Michael T. Sestak has allegedly confessed to selling visas in exchange for bribes. Now, US authorities are intent on tracking down members of the Vo family that they call his co-conspirators
On May 8, Vo Chau Hong was arrested in Denver, Colorado for her alleged role in a scheme to hand more than US$3 million to an American bureaucrat in Ho Chi Minh City in exchange for tourist visas.
A screen capture of Binh and Dao Vo's wedding video from November 2012. Michael T. Sestak (L), the former head of the US Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City's Non-Immigrant Visa Division apparently served as Vo's best man at the lavish wedding, which friends say cost more than US$300,000.
A Federal Judge ordered Vo, a 27-year-old graduate of the University of Denver with no criminal history, released to her parents' custody with an electronic ankle bracelet and a curfew.
"She's so cute and decent and studious," said her father Thuong Vo, 75, from his home in Denver. "This has to have been a mistake."
The government disagrees. Even after State Department investigators seized Hong's passport, a Federal judge in Washington DC insisted on her detention.
The government alleges that Hong laundered money by sending it to family in the US; that family, they argued, would be eager to help her escape what could be a decade or more in prison.
As of press time, Hong remained in custody, awaiting a flight to Washington, DC, where she will face charges of conspiracy to commit visa fraud and bribery. Her lawyers did not respond to numerous requests for comment.
"She's eating and drinking normally," said her father, Thuong Vo, adding that he had suffered a minor stroke in the week after her arrest.
"I can't believe it," said her oldest brother, Dien T. Vo, a chiropractor in San Diego. "All these years, she went out of her way to help a lot of people. A lot of poor people."
Dien described his siblings in Vietnam as "average American citizens."
"They go abroad, learn and do business like everyone else," he said.
Hong's older brother, her sister-in-law and her boyfriend have not responded to numerous emailed requests for comment.
But Michael T. Sestak - the former cop, Deputy US Marshall, Naval Intelligence Officer, 9-11 First Responder and Foreign Service Officer - has already confessed to his role in the scheme.
A woman answering the telephone at his father's house in upstate New York declined to comment and his lawyer did not reply to an emailed list of questions.
For the dogged State Department investigator, the rest of this case seems like a matter of seizing assets, making arrests and accounting for the more than 500 Vietnamese nationals who entered the US on Sestak's fraudulent tourist visas.
The Vos come to America
Thuong Vo, 75, described himself as a "boat person" who came to Denver after the war.
Friends say the family's rickety vessel ran out of fuel, food and water at sea. They spent days adrift before being rescued by the crew of a Norwegian tanker.
Their fellow passengers remained in Norway, friends say. But the Vo family was relocated to Denver, where Thuong and his wife raised six children with the money he made running a lawn care business.
"It was tough," he said. "I worked really hard to raise my kids."
Even as he struggled to make ends meet, the Hue native says he spent two years volunteering his time to help other Vietnamese immigrants assimilate to life in America and has continued to return to Vietnam to do charity work for the victims of Agent Orange.
He holds a special regard for Hong, his youngest child, whom he described as "lovely."
Hong grew up snowboarding in the mountains around her hometown.
During 2008 (the year she graduated from the University of Denver) she co-chaired the North American Union of Vietnamese Students Association Collective Philanthropy Project.
Hong stood just over five feet tall and weighed a little over a hundred pounds, but she was willing to take risks.
On her blog and social media website, Hong described herself as "crazy and ambitious."
"I love fashion, photography, philanthropy and anything that keeps my adrenaline pumping," she wrote on a profile of herself in 2009.
"Hong Vo wants to become rich, rich, and rich!" she tweeted the same year.
After college, Hong began running marathons and moved to Los Angeles to work at an online marketing firm called WPromote and met the man who would become her boyfriend - a handsome, athletic Vietnamese American of the same age named Joe Nguyen.
"His positive, happy attitude made him one of the best colleagues to work with," she wrote on his LinkedIn profile.
Big brother Binh
In the Spring of 2011, Hong left her job and began traveling.
After having her iPad stolen in Lisbon, she headed to HCMC, where her older brother, Vo Tang Binh, had made quite a name for himself as Binh Vo.
Family friends and former business associates say Binh was transferred to HCMC by a multi-national company long before it had begun to boom.
By the late 90's, Binh had become a well-connected member of the Australian and American chambers of commerce. Several individuals recall that the affable, bespectacled Binh was rarely seen outside the company of beautiful women.
"Binh was the shit," a friend recalled. "He was funny and charming. He could go anywhere and have any girl."
Others seemed puzzled by his success.
One member of the American Chamber of Commerce in HCMC recalled seeing him with a particularly striking female companion and wondering: "What is it Binh does? Move people's furniture around?"
In fact, Binh had successfully built up a series of relocation companies that specialized in helping government officials and corporate transplants get settled in Vietnam.
In 2005, his younger sister Anh (who has not been implicated in the alleged visa scandal) left a job at J. Crew in Denver to join his company and gradually rose to the rank of General Manager.
In 2007, a multi-national relocation firm called the Santa Fe Group bought out Binh and his partner. Those familiar with the deal say they made millions.
When Hong arrived, life was looking pretty good for her big brother.
His deal with Santa Fe required him to stay on as General Director, but associates say that Anh handled most of the day-to-day operations.
Around this time, Binh met a bright Vietnamese beauty queen named Nguyen Thuy Anh Dao on an airplane.
While she studied for an MBA at the University of Texas in Austin, the two became engaged.
Life in Saigon
Hong's life in Saigon proved sweet.
She moved into an apartment near the zoo and worked out at gyms that cost as much to join as an average Vietnamese person makes in a year. She dressed up, went out and puttered around the town on a vintage Honda Cub. According to her Twitter account, she traveled nearly every month.
And she stayed close to her family.
On July 4, 2011 she tweeted that she had begun work on spotvietnam.com - a web forum designed to help expats find places to live in Saigon. Friends in town say they reached Dao and Joe via their spotvietnam emails.
The following year, investigators say Hong, her future sister-in-law and her boyfriend launched visa-my.com - a website that offered a money-back guarantee to customers who were accepted by the site and did not get a visa to the United States.
Joe remained in the States, but Hong came home to visit. Toward the end of 2012, he quit his job and flew out to join her in HCMC.
On his blog, he described his move into the posh lifestyle of the Vos as "Lewis and Clark-ing in Vietnam."
Joe could not be reached for comment. Hong's father alleged he was in California.
"He seems like a good guy," he said.
Sestak's 'best friend'
The US government alleges that a year after starting work with Spot Vietnam, Hong joined her "sibling," her "sister in law" and her "significant other" in a criminal scheme involving millions of dollars.
Hong and her co-conspirators have been accused of cultivating a close friendship with Michael T. Sestak, the then head of the US non-immigrant visa department, which they flipped into an elaborate scheme to sell visas.
In one of several chats that investigators culled from Hong's gmail accounts, she referred to her brother as "like [Sestak's] best friend."
Investigators say Hong and her family members falsely represented Sestak as "a lawyer" who could get anyone a tourist visa in three days for as little as $20,000.
All of Hong's technical training, they say, went toward trying to create fraudulent visa applications through the use of shell email accounts and encoded IP addresses.
Sestak left his consular post last September with over $3 million waiting for him in a Thai bank account. He believed he'd be heading into combat in Afghanistan as a Naval Intelligence officer.
Sources say his relations to the Vos had yielded a girlfriend - a fact that frustrated Dao.
"The deal is not possible," she allegedly wrote to Hong in September, after Sestak had called it quits. "He stubbornly refuses to do it... giving up... he has a new girl and only cares about his girl... doesn't want to work... Money is also sufficient, doesn't need it anymore... one year in Afghanistan with no girls."
The Big day
Sestak never made it to Afghanistan.
Once in Thailand, friends say he quit the Navy after hearing his security clearance had been compromised by his relationship with a Vietnamese girl.
Investigators say they were already wise to his scheme.
After buying nine properties in Thailand, Sestak returned to Saigon in November of 2012 to attend Binh and Dao's wedding.
The crew cut-sporting, lumbering American stood out in the bridal procession. A YouTube clip shows Sestak towering above the rest of the groomsmen in a tailored yellow satin tunic, which he twirled around his finger.
In the video, he accompanies Binh and his father in a stretch Cadillac limousine to Dao's home and stands holding a tray of rice wine during a traditional betrothal ceremony.
Then Sestak changed into a suit and accompanied a younger woman in a red dress to the ceremony at the Sheraton Saigon Hotel. Friends say Binh and Dao spent in excess of $300,000 that day.
US Investigators voided Sestak's diplomatic passport in early May, leading Thai immigration officials to arrest him in Phuket where he had purchased a number of luxury properties. State Department investigators caught up to him at an immigration detention center in Bangkok and interviewed him on tape.
Sestak has spent a lifetime in law enforcement, beginning as a police officer in Albany, New York and continuing through the US Marshall's service - one of several organizations then hunting him.
Despite all he must have known about the law, he confessed to having received roughly $3 million for approving fraudulent non-immigrant visas.
At first, he said, he took the money in cash and stuck it in a personal safe. But when the money became too much for his safe, his partner managed it for him.
He told them he did not believe Dao was aware of the scheme because he'd only ever talked to her husband about the specifics.
US investigators are now in the process of chasing down what they estimate could be more than $5 million that the Vos have allegedly stashed in bank accounts all over Asia and the US.
"We need to spread out the cash to many banks and locations to be safe," Dao's husband allegedly wrote not long after the wedding.
"Agreed!" Dao replied, according to a federal affidavit that was filed to seize the contents her sizable US trading account.
On Tuesday, authorities in Washington DC arraigned Truc Tranh Huynh, Hong Vo's 29-year-old cousin for acting as a "runner" for the family operation.
She had entered the US on a tourist visa approved by Sestak.
The lady vanishes
Dao and Binh Vo have disappeared from public sight. The publication of their names has sparked widespread speculation as to their whereabouts.
Binh's former employer, the Santa Fe Group, says he resigned from his post on May 23 without explanation.
Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper recently reported that Binh and his wife last entered Vietnam on April 7 and haven't left since.
A woman identifying herself as Dao's mother said she hadn't heard from her daughter in a long time.
"Three or four days ago I spoke to him and he was in Vietnam," his father said on Monday. "Now, I don't know."
* An Dien, Nhan Van contributed to this report
(The story can be found in the June 7th issue of our print edition Vietweek)