Mr. Boss

A millionaire bookie's rise and fall: too much greed, too little paranoia.

Ong Chu, 49, who has a fondness for telephones, has talked his way into both prison and the poorhouse. At his US District Court sentencing next month for gambling and money laundering, the short, slight Eastside bookie will hear a judge officially tally up what he has won and lost through a remarkable sports betting career: his freedom, one house at 6063 156th Place Southeast in Bellevue, some of its furniture and most of its home-entertainment electronics, a 19-unit apartment building at 5031 Martin Luther King Jr. Way South in Seattle, two cars and a pickup truck, $138,310 in cash, $231,045 in stock accounts, $7,301 in bank accounts, and two dozen gold and diamond jewelry items, including three eye-candy bracelets—one with 27 diamonds, another with 147 diamonds, and a third with 159 diamonds.

He will also give up his $15 Radio Shack pager. In a way, it was worth more than the $2 million in property he bought with illegal profits and has now signed over to the government in a plea bargain: In recent years, the pager helped him get to the telephone and handle some of the $300,000-a-month college and professional sports bets pouring into the phone rooms at his home and his brother-in-law's apartment in Renton. Another half-dozen underlings took bets at Seattle and Tacoma restaurants, minicasinos, and billiard parlors, calling them in at game time. No one is certain how much the operation won, paid out, or earned in vigorish—the cost, usually 10 percent, a bookie charges for taking bets. But, by another measure of his wealth, Ong Chu seemed as successful as a Microsoft manager: His personal tax return for 1997 shows $36.2 million in stock trades—buying and selling at a rate of $3 million a month.

He told strangers he sewed garments in Tukwila.

Vietnamese for "Mr. Boss," Ong Chu is the title bestowed by associates and federal agents on Seattle's all-time bookmaking kingpin. His true name is Nghia Dung Luu of Bellevue. He was born in Vietnam, survived a war, came to the US and Seattle in the 1980s, and has been the moving target of cops and federal agents for most of a decade. It started in the early 1990s with a tip and led to undercover officers placing bets. Seattle vice cops figured they were onto something when they found a millionaire immigrant then living in subsidized housing.

Luu was busted several times in past years—once after vice cops placed at least $18,000 in undercover bets and lost most of it—but never prosecuted. And while an arrest is usually enough of a hint to find another line of work, the confident boss went on booking and talking: an FBI wiretap last year picked up 974 calls in nine days. Translators listened to Luu take his agents' action and argue in Vietnamese over money: "You owe $10,920. You don't rip me off!"

Besides tapping the boss's lines, a federal and local task force pawed through his garbage, pored over his financial records, and tailed him on game days to meetings in the Rainier Valley and International District where they watched him exchange neat, small packages with his associates. In early December, they finally moved in, cuffing Luu, his wife Yen Kim Truong, 45, and eight Vietnamese partners—including a bookie in Oklahoma who provided daily betting-line information. "The enterprise," says Darryl Roosendaal, an IRS agent, included "a network of subbooks, or agents, many of whom own and operate billiard parlors frequented by members of the Vietnamese community [that] are known centers for illegal gambling activities."

With telephone records, waging slips from the garbage, bank checks, and bookmaking bottom sheets piled up before them—"strong" evidence, said US Magistrate John Weinberg, "particularly the wiretap evidence"—Luu and the others recently copped pleas and will be sentenced September 10.

The boss, who has been held without bail since last Christmas season, faces up to 25 years. But by pleading guilty and agreeing to give up his fortune, he's likely to complete a short sentence and start life over—maybe in Vietnam. And maybe not exactly broke after all.

She can't prove it, but US Attorney Kate Pflaumer suspects Luu earlier transferred "many hundreds of thousands of dollars," perhaps to his homeland.

"He broke two rules," says R. T., who has been successfully dabbling in bookmaking in downtown Seattle for almost 25 years. "Never get greedy, and never think they're not after you.

"But hey, at least the guy apparently planned his retirement."

 
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