WESTMINSTER, Calif. — On a quiet suburban California cul-de-sac where neighbours hang wind chimes and grow rose bushes, one three-bedroom house stood out. At night, dozens of cars swarmed outside. Groups of young women headed inside the fenced-off home dotted with security cameras. The next morning, the street was littered with syringes.
What looked like a typical single-family home in a suburban neighbourhood on the edge of Orange County’s Little Saigon had been turned into an illegal gambling house where betters plunked down thousands in cash and stolen credit cards during all-night binges fueled by drinking and drugs.
Over the past three years, police in the largely Vietnamese area said they’ve found more than a dozen of these homes run by gangs. In some cases, police were tipped off by neighbours tired of the noise and traffic; in others, they were led there after a fight landed one of the gamblers in the hospital.
Inside the homes, players try their hand at video poker or blackjack. But one of the biggest draws is a six-seater table featuring a video game that gamblers play for money. The game earned the homes the name “slaphouses” as the sound of players pounding their hands on the game controls can be heard outside.
“They don’t just go there for an hour, they’ll be there for hours on end,” said Westminster police Sgt. Darin Upstill, adding that the objective of the game is to shoot out fire and kill a dragon. “Now, who is financing it is another story. That’s what we’re trying to figure out.”
Gambling has long been popular in the Vietnamese community that settled in Orange County after the fall of Saigon in 1975 and has since grown to 200,000.
For years, authorities said, Vietnamese coffeehouses featured machines rigged for poker, blackjack and other games where owners could flip a switch and turn the screens back to run-of-the-mill video games when police walked in the door.
Authorities said the coffeehouses were drawing drug dealing, fraud and gang activity along with the gamblers. In 2011, police in the Orange County city of Garden Grove raided more than a dozen coffeehouses, seizing 186 machines and $150,000 in cash.
Weeks later, the city passed a law banning arcade games from coffee houses. Since then, Garden Grove police have detected at least 15 illegal gambling houses in residential areas, said police Lt. Tom DaR√©.
Moving gambling into residential neighbourhoods makes it tougher for police to detect, since they need a warrant to get in. Neighbors are often afraid to report the homes to police even when they draw drug use and other crime.
Bac Duong, an Orange County inmate who escaped from jail earlier this year and led California authorities on a weeklong manhunt, was charged with shooting a man outside one such house in nearby Santa Ana, authorities said.
“It’s a hub for organized crime,” DaR√© said. “Off a slaphouse, you’re probably making $100,000 a month ‚Äî easy.”
Gambling is lucrative for gangs because the profits are high and the risk is low compared with drug dealing and fraud, which carry higher penalties.
Police in largely suburban Orange County are trying to dig deeper into the slaphouses, which are usually set up in rental homes. At least one person lives in the house and provides security. Cash is regularly moved out to reduce the risk of theft, and gamblers need a trusted contact to get in.
Underground gambling has roots in diverse communities and is hardly unique to the Vietnamese. But gambling is popular in Little Saigon, where large billboards beckon players to legitimate casinos in Southern California.
Dr. Timothy Fong, co-director of the Gambling Studies Program at University of California, Los Angeles, said gambling is accessible and culturally acceptable in many immigrant communities, especially among Asians where risk-taking is encouraged and betting seen as a way of testing fate.
“It is very steeped in tradition,” Fong said. “You are supposed to take huge risks and you are supposed to ‘go big.’”
Most gamblers frequent legitimate casinos, but a few are drawn underground, he said.
Gambling aside, Dan Nguyen, manager of Cafe Di Vang 2, said customers often played arcade games for fun at his Garden Grove coffeehouse until police banned them during the gambling crackdown. He said he’s since lost customers and revenue to venues in neighbouring cities that don’t face the same restrictions.
“I wish I could have five or six games for my customers, so they could come here, and play a little bit,” Nguyen said as scantily-clad waitresses served coffee to patrons watching soccer matches on flat-screen TVs.
Just a few miles away, half a dozen men sipped iced drinks at a similar coffeehouse in Westminster while playing on game machines.
Upstill said he expects his city will also eventually move to strip arcade games from coffeehouses to prevent gambling there, but for now they’re focused on dealing with slaphouses.
“You shut them down enough times, they’ll be out,” he said.