SAN FRANCISCO – What drove Binh Thai Luc, 35, to be charged this week with slaying five people in a San Francisco home last week? The grisly murders have rocked the city and left investigators and the public searching for a motive.
“We’re not discussing any potential motive for these killings,” stated Omid Talai, spokesman for San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon, who said he couldn’t comment further because the investigation is ongoing. Asked whether gambling might be involved, he replied, “We’ll be exploring everything.”
News media reports have suggested that the killer may have been trying to collect on gambling debts. Although gambling addiction affects every group, researchers have found unusually high levels among Asians.
The website of the Responsible Gambling Council (RGC) notes, “A regional study in California shows that 35 to 42 percent of Asian American casino clientèle are problem gamblers, a much higher rate than in the general population.”
Growing Problem Can Erupt in Violence
For the city’s Asian residents, the violent nature of the crime in their communities – Luc, could face the death penalty, is of Chinese-Vietnamese descent and the victims were all Chinese – has stirred suspicions that it could be tied to gambling, a growing problem in the community that has sometimes erupted in violence.
“Gambling is a huge problem in the Chinese community,” said Kent Woo, executive director of the NICOS Chinese Health Coalition located in San Francisco’s Chinatown. (NICOS is an acronym for the group’s five founding organizations.)
Woo co-founded the Chinese Community Problem Gambling Project, a California-wide program that runs a gambling hotline, offers counseling services and does research and outreach.
A survey the group conducted in 1997 found that 70 percent of Chinese Americans in San Francisco believe gambling is a problem in their community.
Woo said money issues stemming from problem gambling and crime often go hand in hand.
“It’s actually somewhat common for our clients to report that they have gone to loan sharks for money,” said Woo, adding that loan sharks scout casinos and card rooms looking for desperate gamblers, who have run out of money. In some cases, Woo continued, loan sharks bribe casino staff to track customers who are losing money.
In June 2010, California Department of Justice’s Bureau of Gaming Control cracked down on an Asian loan-sharking ring (http://oag.ca.gov/news/press_release?id=1934) at the tribal casinos outside of Sacramento.
The bureau arrested five lenders, who allegedly charged exorbitant interest rates--5 to 10 percent every week--and threatened borrowers and their family members to collect debts.
One lender, a member of a violent international gang in China, used his ties to pressure borrowers by threatening their family members back home.
The number of people calling the NICOS hotline doubled to 300 calls from 2009 to 2011. Most of callers have a debt of about $50,000 dollars before they reach out for help.
Tony Nguyen, a counselor and business analyst at the Southeast Asian Community Center in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, said a lot of immigrants gamble because they are exposed to it at a young age. It is culturally accepted in Asian culture, and gambling is often part of holidays and celebrations.
Nguyen, who provides assistance to small businesses in need of loans and start-up assistance, said his mainly Vietnamese clients struggle for employment and tend to have lower-incomes. But, that doesn’t stop them from gambling away money they can’t afford to lose.
“They go to work and get a paycheck. The first thing they do is go to the casino and burn it,” he said.
“They always hope they can make the big bucks and once in awhile they make money, but then they come back the next day [to the casino] to burn it again.”
Compulsive or pathological gambling come with a wide range of signs, such as preoccupation, restlessness or irritability when attempting to stop, "chasing" losses with more money, lying and performing illegal acts.
According to the RGC website, “The issue is more severe in the Asian American community, with pockets of the population experiencing trends of acute problem gambling -- especially in areas with high concentrations of casinos, such as California and Connecticut.”
Nguyen, the business analyst with the Southeast Asian Community Center, observed that problem gambling affects Vietnamese men of all ages. He also said he sees many women gamblers, who are trying to make “quick money.”
Recently, Nguyen said, he’s seen a disturbing trend: Homeowners who resort to gambling to come up with large sums of money to save their homes from foreclosure.
Woo, the director of the Bay Area's NICOS health coalition, says Asians may be attracted to gambling because of their immigration experience. People who are willing to start a new life in another country are generally greater risk-takers, and more likely to gravitate toward the risk-taking nature of gambling, he said.
Casinos Make It Easy
Nguyen emphasized that the proliferation of casinos in the Bay Area has made it easier for people to gamble without having to go to Reno, Lake Tahoe or Las Vegas.
“There are so many casinos in the Bay Area now. People can go there anytime they want until they lose all their money, until their last dollar,” he said, adding that many casinos offer lines of credit to special customers.
“It's obvious that casino operators know they can make money off Vietnamese, and that's why they provide free transportation, and sometimes other premiums,” said Vu Hao Nhien, an editor for Nguoi Viet, a Vietnamese-language daily based in Westminster, Calif.
“The casinos near Little Saigon would have been so empty on a week day, if not for the Vietnamese, who are there all the time. It's gotten so that they even serve pho and Chinese noodle soup,” Nhien said.
For some Asian immigrants, “casinos have become main social institutions, replacing churches, family associations, restaurants, et cetera,” said Timothy Fong, assistant clinical psychiatry professor and co-director of the Gambling Studies Program at the University of California, Los Angeles. He spoke during a University of Massachusetts, Boston, forum on problem gambling in the Asian American community.
Jennie Hua, a counselor for NICOS’ gambling hotline, said gambling fills a void in people’s lives.
"The main reason that Chinese men take on gambling is that they don't have much social life or hobbies. Therefore, they choose casinos to kill the time,” she said.
Also, Hua said, many seniors are attracted to casinos to fill their time: “Their kids are moving away, they find that they don't have many friends to hang out with, they then go to casinos."
Nam Paik, pastor of the Northern California Deaf Church based in Fremont, Calif., has long worked with Korean-community members struggling with gambling addiction. He recently launched a Korean-language website where visitors can join an anonymous online forum to discuss their problems with gambling.
"When Koreans first arrive in the U.S., they often find themselves isolated from mainstream society and unaware of many of the recreational diversions available,” said Paik. With Las Vegas and other major gambling centers nearby, it becomes an easily available source of entertainment, he added.
Although problem gambling can lead to violence in isolated cases, the more typical impacts on families can still be devastating.
“I can see broken families, divorces, lost jobs I see that,” said Nguyen of the Southeast Asian Community Center.
In a commentary published by Silicon Valley De-Bug/Viet Tide in 2010, contributor Thuy Ngo described the fallout of her stepfather’s gambling addiction of her family life in San Jose, Calif.
“I sometimes think his actions were a result of a long rocky marriage, feelings of depression, and a loss of hope that things would ever get better. In the end there was a lot of analyzing we all did, the what-ifs or the could-bes. But at the end of my mom’s marriage to him, the finalization of their divorce was his only wake-up call to his gambling addiction.”
Ngo concluded, “There was nothing that could get him to stop his addiction. I think things could have gotten worse, and at least, we all survived.”
New America Media’s Aruna Lee, Andrew Lam and Summer Chiang contributed reporting.