Westminster police shut down two illegal gambling homes, arrest six
It smelled of old food and stale cigarettes.
Closed windows and drawn blinds kept curious eyes out and the heavy air in.
The main attraction — a Chinese video game known as “the fish game” — sat in the center of a back bedroom with psychedelic fish painted on the walls.
Video poker machines staged in the dining room took the place of a table and chairs, and a doorless hallway closet housed a video slot machine.
A converted garage served as a makeshift pawn shop, ready to claim the valuables of down-on-their-luck guests in exchange for cash.
Police estimated the house on Thorpe Street brought in upwards of $30,000 on an average day.
It was an invite-only, cash-only place.
It was a place where guests brought weapons for protection and operators offered drugs — methamphetamine, cocaine, marijuana — to keep players feeding their cash to the machines.
The house on Thorpe harbored all kinds of illegal activity, but its run was short-lived.
More than 20 Westminster officers on July 22 shuttered the illegal gambling house and confiscated more than $50,000 in cash, eight gambling machines, weapons and drugs.
Seventeen people were detained and three were arrested on various charges including operating a gaming house and warrant violations.
The Thorpe Street bust was the first of two illegal gaming operations police shut down in two months.
“This is the first investigation like this that we have done since I’ve been here,” said Sgt. Darin Upstill, who has worked for WPD for 16 years. “Just within the last six months, we are seeing these pop up because they are such a big money maker.”
A money maker run by what Upstill and lead investigator Detective Kyle Seasock call “serious criminals.”
Police first started investigating the house on Thorpe Street in July when residents complained about strange activity at the home.
One woman told police she believed her boyfriend was gambling there.
Upstill and Seasock set up several surveillance operations and took notes as known gang members and other seemingly average Joes came and went through a back door.
During one surveillance operation, police saw a man exit the home and pull a 3-foot machete from his pants before hiding it away in his car — something he likely carried to ward off anyone who tried to rob him, the investigators said.
“Your kids couldn’t play outside, that’s how bad it was at this house,” Seasock said.
Police call these homes “slap houses” because of the sound emanating from the rooms as players furiously bang on the controls of the video gambling machines.
The prized game in many of these houses is the Dragon Hunter, commonly known as “the fish game.”
Several players sit around a table and shoot virtual fire at creatures drifting across the screen, with a dragon kill awarding the most points.
More points means more money.
“There’s a limit, though,” Upstill said. “They’ll cash you out, but most of the time there is a daily maximum that a player can win. Usually it’s about $4,000.”
The game is addicting and is most commonly played by children in arcades, the investigators said.
“They have this game at Chuck E. Cheese’s,” Upstill said. “You can play it there.”
After gathering enough information, Upstill and Seasock, with 21 other WPD officers, served a search warrant at the home.
When they went inside, some of the players tried to escape through a window, breaking the air conditioning unit hanging on the side of the house.
Others seemed to think their best move was dog piling on top of each other in the living room, hiding their faces from police.
“There were about a dozen people just huddled in the living room,” Upstill said, laughing at the bizarre scene. “They were just one on top of the other.”
Police arrested Quan Nguyen, 38, and Dinh Tran, 47, on suspicion of operating a gaming house, and Luu Luong, 47, for an outstanding warrant.
When police went back to check on the Thorpe Street home weeks later, the resident had left.
“The best thing about this operation was getting those people out of that house,” Upstill said. “It was the best thing for the neighborhood.”
But just a couple weeks later, police started fielding similar complaints about a home on Main Street.
Having just dealt with a slap house operation, that investigation moved quickly, Seasock said.
“Once we started working it, we knew it was a slap house within an hour,” he said. “It was obvious.
“But at this house there was a heavy gang presence.”
Added Upstill: “These were big-time, organized crime gangsters.”
Police on Aug. 12 raided the Main Street house and confiscated gambling machines, two handguns and drugs including methamphetamine, cocaine and ecstasy.
“Knowing the activity that we encountered on Thorpe and the danger level, we ran it through the SWAT team,” Upstill said.
Hung Tran, 37, and his brother Dung Tran, 38, were arrested on suspicion of conspiring to run a gaming operation. Hung Tran also had a parole violation and Dung Tran is also facing weapons and drug possession with intent to sell charges.
Christopher Kim, 23, also was arrested for an outstanding warrant, police said.
Upstill and Seasock were both honored with commendations from the Westminster PD for shutting down the gambling houses.
But, the investigators said, they believe there’s more work ahead.
“These are big time because of the amount of money that’s going through them,” Upstill said. “These are not going to stop.
“I think they’ll start up again, but we’ll be ready.”