By LORI PILGER / Lincoln Journal Star
The government said the man and woman at the defense table — listening to a translation over headphones — acted as conduits in a Vietnamese cigarette smuggling ring.
But, one after another in opening statements, attorneys for Tang “Janny” Nguyen and Nhu Van Phan said they had been tricked.
Nguyen by her sister. Van Phan by a man who was like family.
Now they both face a string of charges: smuggling goods into the United States, tax evasion, mail fraud, conspiracy.
At the start of their trial Tuesday in U.S. District Court, Assistant U.S. Attorney William Mickle told the jury the investigation started in Nebraska City in May 2011, with a tip that someone in town was selling Vietnamese cigarettes. That led to Lincoln.
Working with investigators, he said, the tipster bought two cartons of Marlboro cigarettes for $35 each from Teo Van Phan at his Nebraska City apartment.
Mickle said the boxes looked like they do here, except they had Vietnamese writing and no tax stamps.
When the tipster bought them from Teo Van Phan a second time, they came in a shipping box with Nhu Van Phan’s name and Lincoln address on it.
Post office monitoring turned up more packages from Vietnam and another name, Kim Nguyen. A trash pull at her north Lincoln home turned up 32 cardboard boxes, 20 mailed to her and 12 to her sister, Tang “Janny” Nguyen, a couple of doors down.
In all, investigators turned up more than 791 packs, plus seven cartons, of contraband cigarettes in April 24 searches of four Lincoln residences — one of them less than a block from a police station — and an apartment in Nebraska City.
Mickle said the labels were evidence that Janny Nguyen and Nhu Van Phan were part of the scheme, too.
That’s not how their attorneys, Chad Primmer and Stu Dornan, see it.
“What we have here is a man who was duped,” Dornan said of Nhu Van Phan.
He said the 69-year-old is a good man who survived fighting alongside U.S. soldiers in Vietnam before fleeing the country to a Thai refugee camp after the war was over, then coming to Nebraska.
Van Phan will survive this, too, Dornan said.
He said Nhu Van Phan was an easy mark for 44-year-old Teo Van Phan, an unrelated man he met working at the Cargill plant, where Teo Van Phan asked whether he could have the cigarettes sent to him in Lincoln because they were prejudiced against him in Nebraska City.
“Does that make him guilty of everything the government has thrown at him?” Dornan asked.
Primmer said his client was duped by her own sister.
Although the packages had Janny Nguyen’s name and address on them, he said, the government has no evidence she possessed them or was involved in any way.
Kim Nguyen was the only one benefiting while her sister worked six days a week in Omaha, he said.
“It simply doesn’t add up,” Primmer said. “It’s speculation at its finest.”
In the end, it will be for the jury to decide.
Four others — Kim Nguyen, Teo Van Phan, Hoa Van Huynh and Thuy Nguyen — have entered pleas and are awaiting sentencing.