Elusive man focus of probe of Chinese organized crime 29-year-old convicted in Howard burglary

November 18, 1997|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SPECIAL TO THE SUN Sun researchers Paul McCardell, Andrea Wilson and Jean Packard contributed to this article.

On Hanover Street in South Baltimore, his one-time neighbors say they never met him. In Howard County, the Chinese businessman he robbed couldn't recognize his picture. In Boston, Chinatown restaurateurs say they had heard the name Minh Chan Ly, but knew him better by a nickname: Chickenhead.

Now Ly has emerged as a key figure in an expanding Baltimore police investigation into the presence of Chinese organized crime. Police sources emphasize that while their probe is at an early, information-gathering stage, several lines of inquiry have led to Ly, a 29-year-old immigrant who maintains addresses in Baltimore, Boston and California.

"We're looking at this very seriously," says Baltimore Police Lt. Barry Baker. "We are trying to understand how pervasive Chinese organized crime is, and we are looking at a number of individuals."

The investigation began this fall after The Sun inquired about FBI reports that a Chinese brothel had operated on Hanover Street in South Baltimore during 1995 and 1996. Southern District police and the department's criminal intelligence section are cooperating in the probe.

That brothel was owned in part by Teddy Chan, an elder in the Hip Sing and Hung Mun tongs in Atlanta, authorities said. The Sun reported last month that members of the Maryland chapters of the two tongs -- small, secret social organizations for Chinese men -- have operated brothels, run gambling dens and participated in a 1993 murder.

In interviews, Teddy Chan and FBI supervisory Special Agent Kim Jordan have identified Minh Chan Ly as the man who ran the South Baltimore brothel. No one has been charged in that operation.

Ly is well-known to the FBI in Maryland and to local and federal authorities in Massachusetts, according to court documents and police records in both states. Most notably, Ly was convicted of leading a robbery and invasion of the Elkridge home of a prominent Chinese businessman in October 1996, during which more than $170,000 in cash was stolen.

Court records and interviews with Ly's associates indicate that he moves frequently between several addresses. Attorneys who have represented Ly say they have lost touch with him, and efforts to contact Ly through phone calls, letters and visits to addresses in three states were unsuccessful.

"The police in Baltimore might make a case on him, but they will never find him," says Chi Wai Chao, who was arrested with Ly in the Howard County robbery. "He could be hiding in Maryland, or Boston, or Oakland, where I think he is now. It's very hard to know."

Ly's roots

Authorities believe Ly was born in Vietnam to a Chinese mother and Vietnamese father. When Ly was a teen-ager, the family immigrated to California, settling in Oakland.

Ly moved to the Boston area around 1990. He lived in Chinatown and became close to leaders of the Boston chapter of the On Leong tong, though it is not clear whether he was an official member. Law enforcement sources and Ly's associates say he helped run a gambling game in Chinatown. Municipal court records show a 1996 arrest on attempted extortion and battery charges in a Chinatown case that remains open.

It was also in Boston that Ly, a 5-foot-4-inch man with a light build and stern features, got his nickname. "He always looks like he just woke up, with his hair sticking up in front -- just like a chicken," says Chi Wai Chao.

While Boston was a home base, Ly has spent considerable time in the Baltimore area, where he has listed three addresses: one in Brooklyn Park and two in South Baltimore, including the Hanover Street address of the brothel.

In mid-1996, shortly after a brush with a Baltimore patrolman who responded to a domestic violence call, the Hanover Street brothel was closed. Ly began spending more time in Boston, where his 18-year-old girlfriend lived, though he continued to travel to Baltimore at least once a month.

Home invasion

On the evening of Oct. 10, 1996, Ly drove from Boston to Baltimore with his girlfriend, Norita Lam; his brother Quy Chan Ly Oakland, Calif.; and Chi Wai Chao. They met a gambling buddy of Ly's, Reisterstown restaurant worker Wen Ju Yu, for a late dinner. Yu, Lam and Chao all insist that Ly gave no indication that he was contemplating anything more than a brief visit to Baltimore.

But Ly had brought with him the business card of Zi Qi Huang, the general manager of the Jessup-based Wing Hing South. Police records do not make clear how Ly got the card, and Huang told investigators, who showed him a picture of Ly, that he didn't know him.

Huang was a tempting target for robbery: His company is an all-cash business, which distributes fruits and vegetables to more than 300 Chinese restaurants from Delaware to Virginia. Huang had a distrust of banks that is common among Maryland's Chinese business community.

According to a statement Ly made to police, Ly followed Huang from work to his home in Elkridge. Late on the morning of Oct. 11, after Huang's family and the eight Wing Hing employees who lived in Huang's basement had left for the day, Ly broke into the house through a window. He took more than $150,000 that Huang kept in brown paper bags inside a bedroom closet, $20,000 in cash from a chest of drawers, and $15,000 in jewelry.

Ly, his brother, his girlfriend and Chao were arrested in South Baltimore that afternoon. Police, looking for a gun in Ly's car, instead found tens of thousands of dollars in cash.

Ly's brother pleaded guilty to burglary, Ly's girlfriend was not charged, and charges against Chao were eventually dropped.

Although Ly pleaded guilty to first-degree burglary in March, his sentence was only time served -- 54 days. Questions about the legality of the car search dogged the prosecution.

Pub Date: 11/18/97

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