An osteopathic physician named Keith Ly took the stand at a federal court house in Seattle on Thursday claiming to know nothing.
Dr. Ly, who was born in Vietnam and has no criminal history, stands accused of orchestrating what the US Attorney's Office describes as a “an intricate and sophisticated criminal scheme” in his three suburban rental properties.
The doctor will no doubt try to convince a jury that, among other things, he had no idea how his homes became filled with marijuana grow equipment and that he unwittingly filed roughly $250,000 worth of false insurance claims after police and firefighters confiscated it all in 2011 and 2012.
While possibly greedy, he seems the unlikely head of a criminal conspiracy.
Though he failed to respond to numerous interview requests, he has emerged from the documents he submitted in his defense as something of a goofy over-achiever.
His five-page resume describes stints as a Disney Magic Senior Physician for the company's eponymous cruise line and the former VP of the Asian American Student Association.
“I have 3,000 active patients in my practice ranging from a newborn to my oldest at 105 years who is still driving,” he wrote in a letter summarizing the nature of his private practice. “I have treated many FBI agents, Police Officers, DEA agents, Judges, Attorneys and their respected families as patients.”
During his 14 years practicing medicine, Ly appears to have drawn little heat beyond a series of bad reviews on Yelp.
His website describes him as a boating and ballroom dancing enthusiast and claims he invented a “painless hypodermic needle” and is working on something he calls an “anti-headache pillow.”
His accountant, Hue Tran, estimated that Ly works ten hours a day, six days a week at his private clinic in Mountlake Terrace.
“I believe Dr. Ly has a good reputation and is respected among the Vietnamese community,” he wrote in a letter submitted to the court.
On trial in Smoke City
As unlikely a dope grower as Dr. Ly seems, Seattle seems an even more unlikely setting for his undoing.
The city led the state's charge to legalize marijuana in 2012 and today, a shag-carpeted van called the “Cannabus” shuttles marijuana tourists from licensed pot farms to cannabis cooking demonstrations.
A friend of Ly's, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the doctor has acknowledged that he could spend a decade in prison if convicted—an outcome that looks increasingly likely.
On Tuesday, a former grower testified that Ly not only knew of the operation in his grow houses, he personally bought bags of fertilizer and hired growers.
American Civil Liberties Union Attorney Alison Holcomb, who helped draft the law that created Washington's nascent seed-to-sale marijuana system told Thanh Nien News that she's defended a lot of Vietnamese folks in Ly's situation.
She spent most of the 90's trying to save drug mules caught hauling dope over the border from Canada in hockey bags. After 9/11 tightened border security and pushed production into the US, she defended many more who were caught working as low-level straw men in indoor grows to pay off debts and medical bills.
But Ly didn't have any of those problems. In fact, prior to his arrest, his life looked pretty great.
Holcomb didn't seem to know how to feel about his predicament.
“Yes these [marijuana prohibition] laws are ridiculous and indefensible,” she said via telephone. “On the flip side, these people are doing it specifically because those laws are on the books, because this is a profitable industry specifically where they can take advantage of black market prohibition risk inflation.”
The day before Ly's trial began, The New York Times published the first of a six part op-ed calling for the immediate, nationwide legalization of marijuana.
The piece noted that Nixon's Controlled Substances Act was unanimously passed when Senator Thomas Dodd held up a brick of what he called “Asian Marijuana” and claimed it had caused a US Army Sergeant to call in an artillery strike on his own men in Vietnam—a claim that seemed as spurious now as it did then.
In many ways, this case brings America's schizophrenic relationship with marijuana, capitalism and Vietnam to the fore.
All told, police and fire fighters recovered 13 kilograms of marijuana an two handguns from Ly's properties, along with lots of electrical and hydroponic grow equipment. Ironically, pot became legal in Washington State four months after the his arrest. FILE PHOTO
The ballad of Ms. Bui
Bui Nguyen Thi Tram (Tram Bui) was born in 1986 as the youngest of five children in the central Vietnamese city of Da Nang.
Her father was a former pilot for the US-backed Southern Republic. Her mother and two sisters worked as school teachers.
Bui grew into a stunning woman. Her hour-glass figure and lily-white skin would eventually catch the eye of a Vietnamese American with whom she had a son at the age of 23.
Soon afterward, he brought her and their son to live with him in the suburbs of Washington state.
Her life quickly unraveled, according to her hand-written appeal to a federal judge.
“He became very possessive and abusive of me,” she wrote.
Soon she was living in a rented room she shared with a friend, working two low-paying job at a casino in Tacoma to support her child. Her ex-husband never forwarded an immigration form that would have entitled her to stay in the country as a battered mother—making her an illegal alien.
Phong Le, a realtor, said that three months after befriending Bui, her “ex-husband Tuan came into the picture.”
He believed she was having an affair. When Le tried to meet with him at a local gas station, Tuan pulled up in a car with two enormous thugs.
“He was screaming, verbally abusive and extremely threatening,” Le wrote in a letter submitted to a federal judge.
When Bui's sister died of uterine cancer, she decided to go back to Vietnam and Le promised to help her pack.
When he pulled up to the house he'd rented to Tran, her husband tried to cut him off. After pulling away, Le claims her enraged husband chased him down the freeway.
“I was swerving from one lane to another at over 90 miles an hour to evade his car,” he wrote.
Bui managed to get away that night and left her son with her mother-in-law. When she returned she found herself pulled back into their house.\
When Bui returned to Washington after a month in Vietnam, she found herself back in her husband's house. One night, in 2010, after a beating, she fled to a friend's house in her night clothes.
“I promised myself I would never return,” she wrote.
Things began to look up.
She met a handsome, unmarried doctor nearly twice her age named Keith Ly who owned four houses and drove a Mercedes.
She also met a regular at the casino who had a plan that would solve her money problems.
“In the Vietnamese and Chinese communities out here, friends would say, 'if it’s tough to get a job, why not [grow pot]?’” Le said via telephone. “Marijuana's gonna be legal soon anyhow.”
One of those friends, now serving 15 months in prison, described Bui as the mastermind of the operation who doled out salaries, purchased equipment (in cash) and monitored daily operations.
Bui maintained she was roped into the scheme by a group of bad seeds.
In court documents and hand-written letters, Bui described her life in America as bleak. She claimed her first husband beat her and forced her to abandon her first child. Life turned around when she met Dr. Ly, a wealthy boating enthusiast with three rental properties in the Seattle suburbs. FILE PHOTO
At some point in 2011, the tenants of Dr. Ly's suburban rental properties were kicked out and replaced with high-tech grow operations that yielded marijuana worth $2,000 per pound.
Things quickly went wrong.
Police pulled Bui over, twice, (first in her white Land Rover, then again in Ly's Mercedes) and seized cash and a pound of pot each time.
In the middle of all this, a team of firefighters found 700 marijuana plants in one of the doctor's houses after a device used to steal electricity burst into flames.
All told, police pulled 13 kilos of marijuana, a lot of grow equipment, and two handguns out of Dr. Ly's three rental properties. The US Attorney's office says that the couple roped one of their alleged employees into lying to cops about being a medical marijuana deliveryman and later tried to recoup their losses by committing insurance fraud.
But their lives strangely marched on.
In November 2012, Bui beat out a doctor to become Mrs. Vietnam Universe the same month that over half the voters in Washington state legalized marijuana.
Ly continued to practice at his clinic, even though the authorities had suspended his ability to prescribe controlled substances.
Had the couple waited a year, they might have been able to apply for a state license to grow recreational cannabis for $250.
Going down in “a disaster”
Bui's lawyer, David Gehrke, said elements of his client's story were sad, but refrained from casting her as a tragic figure.
“She wasn't a conscientious objector; this was greed,” he said of her motives for the crime.
When one looks back ten years from now, as to this offense and the sentence. What will we think about the seriousness of Ms. Bui's offense and what is required to provide just punishment?” -- David Gehrke, Tram Bui’s lawyer
With Gehrke at her side, Bui pleaded guilty and was given 36 months in federal prison last month after a judge agreed to ignore the mandatory sentencing guidelines.
Gerhke says she pled guilty so she could testify, during Ly's trial, that her husband knew nothing of the scheme.
If that works, Dr. Ly may stay out of jail, though the feds seem intent on seizing all his houses.
But that now seems like a small matter. When Bui leaves prison, she'll likely be deported.
What's worse, she's pregnant and due on January 23, 2015—a month before she'll begin her sentence.
“She wasn't pregnant when she was growing and wasn't pregnant when she was charged and wasn't pregnant when she plead guilty,” Gehrke said via telephone.
But none of that is really the point in a place where marijuana is now tantamount to tobacco or alcohol.
“We grow some of the best pot in the world up here in Seattle,” he said. “If you’re ever in town I'll show you where to buy it.”
At the moment, that wouldn't be a very hard thing to do.
Washington's new law carried so many caveats that only one licensed pot store actually opened in late July and quickly ran out of merchandise.
Supplies remain low throughout the state, prompting the leader of one growing association to tell the International Business Times that the system was “a disaster.”
In other words, Washington could really use the 13 kilos sitting in an evidentiary locker with Bui and Ly's names written on them.
In pursuing the case, the federal government has tried to argue that the grow operations endangered their unwitting neighbors—Gehrke pointed out that they, in fact, hurt no one.
“When one looks back ten years from now, as to this offense and the sentence,” Gehrke wrote in his final comments to the judge presiding over Bui's case. “What will we think about the seriousness of Ms. Bui's offense and what is required to provide just punishment?”
Gehrke says he's working with a team of lawyers to prevent the deportation of Bui and her son when she gets out in 2018.
At the moment, no one knows whether or not Ly will be in prison when that time comes.