THE ECSTASY CONNECTION
DEA says Louisville was major drug hub
They weren't hard to spot. They drove flashy cars and brazenly sold the illegal drug Ecstasy to teens and young adults in Louisville parking lots, nightclubs and all-night rave parties.
For a time they acted with impunity, building a network over a couple of years that reached to Cincinnati and Nashville, Tenn. And they did it, federal law enforcement officials say, from modest homes they shared with extended family near the Iroquois Manor Shopping Center in south Louisville.
Until arrests started a year ago, the loose-knit group of mostly young Vietnamese immigrants distributed about 20,000 Ecstasy pills a month, with users in four states paying $15 to $20 per pill, according to agents with the Louisville office of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
In making arrests, the DEA and Louisville Metro Narcotics seized 35,000 pills of Ecstasy, a synthetic stimulant and hallucinogen popular with teens and young adults. That's nearly 10 times the amount that the agency seized in Kentucky in 2003, according to DEA figures.
"We knew there was a lot of Ecstasy out there," said Tony H. King, head of the Louisville office of the DEA, "but this surprised us. Louisville was a major distribution point for this drug in Kentucky, and surrounding areas."
The dealers received shipments of Ecstasy by courier from Canada, California, Atlanta and Philadelphia, or made trips out of town to get thousands of pills, some laced with the potent stimulant methamphetamine, according to court records.
They spent money on gambling, guns and status-symbol cars -- a Ford Excursion, a red BMW, a jacked-up Cadillac Escalade, with a booming sound system and a DVD PlayStation -- a beacon for the DEA agents on their trail.
"They were living a fast and furious life," said King, whose agency began investigating the group more than a year ago, after a series of tips from police in Louisville, Lexington and St. Louis.
Now, as criminal cases against 14 associated with the group -- eight under age 25 and all but one Vietnamese -- are coming to a close in federal court, the fast and furious days are over. For some, life in this country may be ending too.
So far, 10 have pleaded guilty to federal drug conspiracy or trafficking involving Ecstasy. Five received sentences ranging from two years and six months to five years and three months, according to court records. The other five are awaiting sentencing, and four cases are yet to be decided.
Eight of the Vietnamese are "legal permanent residents" but not U.S.
citizens, and therefore will face deportation proceedings if convicted of drug conspiracy or trafficking, said Gail Montenegro, a spokeswoman for U.S.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
An administrative judge would hold a hearing after they serve their prison sentences to decide if they should be deported, she said. 'SCARED OF IT NOW'regnant mom of threeis headed for prison
One of those facing possible deportation is Long Phi Pham, 24, who was sentenced last week by Senior U.S. District Judge Edward H. Johnstone to four years and three months for drug conspiracy and trafficking in Ecstasy, some of which contained meth.
Moments earlier, Johnstone sentenced Pham's wife, Tammy Tran, 21, to two years and nine months on the same charges. He ruled that Tran, a U.S.
citizen who is six months' pregnant with the couple's fourth child, can begin serving her time in June, after the expected May birth of her baby.
They each had pleaded guilty earlier, admitting to selling 10,848 Ecstasy pills in a five-month period, from Oct. 1, 2003, through February 2004, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.
A DEA affidavit said lower-level dealers would drive to the home Pham and Tran shared with Tran's parents on East Amherst Avenue in south Louisville to buy pills stored in a hollow Buddha statue on a mantel.
Those dealers paid wholesale prices of $12 a pill, according to the affidavit.
As she watched her husband being sentenced last week, Tran -- who at
4-feet-9 could easily pass for a 16-year-old -- sat teary-eyed, speaking in hushed Vietnamese to her sister and children, two girls and a boy, ages 5, 3 and 1.
The family was not allowed contact with Pham, who had been transported from a prison in Tennessee, where last month he began serving two years for conspiracy to distribute Ecstasy, according to Tennessee court records.
In that case, Lt. Chris Haynes of the Rutherford (Tenn.) County Sheriff's Department said he pulled Pham over for a traffic violation in April 2003 and found 1,000 Ecstasy pills in the glove compartment of his rental vehicle. Haynes said Pham was on his way back to Louisville from Atlanta, where he picked up the drugs.
Johnstone ruled Pham's sentence could run concurrently with his Tennessee term.
He also recommended Tran and Pham receive drug treatment in prison. Pham's lawyer, Scott C. Cox, told the judge that his client had abused drugs including Ecstasy. In an interview, Tran said she also used Ecstasy.
When asked why she got involved in dealing, Tran had a quick response: "No money." But she said, "I'm scared of it now."
She said she came to the United States with her parents and siblings when she was 5, and lived in the Americana Apartments on Southside Drive, where she met Pham. She dropped out of school in 11th grade after she became pregnant, she said.
Tran said in the interview that she didn't want to leave her children, and was too upset to talk about who would care for them when she is in prison.
She said she now works in a nail salon.
A COMMUNITY CONCERN:
Vietnamese pastor sees a growing problem
The Rev. Anthony Chinh of St. John Vianney Catholic Church said he and others in south Louisville have worried for three years about a growing drug problem in the Vietnamese community. He said he has expressed his concerns several times to Louisville police.
Chinh said young people are too often tempted by "easy" money to buy cars and other material things, and he hopes the recent court cases will serve as a lesson. He said his church is trying to work with families to keep young people involved in meaningful activities and work.
"My concern is the children," he said.
King said federal officials are continuing to watch for drug trafficking in the area, and investigations are ongoing in other cities where dealers are believed to have links to the group that operated in Louisville.
But he believes the local investigation put a dent in the supply of Ecstasy in the region -- at least temporarily.
Louisville Metro Police Lt. Rick Brewer, whose Metro Narcotics unit assisted in the investigation, said the amount of Ecstasy seized is huge for Louisville.
Brewer added that before the arrests, police routinely received complaints about Ecstasy from parents and nightclub patrons. "We're not getting complaints now," he said.
But he and Louisville Sgt. Fritz Graas said other Ecstasy dealers will fill gaps in the market. "There's always a place popping up, or a teen club," he said.
Known as "the love drug," Ecstasy has been sold illegally since the mid-1980s and is popular with a young crowd for producing a rush of energy and euphoria that allows them to dance all night and feel giddy with love, King said.
"Even the look is designed to appeal to kids," he said of the pills, which come in a variety of colors, often stamped with insignias such as a leprechaun, dolphin, Playboy bunny or Mercedes Benz logo.
Health experts say the drug is dangerous and causes elevated body temperature, increased heart rate and blood pressure.
Some deaths have been reported from its effects, although none locally, said Henry Spiller, director of the Kentucky Regional Poison Center at Kosair Children's Hospital.
King said the local DEA began investigating Ecstasy dealing in the summer of 2003. Nationally, the agency also was cracking down on Ecstasy, announcing in March 2004 the arrests of 130 people in 16 cities and the dismantling of a major Ecstasy operation out of Canada.
The DEA identified a Chinese and a Vietnamese as heads of that operation, and King said dealing in Ecstasy by Asian groups has been a growing trend, although others deal in the drug too. He said it's not clear why more Asians are involved, beyond being able to network its distribution within their ethnic group.
ENTRY FROM CANADA: Ecstasy is Usually manufactured in Europe
He said the Louisville dealers are not believed to have ties to the Canadian operation that was the subject of last year's national bust, although he said some of the local dealers got pills from Canada, a common entry point for the drug. Ecstasy ingredients and pill presses are tightly regulated in the United States, so the drug is usually manufactured in Europe, he said.
In the Louisville cases, court records state that surveillance, informants and tape recordings were used to gather evidence. The DEA determined that three dealers based in south Louisville -- Nhanh Cong Van, 27, Tam Nguyen, 32, and Duoc Nguyen, 23, who are unrelated -- had Ecstasy sources in other cities. Each of them pleaded guilty last year to conspiracy and trafficking charges. None are U.S. citizens, immigration officials said.
They generally distributed the drugs to the others who've been charged, at times shared their supplies with each other, and sometimes sent others to make out-of-town buys for them, according to the DEA.
Runners -- known by nicknames such as Shorty, Pork Chop, Troll and Steve-O
-- fronted for them in nightclubs, according to a DEA affidavit.
Mark Gaston, an attorney representing four of the defendants, said he doesn't believe any of the dealers handled massive quantities of the drug.
King said they were, as a group, dealing in significant quantities, although, "These kids didn't know how, or hadn't operated long enough, to get organized."