Real-Life 'Ocean's 11': How Agents Foiled a $7 Million Casino Scheme

What finally brought down the Tran Organization?

May 25, 2012, 1:09 PM

May 25, 2012 — -- Casino heists make for great movies, but in real life they usually end up considerably less glamorous.

Take the botched attempt earlier this week when two thieves attempted to steal $155,000 from a dealer at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas. After spraying the dealer with mace and grabbing the chips, one of the two alleged bandits was literally knocked out of his wig and sunglasses by casino security, quickly foiling the robbery.

Watch the full story here.

There is an exception, however: a group known as the Tran Organization. Based out of San Diego, the group stole more than $7 million from 19 casinos across the country using techniques even Hollywood hadn't thought of.

It started simply enough. In 2002, a dealer at San Diego's Sycuan Casino was caught performing what is known as a false shuffle. The false shuffle is an old sleight-of-hand trick in which a dealer appears to wash and shuffle a deck of cards. In reality, the dealer actually protects a large portion of the cards and keeps them in the order in which they were dealt. That way, players at the table who were watching and tracking the order the cards came out will know exactly how to bet when that deck, or slug, of cards comes back into play.

"No one is the wiser if you don't know what you're looking for," Pete Casey, special agent for the FBI in San Diego, told "20/20" co-anchor Chris Cuomo.

According to Casey, the lead agent on the case, the dealer was caught helping several people win a few hundred dollars at the table. She was fired, and the situation was brought to the FBI's attention and chalked up as an isolated incident. What Casey didn't realize at the time was that the dealer was doing more than just stealing, she was gathering intelligence.

"She was researching it, definitely. Figuring out what [were] the best angles to hold her hands, reviewing the different protocols within her own casino," Casey said.

According to Casey, the woman was actually working for an unlikely criminal mastermind -- Phuong "Pai Gow John" Truong.

Truong, a former casino employee, was known as little more than an avid gambler and drifter in the local Vietnamese community. But Truong was ready to go big time. According to Casey, Truong devised a plan: recruit dealers from various casinos willing to learn how to conduct and perform a false shuffle during a card game, and to cash in after that.

After the dealer was fired from Sycuan, Truong took what the group learned and moved with his wife, Van Tran, and about 15 members of her family north to the Cache Creek Casino outside Sacramento, Calif.

With a handful of dealers willing to go in on it with them, Truong had teams rotating on mini-baccarat tables day and night at Cache Creek. The game suited their method because in mini-baccarat a player is allowed to write down what cards have been dealt. Typically, it makes no difference when the cards are properly shuffled, but on a false shuffle the player has it all spelled out for them.

"They had it set up like a business, where they had a day shift, night shift and graveyard. They were pulling out $20,000-a-round of cheating," Casey said.

The crew stole $158,000 in the month of March 2003. That kind of money told the Tran Organization one thing.

"That means they were on it. They felt they knew exactly what they were doing, and they can never get caught," Casey said.

They spread out, sending teams to recruit dealers and scam casinos up the West Coast, into Canada and down through the Midwest.

"It's safe to say that if there's a casino in that state, they hit it," Casey said.

The Trans had two things going for them. They were able to conduct the scam in full view of the thousands of casino security cameras and, by the time a casino realized one of their tables had a huge loss, the crew would be gone.

"A lot of the casinos didn't realize what was happening to them in real time. They figured it out, maybe two, three weeks after they had left," said Casey.

By the time the crew arrived at Foxwoods Casino in Connecticut in 2005, its ranks had swelled to more than 40 people and it was averaging $50,000 every 10 minutes at the table.

It also had changed tactics. The group's members started cheating at blackjack, where the table limits are typically higher and the winnings bigger. In blackjack, however, a player isn't able to write down any of the cards, so the Trans went high-tech.

They used hidden microphones and a tracker -- a person watching the order the cards were being dealt -- would read the cards into the microphones while pretending to smoke a cigarette. On the other end of the line, someone would sit outside the casino with a specially designed computer program talking to the tracker, who was wearing a hidden ear piece. The computer program would read out when, and in what order, the cards would come back out in after the dealer had performed the false shuffle to the tracker.

The tracker would signal to the player at the table when the slug of cards was in play and use hand singles to let him know how to bet.

"Take a puff with one finger on, it says to make a bet. Take a puff with two fingers on the cigarette, that means to double down," Casey said.

Once again, the Trans looked to be unstoppable.

"They started pulling a lot more money off the tables in a shorter amount of time," Casey said.

While the FBI continued to play catch-up, the Tran scores started going through the roof, peaking at an incredible $868,000 at Resorts East in Chicago in October 2005.

But for all the slickness and expertise, the Tran gang, specifically its leader, Phuong Truong, would fall prey to a classic bad guy blunder: greed. Truong began shortchanging his dealers. Embittered, they happily became informants for the FBI. Eventually Truong and his top lieutenants were identified and put under surveillance.

"We got their travel records, their playing habits, all the currency transaction reports," Casey said.

On June 8, 2006, agents for the Mississippi Gaming Commission went undercover to meet with Truong. He thought they were dealers willing to work with him. In the undercover video of the meeting, Truong laid out his whole scheme.

"That was one of the best undercover videos I've ever seen," said Casey.

"I only need two guys to go in there with me and light up a cigarette and game over. That's it," Truong said in the video. "I can smoke my cigarette like this, then you already know where to bet, what to bet."

The final piece of evidence that federal investigators needed was capturing the entire scam on video. That happened weeks after Truong was filmed undercover when a tip came in that a portion of gang was headed back to the place where it all started, the Sycuan Casino. This time, the FBI and casino were ready.

With multiple cameras rolling, they watched as the group, led by one of the Tran Organization's most prolific trackers, Willy Tran, stole more than $20,000 in 20 minutes before he walked out.

With this treasure trove of video in hand, authorities finally moved in and Phuong Truong's house of cards collapsed.

By 2007, Truong and 46 of his confederates were indicted for racketeering, theft and money laundering. He pled guilty, was sentenced to 70 months in prison and had to forfeit and pay back millions to casinos and the government.

"They hit close to 19 casinos. They took in, what we could prove, around $7 million," Casey said.

Casey said Pai Gao John forgot the first rule of gambling: In the end, the house always wins.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events