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A decade-old computer chip theft and conspiracy case that has finally gone to trial in San Jose, Calif., could prove a tough sell for the U.S. Attorney’s office. Prosecutors face several hurdles in the jury trial against eight defendants: the credibility of former defendants turned witnesses, the age of the case, and the sheer logistics of prosecuting so many defendants at once. Questioning of witnesses and cross-examination has been slow, and sidebars look more like football huddles than courtroom proceedings. Further complicating matters is the secrecy that surrounds the sale of computer components on the so-called “gray market” — which mixes legal and illegal sales of merchandise. “No one talks in the gray market because of the atmosphere of silence,” said Santa Clara County Deputy District Attorney Frank Berry Jr., who handles high-tech robbery and theft cases. Assistant U.S. Attorney Elizabeth De La Vega and her staff are currently laying out their case in U.S. District Judge James Ware’s courtroom. She and her staff are remaining tight-lipped about the case. Defense attorneys also did not return calls seeking comment. But the trial clearly is one of the biggest in a series of computer component theft cases that have wound through San Francisco Bay Area courts in the last decade. Silicon Valley corporations — as well as those based in other tech centers across the nation — have lost millions to such high-tech heists. In this instance, the defendants allegedly stole and then sold more than $11 million in computer chips and components during armed heists in the early 1990s. Indicted in 1998, the defendants are accused of the October 1993 robbery of Oki Semiconductor outside Portland, Ore., where masked gunmen tied up workers and removed $9 million in merchandise. The group is also accused of robbing San Jose’s Smart Module of $1 million worth of computer components in December 1990 and of a $1 million robbery of Pragmatech Software Inc. in San Jose in May 1993. The defendants then allegedly sold the components and other stolen goods on the gray market. The gray market is a mixture of breach of contract components and stolen items. With breach of contract sales, a company buys components from a manufacturer and then turns around and sells them. It isn’t a crime, but companies who are caught buying and selling on the gray market can be blacklisted by the injured company. This creates an atmosphere of silence, which makes it easier for crooks to unload stolen merchandise. That, in turn, makes it more difficult for prosecutors to gather information and prove the buyer knew the components were stolen. In the Oki case, the proceeds from gray market sales were then funneled through 15 fictitious businesses in the Bay Area. According to the case file, authorities tracked $27 million flowing through 64 accounts in the names of the suspects and family members from 1990 to 1996. The U.S. Attorney’s office is relying on three witnesses who cut deals with the prosecution to identify the eight defendants as carrying out the robberies. And attorneys on both sides struggled to question many of the witnesses whose primary language is Vietnamese. Defense attorneys are quick to attack the prosecution’s star witnesses. “For my client, there really is no evidence other than two former defendants who say he is involved,” said Alan Dressler, with Walker & Dressler, who is representing defendant Dzung Quoc Anh Nguyen. Prosecutors have called a string of Oki employees present at the 1993 robbery who described the crime in detail but couldn’t identify the robbers — an issue that didn’t slip past Judge Ware’s radar. During questioning the second week of trial, Ware sent the jury out of the room and lightly chastised the prosecution for spending so much time calling witnesses who could describe the crime but couldn’t identify the suspects. Defense attorneys are taking advantage of the prosecution’s struggle to identify suspects 10 years after the crime. San Francisco attorney Randolph Daar of Serra Lichter Darr Bustamante Michael & Wilson argued that his client Thi Van Do is the victim of identity theft. Berry said these types of prosecutions pose specific challenges, but commended the U.S. Attorney’s office for attempting to tackle them. “The feds have really come in with both barrels,” said Berry, who is with the high-tech crime unit. “They’ve really stepped up the personnel and a commitment.” Berry said high-tech heists are still big business, but have become less violent since the early 1990s. Criminals now primarily target warehouses and shipping companies, including UPS and Federal Express. Prosecutors can also be hampered by Silicon Valley jurors who often sympathize with the defendants in these cases. “There is much more juror identification with these criminals then a sexual predator,” Berry said. “These cases are like dropping a nuclear bomb (on the defendant) and the jury is fully aware of it.” The prosecution of United States v. Nhan Le Tran, 98 20060, comes after nearly a decade-long investigation into Asian organized crime, conducted by the FBI, U.S. Attorney’s office, IRS, U.S. Customs and San Jose Police Department. Authorities said the crime ring relied on inside informants at the companies to provide layouts of the buildings and help track shipments of products. Ring members then sold the stolen components domestically and in Hong Kong and Taiwan. The group also sold chips stolen by others outside of the group. The investigation culminated in a grand jury indictment of 17 Bay Area residents in 1998 on charges of conspiracy, armed robbery, tax evasion and transaction structuring. An amended complaint was filed this March naming 10 defendants. Eight defendants — Nhan Le Tran, Tinh Huy Nguyen, Long Hoai Thanh, Quoc Thanh Nguyen, Thi Van Do, Dzung Quoc Anh Nguyen, Trai Duc Ngo and Tuan Train — are currently standing trial for robbery. The U.S. Attorney’s office separated out tax evasion and structuring charges. Despite the difficulties in prosecuting such cases, Berry said the continuing efforts seem to be having an impact. “I do believe they react to our prosecutorial presence,” Berry said.

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