited the gang task force to the Eden Center because “the nature and scope of the problem were beyond the resources of this department.”
And on Tuesday, task force Executive Director Ray Colgan said Asian gangs prefer a low-profile approach, and may not be readily apparent to people who haven’t encountered them. He said investigators targeted gambling first, and recovered $1.5 million in cash, which he said was an indicator of gambling activity. Merchants said most stores simply ran cash businesses.
A search warrant by Fairfax organized crime detectives stated that informants and detectives had used video machines to gamble illegally at Asia Supermarket, and that the owners had acknowledged as much. But the owners have not been charged, and no gang involvement was mentioned.
Colgan said “all the intelligence we had” pointed to Asian gang activity, and that “I’m comfortable saying we’ve linked the ownership of some of the [gambling] machines to the gangs.” He said some merchants thanked his investigators for the raid. No felony arrests have been made yet, but Colgan indicated they are coming.
Binh “Gene” Nguyen, president of the Vietnamese chamber and an Eden Center business owner, said he too was unfamiliar with any gang problems. “We really have a problem with trust between the community and the police,” Nguyen told the city council. He suggested steps the city might take could be to establish a “drug free zone” at the center, a community crime watch program, and a police liaison with business owners.
Falls Church Mayor Nader Baroukh said he and city staff were willing to meet with the Vietnamese community and discuss steps to reduce the tension between residents and police, which right now is palpably high.