The man, we'll call him Phuong, had laid down a considerable bet on the Phoenix Suns, and the Suns had lost.
Phuong followed that mistake with another. When the bookmakers he'd placed the bet with arrived to collect their money, Phuong told them to collect the money from a friend of theirs who owed him money.
The bookmakers, two Vietnamese-Chinese men in their 30s who are reputed to have dealt roughly with their all-Asian clientele, didn't like that response.
The men pulled out wallets and flopped them open for Phuong to see.
Each of them possessed badges from the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office.
"We're deputies now," Phuong says he was told. "And if you don't give us that money right now, we're going to put you in jail."
Phuong says he paid every penny.
To understand how two alleged sports bookmakers with suspected ties to Asian organized crime found their way into Sheriff Joe Arpaio's Executive Posse, it is instructive to first consider the night in February when Arpaio sang "My Way" for a restaurant full of people.
The occasion was Chinese New Year, and Great Wall Cuisine, a restaurant at 35th Avenue and Camelback Road, was chock-full of luminaries from the local Asian-American community. Elected officials were scattered among the 300 guests as well, and were asked to sing for the entire room. As Madeline Ong-Sakata later described it for Asian SUNews, Arpaio won the night's karaoke competition with his rendition of the Sinatra classic. His prize: a certificate for a free dinner.
It was just another weird scene in the increasingly weird consequence of Joe Arpaio's political hubris.
Arpaio has campaigned nearly nonstop since he took office in January 1993, ostensibly to spread his message of getting tough on crime, a stump speech he delivers nearly every day to service clubs and at retirement homes.
As he's pursued greater visibility and influence, however, others have increasingly sought to influence him. His sky-high poll numbers--he likes to brag that the only people who disapprove of him are in his jails--have local politicos elbowing others out of the way to gain his largess.
Such an environment produces sessions like the one at Great Wall Cuisine, where the state's most popular politician is rewarded for singing with a plate of chow mein, gratis.
It's a testament to how rapidly Arpaio's star has risen.
In 1992, Arpaio was enduring his 10th year as a retired federal Drug Enforcement Administration agent. He kept busy by helping out at Starworld Travel, his wife's Scottsdale agency, while suffering withdrawal from public life.
Arpaio rescued himself from obscurity by running for office against Tom Agnos, a well-respected sheriff whose credibility had been wrecked by the bungled investigation into the murder of six Buddhist monks and three others in a west Valley temple in 1991.
One of Arpaio's first goals--aside from making the jails a place for "punishment" even though 70 percent of his inmates await trial under an assumption of innocence--was to build up the citizen posse. The Sheriff's Office now has nearly 50 posses of various stripe; some are organized by region, others, like the Search and Rescue Posse, according to expertise.
The posses have been hugely popular. But a year ago, New Times reported that they have become a colossal drain of money and resources, and that despite the throngs who have answered the sheriff's call for volunteers--now approaching 3,000--only a handful, perhaps as few as 100, actually participate regularly in what deputies call "Joe Shows"--publicity stunts.
Deputies complain that the posses are, first and foremost, politically expedient for Arpaio. They warn that an emphasis on law enforcement has been lost in the search for greater numbers and greater media impact. Inadequate background checks have resulted in several undesirables obtaining badges.
New Times recently learned that a member of Arpaio's Executive Posse, Kenny Tat, is suspected by law enforcement agencies to have links with Asian organized crime. Yet somehow he and a colleague, Tom Tat, received badges from Sheriff Arpaio.
The Tats' ability to gain those badges, even though they speak little English and have no law enforcement training, may have less to do with an overburdened Sheriff's Office than with the misguided ambitions of the Arpaio supporter who recruited the Tats.
That supporter is Manny Wong, publisher of the local Asian-American Times. Wong now admits he may have made a mistake when he vouched for the Tats and got them into the Executive Posse.
He says he was not only aware of Kenny Tat's alleged tie to a notorious California Asian gang, Wah Ching, but since they were given badges, Wong has learned of their alleged bookmaking.
Phuong says the Tats used their badges to intimidate him and others when they lost bets in the Tats' sports-gambling operation, which they reportedly run out of a restaurant.
That restaurant happens to be Great Wall Cuisine, where in February Arpaio warbled his way to a free plate of food.
The Executive Posse. Governor J. Fife Symington III's on it, and so is Phoenix City Councilwoman Frances Emma Barwood. KFYI-AM talk-radio owner Fred Weber is, too, and he's put red and blue running lights in his luxury car. Phoenix Mayor Skip Rimsza was a member until he objected to the use of posse members to help with drug busts, a move many cops saw as dangerous.
Yet the sheriff's Executive Posse--deputies call it the "political posse"--has remained, for an Arpaio enterprise, surprisingly low-profile.
It was intended to be elite, a cabal for business and community leaders to join while a massive influx of new volunteers were steered into other, less exclusive posses.
Membership continues to be by invitation only, either from a current Executive Posse member or through the recommendation of someone at the Sheriff's Office.
Executive Posse leader Marvin Weide notes that other posses also recruit by invitation only. But Weide and his posse were at one time considered so important that deputies were asked to make room for Weide in the sheriff's downtown office. Today, he runs the Executive Posse out of a Phoenix storefront.
The Executive Posse's exclusivity allowed busy professionals and politicians to keep above the fray as thousands of eager, less-celebrated volunteers jammed the Sheriff's Office training division, learning to shoot straight so they could don brown shirts, patrol malls and bust prostitutes.
The Executive Posse not only wooed the elite, it also tried to think big. Some Executive Posse members wanted to be in the "executive protection" business. Weide encouraged members to study books on how to guard VIPs. He says some members even took Secret Service training.
Copies of the Executive Posse's newsletter, written by Weide, bragged about these assignments, particularly when Bob Dole came through Phoenix on his 1996 presidential campaign. (What the Secret Service thought of Weide's volunteers, the posse's newsletter doesn't say.)
The Executive Posse wanted to attract important locals, and it wanted to protect important out-of-towners.
It was the perfect vehicle for community leaders who wanted to contribute to a cause, develop their influence with the sheriff and bask in Arpaio's growing celebrity.
Manny Wong was one such individual.
Manny Wong, publisher of Asian-American Times, is explaining what separates the Executive Posse from other posses. The well-known Chinese American says he speaks five dialects of Chinese, and he speaks English with an infectious enthusiasm and a charming patois. Those who know him generally describe him as irrepressible, a promoter, the Babbitt of the local Asian population.
He's such an enthusiastic promoter of the Executive Posse that within minutes, he suggests a reporter whom he has never met join the group himself.
The beauty of the Executive Posse, Wong says, is that busy professionals can join it and make valuable contributions to the cause even if they don't have the time to go through training. Or, as Wong puts it, "to contribute philosophically to the virtues of being a posse member to the Sheriff's Office."
Normally, becoming a posse member can take a year of training, particularly if one wants to carry a gun. In the Executive Posse, Wong asserts, one can get a badge right away.
(The Sheriff's Office points out that, in fact, members of all posses receive their badges before they do any training, and that such training is strictly voluntary.)
As for Executive Posse qualifications: "Not necessary," Wong says. "So long as you have a strong person or someone who is well-respected in the community to recommend your name--I don't want to brag about it--like yours truly.
"I don't mind recommending you," he adds.
Wong says he's made it his mission to find individuals in the Asian community who might make good material for the Executive Posse. "I've enrolled six to seven Asians already because we are in the mode of trying to infiltrate some of the per se illegal activities that might happen or might occur if the Chinatown cultural center will ever become into fruition," he says.
"With the advent of high-profile centers in any state, it somehow invites bad elements like organized crime," Wong continues. "So to increase the posse applicants into the Executive Posse . . . I require them to supply us with information of any illegal activities that are happening because they own restaurants, and anyone who comes into town with fresh faces is easily identified by restaurant owners."
Ever the salesman, Wong adds, "In your case, it is an advantageous position for Sheriff Arpaio to include you in there because you're in the media."
Wong says the people he has recruited for the posse have met his high standards: "With no criminal records and, you know, honest, hardworking and willingness to supply us with whatever we need. I do have applications that I deal out whenever I see one and try to talk him into somehow, you know, working with us towards a quality community that's crime-free."
After Wong puts in the good word, the new recruit, he says, meets Sheriff Arpaio himself, and gets a badge. "The badge is basically something that is recognizable by law enforcement agencies such as the sheriff's departments of every county, but not necessarily with federal and Phoenix PDs. But somehow the respect is there."
Then, Wong adds cryptically: "They don't use it fraudulently to take any personal advantage out of it."
He's then asked about two Executive Posse members in particular whom he personally recruited, Kenny Tat and Tom Tat, who manage Great Wall Cuisine.
Wong hesitates. Then he says: "Uh, are you putting this in writing?"
"Are these people suspected of anything? You know them?" Wong asks.
He's told that Kenny Tat had confirmed to New Times that Wong had introduced him and Tom Tat to Sheriff Arpaio, and that they had had Executive Posse badges for a few months. (During that brief phone interview, Kenny Tat also had denied being involved in any gambling, and said he doesn't know what Wah Ching is.)
Wong is asked what he knew about the Tats before he recommended them for membership.
"Well," Wong replies, "I knew [Kenny] to be a, like, a born-again Christian. In the world of gangs and all that he's a born-again, per se, gang member. I know of his background, he's with Wah Ching in California, but he has given me some informations that were pertinent . . . about a shipment of semiautomatic [guns] to Macao. Okay? So with that as a credit to him, I said would you be able to keep an eye open for the community. . . . I interviewed him and he said, 'Yeah, well, I'll keep doing that and also you know possibly you know someone I could recognize, a new face, and I'll tip you off on that.' So I did that."
Wong then claims that he made the Sheriff's Office aware of Kenny Tat's alleged connection to Wah Ching, one of the most notorious organized-crime syndicates in California, known for home invasions, extortion and heroin trafficking.
Arpaio's top assistant, David Hendershott, who oversees the posses, denies that Wong ever told the Sheriff's Office of any gang activity in Kenny Tat's background. Hendershott also says he's unaware that any other law enforcement agencies keep tabs on the Tats.
Asked whether he is aware that the Tats are watched by Valley gang investigators, Wong replies, "Well, they're into illegal gambling.
"Yes. Into illegal bet on ball games," Wong says.
Apparently recognizing an opportunity to turn a potentially embarrassing situation into an enforcement opportunity, Wong continues, "Yes. Yes, I'm not saying that I condone it or anything, but what I'm saying is I'm letting some people know--some unidentified people that I work with in the law enforcement, I'm letting them know that these are happening, and their badges can be confiscated and they can be criminally liable."
Wong is asked why he recommended people who may be involved in illegal gambling for the Executive Posse. He replies that he hadn't learned of the Tats' alleged bookmaking until after they received their posse badges.
"I regretted it, and I wanted to make sure that I will make a formal report to the sheriff and let them make a decision. . . . But if they are fraudulently showing [their badges], it's not proper," he offers.
As a matter of fact, he's told, an alleged victim tells New Times that the Tats have done just that. When they demanded to collect on a bet he'd placed, the victim says the Tats flashed their badges, claimed to be deputies, and threatened to take him to jail if he didn't pay up.
"Well, I'm glad you tell me that," Wong replies, "because I can put it in as a recommendation for null and void on their Executive Posse membership. Well, I didn't know that until you tell me. Because I never condone these kind of activities. I'm going to tell the sheriff about it."
"I've never heard of a born-again Wah Ching member," says Detective Alex Femenia, the Phoenix Police Department's Asian-gang specialist. He's recently returned after an 18-month hiatus to studying organized crime, but in the short time he's been back, Femenia says he's received several reports about local Wah Ching activity.
"Wah Ching is big time. . . . The Wah Ching is definitely more than a street gang. They are a major organized-crime syndicate with heavy players and a lot of money," Femenia says.
The gang formed, took its name and became a force in San Francisco after Chinese immigration increased in the mid-Sixties. Over the next 20 years, it established ties with older, nationwide organized-crime networks, but its power base remains in California. Vietnamese immigrants began to join in the 1980s, and today, the Wah Ching is dominated by the more recent arrivals and younger members.
Femenia says victims of Wah Ching activity tend to be other immigrants, particularly small-business owners who are targeted in extortion schemes. He cites the Pearl of Asia restaurant, which formerly existed at Seventh Avenue and Camelback, as an example. "The gangsters ran them out. No question about it," Femenia says.
"Our Asian community is growing with legitimate, hardworking citizens, and with that comes gang members who want to take advantage of them. We are experiencing an influx of some Asian organized crime."
Femenia says he, too, has received reports of heavy gambling in the Asian community, particularly at Great Wall Cuisine.
"I have information from a number of sources [that] it has been going on and it is going on. See, it's not the Great Wall, per se. This occurred about a year ago. The Great Wall became the watering hole. When you look at traditional organized-crime guys, it's not the restaurant that is dirty, it just becomes their meeting place," the detective says.
"My point is, the businesses where they hang out don't necessarily have to be involved. . . . [A]t the Great Wall, the people that go there--are they gambling? You bet, I believe they're gambling. I believe there's sports betting going on. I believe there's private games going on all over the place in the Asian community. That's not unusual."
Ming Loc, the restaurant's owner, says that he knows of no gambling taking place in Great Wall Cuisine, nor of gang ties in Kenny Tat's background. He declined to answer further questions, however, saying that he would call back with someone who spoke better English. He never did.
If he had, he would have been asked about a June 30, 1996, altercation between two Great Wall Cuisine customers over mah-jongg winnings. A Phoenix police report indicates that one of the combatants threatened the life of his foe, whom he attacked with broken crockery. According to the report, the mah-jongg game was the culmination of a party in honor of Ming Loc's mother. Loc admitted to police that before the game started, he had lent $2,000 to the assailant, who, after he lost the money, allegedly took $700 from his victim.
And the man who helped Phoenix police by translating for Ming Loc and others? Manny Wong.
Femenia continues, "But getting back to what Manny says, if Manny knew that one of these guys was a Wah Ching member, and says that he was a born-again Wah Ching member . . . would they be hired as law enforcement? I don't think so."
Femenia says he's received reports suggesting a link between Kenny Tat and the Wah Ching, although he says he has no hard evidence of one. Even a loose association, he says, would concern the Phoenix Police Department.
And if the Phoenix police were to give the Tats badges?
"I would be shocked," he says.
Other law enforcement sources speak of the Tats in even stronger terms. "These are very bad boys," says one investigator, who asked not to be identified, but claimed that his agency and others knew about Kenny Tat's link to Wah Ching, and were concerned about the Tats' alleged gambling and reputed shakedowns.
A source cooperating with a federal law enforcement agency says that that agency is investigating the Tats as well. The source asked that the agency not be named.
Femenia explains that organized crime is common in immigrant communities. "Every ethnic group has them, they have these little thugs that are saying, 'Listen, we don't care if you're working hard; we want a piece of the action,'" Femenia says of Asian crime in general.
"All these guys are from California, and they terrify these business people."
Femenia complains that it's difficult to get victims to talk. "Believe me, there's a lot of money being lost. We're talking $10,000 pots. . . . We know that these kind of games are going on.
"The problem is getting a cooperative witness to come forward."
Posse overseer David Hendershott makes the same complaint. After New Times brought Manny Wong's admissions to the attention of the Sheriff's Office, Hendershott temporarily confiscated the Tats' badges and brought them in for questioning.
But after a two-hour interview, Hendershott says he has no reason to fire the Tats from the Executive Posse. "We're hitting dead ends down here," he says.
The Tats denied any wrongdoing. Manny Wong also changed his story, saying that he knew of no gang affiliation in the Tats' background.
"Please believe me, I will investigate these guys to the hilt. But I'm on air. I've got nothing," Hendershott says.
Hendershott asks that New Times persuade Phuong, the man who says the Tats flashed their badges, to call the Sheriff's Office. Perhaps then, Hendershott says, he can take some action.
But Phuong claims he already has notified the Sheriff's Office. Twice he says he's called to tell sheriff's employees that the Tats are shaking down their Asian clientele with their posse badges. And the second time he mentioned that he, too, had been victimized and offered to sign a complaint.
Marvin Weide, however, said last week that the Sheriff's Office had found nothing to support those allegations.
He says he remembers seeing the Tats only once, at a posse dinner late in 1996 when they were inducted and given badges.
Normally, he says, prospective members are interviewed by Weide and one of his lieutenants before being sent on to the Sheriff's Office for more interviews. But in this case, that process was bypassed.
"It sure sounds like it, doesn't it?" he says. Unless the Sheriff's Office can find more evidence than it has, however, Weide says the Tats won't be asked to leave the posse.
"They'll be getting their badges back," he says.
Awall, not surprisingly, divides Great Wall Cuisine right down the middle. The left half is reserved for banquets and private parties. And on a recent weekend afternoon, the room was empty except for a table behind a screen. From behind it, the sound of mah-jongg tiles clinking could be heard, mixed with the voices of several men.
When Tom Tat is asked for, the manager comes out from behind the screen. He initially says he can't answer questions, however, because he's working.
But he relents, saying that he's surprised that Manny Wong has said that illegal gambling occurs at Great Wall. "Manny said that?" he asks several times.
Tat denies that he's ever flashed his posse badge. He says that he told the Sheriff's Office he is not involved in gambling and that he has no organized-crime connections. When he's asked about Manny Wong's statement about Kenny Tat's connection to the Wah Ching, Tom Tat replies: "I cannot answer questions for Kenny."
He says that Kenny is out of the country, that he doesn't know where Kenny has gone, and that he does not know when Kenny will come back.
Manny Wong, meanwhile, attempts to back away from statements made in an earlier, tape-recorded interview. He now says he's seen no illegal activities at Great Wall Cuisine. The kinds of bets being made fall in the $5 to $10 range, he says. He never said that Kenny Tat was in the Wah Ching, he says.
He's reminded, however, that Kenny Tat is driving a new red BMW a restaurant owner is reputed to have surrendered in lieu of gambling debts. Wong admits that that is true, but only partially: He says the restaurant owner had lost tens of thousands of dollars to the Ying On, a local Asian benevolent society, playing a game called Pai-Gow, and that Tat had simply backed up his IOUs in return for the car.
So much for $5 kitties.
Later, Wong sounds more contrite. "Apparently, I might have been a little rushed in sending in the application [for the Tats' membership].
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"I should have asked around some more about their activities with the alleged gambling . . . but I haven't seen any such activities as far as I'm concerned."
As for his plan that the Tats would be able to pass on news about organized crime to Sheriff Arpaio, Wong admits that the Tats never did send any.
Regardless of the outcome, Wong says he was trying to do something good for the posse and the community.
"The best resource we can get is somebody who's in with the lawbreakers. How else do you try and get information?" Wong says. ". . . That's why I recruited them.