It’s the Year of the Cat, and there was dancing (and smoke) at the Eden Center Tet Celebration in January. The vast mall is a huge draw for the Vietnamese community throughout the Washington area, and merchants say allegations of gang involvement are hurting business. (MATT MCCLAIN/THE WASHINGTON POST)

It was apparently like shooting fish in a, well, video game. Court records allege that the informants, cops or both went into 14 different businesses at Eden Center, easily played the video machines on the bar, and got payouts from the bar or cafe’s employees. No dollar amounts were specified, and the undercover players never seemed to lose, according to the task force’s form-letter affidavits for each business. There were no allegations of any gang role in the illegal gambling, but investigators clearly suspected darker forces afoot.

So they raided the 13 bars and cafes and one market Aug. 11, and hit the jackpot with one search: $1 million in cash (and 18 video machines) in a single, small joint called Cafe Dang, search warrants in Arlington County Circuit Court show. A million dollars cash in one place will definitely create suspicions that something larger is happening. In the other 13 businesses, cash amounts ranging from zero to $18,000 were seized, along with two to four video game machines.

The next day, though, the task force held a news conference to declare that the Eden Center was “paralyzed” by gang activity, in particular the “Dragon Family.” This created an uproar in the Vietnamese community, and merchants say business plummeted at the mall as people stayed away, fearing the gangs. No one was charged with gang activity, racketeering or any felonies, and the 19 people charged with misdemeanor gambling said they were innocent bystanders swept up in the raid.

Was there enough for the gang task force to brand the Eden Center as a gang-infested den? We’ll have to wait and see. But when the task force had its first day in court, on the simple misdemeanors, it wasn’t ready and five people were cleared.

But the question of whether there was serious gang activity in the mall is still in play. Investigations into gangs and conspiracies take time. The gang task force has a record of doing things right.

First, let’s give some credit where it’s due. The Northern Virginia Regional Task Force, created and funded to this day through the legislative handiwork of its patron saint, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), has made a significant dent in gang-related crime in NoVa. When was the last time you even heard the word “machete”? They had help from the social services side too, but throwing gangsters in jail is no easy job and they’ve done it effectively.

Crime stats bear this out. In a 2009 report, total gang crimes in Northern Virginia (using the accepted State of NoVa boundaries of Alexandria-Arlington-Fairfax-Loudoun-Prince William) dropped from about 366 a year in the early part of the 2000s to the low 300s in 2007 and ’08, which is about a 16 percent drop. Falls Church reported only one gang crime in both 2007 and 2008.

And that’s where our story begins. Local police departments have had difficulty at times cracking the Asian gangs here. The Asian cultures have a distrust of police carried over from repressive homelands, local police are low on members who speak the various languages, and informants are harder to develop.

But something was going on in the Eden Center, insiders were telling Falls Church police. And their chief, Harry Reitze, said it was too big for his department to crack, so he called in the gang task force.

The 14 search warrants reveal that the investigation began in the spring. The affidavits are virtually identical, merely inserting dates, addresses and business names where appropriate. In each case, a confidential informant would be given some task force “buy funds,” and then use those funds on the video games to play “various games of chance such as poker, black jack and roulette,” every affidavit states.

After playing for awhile, the informant would “meet with an employee of (fill in the blank) to collect any monies won on the gaming machines.” At each of the 14 businesses, this occurred at least twice and usually three or more times over a period of months. Sometimes an undercover officer would go in and observe other gambling, the records show.

So into the Eden Center the task force swooped on the afternoon of Aug. 11, about 4:30, with help from the Falls Church police. They snatched the video machines in each place, identified as “gambling machines” in the search inventories, and in some cases pulled as much as $1,000 out of them. In Cafe Dang, the warrants allege that they found huge cash amounts in two places, and at least five customers there were issued misdemeanor summonses.

The news conference the following day at Falls Church City Hall, in which task force Lt. Dan Hess said the mall was plagued by shootings, stabbings and extortion, was what inflamed the Vietnamese community, though. There is a sizable Vietnamese news media in this area, including TV stations, newspapers and magazines, and reporters for those outlets told me they weren’t invited to the Aug. 12 news conference.

So the Vietnamese-American Chamber of Commerce of Greater Washington held its own news conference for the Vietnamese media. Then, last week, the chamber held a rally in a club at the Eden Center, where the misdemeanor defendants stood up and proclaimed their innocence. The rally raised $17,000 for their defense.

Then the Vietnamese merchants went before the Falls Church City Council on Monday. They spoke eloquently of suspected police harassment at the mall, and possible racism. The council seemed to take their outrage very seriously: After all, Eden Center is a huge commercial center/tax generator for a city with a population of about 12,000.

The mayor and vice-mayor told me later that they had been working with the Eden Center and its concerns, and would continue doing so. And after Monday night, “we responded almost immediately,” Vice Mayor David Snyder said. “The Council amended its work plan to make continued engagement and support for the Eden Center a major, immediate priority.”

Mayor Nader Baroukh said, “We have tried to work with the (Vietnamese) community in the past and will continue to do so.”

The mall is owned by Capital Commercial Properties Inc. in Falls Church. A vice president of the company, Alan Frank, said he couldn’t discuss the situation on the record.

In my tour of the winding maze of shops and cafes and restaurants, business owners said they paid huge rents for small spaces, between $3,000 and $8,000 a month, often at rates of more than $100 per square foot. The owners and their customers all claimed that they hadn’t heard of the Dragon Family gang.

But Ray Colgan, executive director of the gang task force, points out that smart gangs don’t act conspicuously, instead exerting their influence on key players behind the scenes. And he also said that the task force investigation would link the gaming machines to the gangs, and that more than $1 million in cash was indicative of something.

In that context, the acquittal of one defendant and the dropping of charges against four others, all on gambling misdemeanors, is a small part of the picture. But because the Vietnamese community had rallied to the Falls Church courthouse Wednesday, with local media in tow, and the task force and City Prosecutor Daniel Conway did a sloppy job of getting ready for the five cases on the docket, it looked bad.

When the cases were first called, after nearly 90 minutes of the traffic docket, Conway told the judge he hadn’t spoken to the officers involved. A recess was called. After the recess, Conway was nowhere to be found, so the civil docket was called and completed.

Conway finally returned, and told the judge he needed a continuance. The prosecution wasn’t ready, even though the arrests were more than a month ago. The courtroom was filled with witnesses, defendants and lawyers. Arlington General District Court Judge Thomas J. Kelley told Conway he needed to provide some advance notice of his need for more time, and denied the continuance.

Vietnamese merchants and customers gather outside Falls Church City Hall. Their presence, along with multiple witnesses, defendants and lawyers, probably helped persuade a judge to hear the cases Wednesday, which authorities weren’t ready to prosecute. (Tom Jackman/THE WASHINGTON POST)

Then Conway changed his mind, and decided he would prosecute Hoang. Hoang’s lawyer, Due Tran, probably could have challenged this reversal, but he agreed to try the case.

Hoang’s arrest occurred in Cafe Dang, where the police allegedly seized $1 million and 18 “gambling machines.” But Conway had no proof that the machines were used for gambling, and no one who had seen Hoang receive any payouts. All he had was Hoang’s comment to a task force investigator that “it was the first time” he had gambled and he “had lost a dollar.”

But investigator Larry Reed also acknowledged that he hadn’t read Hoang his Miranda rights, and Hoang might have already been charged when he was questioned. Hoang also doesn’t speak much English, said he didn’t understand some of Reed’s questions and never admitted gambling.

Kelley found Hoang not guilty. Conway asked for another continuance before the next case. Kelley again denied it. Conway then “nolle prossed” the remaining four cases.

There are 14 more misdemeanor cases remaining. But the bigger questions won’t be answered until the task force obtains charges against the serious behind-the-scenes players, possibly in federal court in Alexandria.

Until then, the Vietnamese merchants’ claims that the police engaged in overkill by arresting gambling patrons, and overstatement by saying the Eden Center is dominated by gangs, are entitled to a legitimate airing. And the task force is entitled to a little patience from the taxpayers.