California arrests over chip take-away

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Seventeen suspects have been indicted for armed robbery in connection with America's biggest known theft of computer chips, a haul more valuable than guns, heroin or gold. California prosecutors linked the suspects to Asian organised crime gangs, who have been blamed for masterminding a spate of US raids.

The 17 were charged with robbing Centon Electronics in Irvine, California, east of Los Angeles, known as one of the safest cities in America. They escaped with a haul of computer chips and motherboards that was originally valued at $5 million, but later upgraded to double that sum. It was believed to hold the record as the biggest such robbery in the US, a spokesman for Nora Manella, the US Attorney for the central district of California, said.

Two of the suspects were ethnic Chinese, one Cambodian, and fourteen of Vietnamese origin. "All are linked to Asian street gangs, or larger organised crime enterprises," the spokesman said. But there was no indication that the robbery had been ordered by crime syndicates outside the country, as has been suggested in other cases.

About a dozen young men took part in the late evening raid in May 1995, witnesses said, arriving at the door of Centon Electronics smartly dressed in sport coats and ties, in a rental truck and two cars. They forced their way inside at gun point, and forced employees to lie face down on the ground. No-one was hurt.

They carried off boxes of computer chips varying from one to 30 megabytes. With the chips valued at the time at up to $1,200 a piece, they were worth more than gold by weight. Since the raid, 53 others, as well as these 17, have been arrested on suspicion of having some kind of connection with the raid.

Most of the chip robberies have taken place in Silicon Valley, to the north, where being held up at gunpoint became a hazard of life for some executives. A joint task force from Washington, Oregon and California, the three West Coast states, was set up to break the silicon trade.

Stolen electronic components enter what is called a "grey market". Manufacturers chasing chips in short supply turn to independent middle men with few questions asked. Companies in both Britain and the US have been targeted.

When the phenomenon first raised its head, firms were often reluctant to release details of their losses, and many were suspected of being inside jobs. But as Asian gangsters appeared to make the crime their speciality, the US computer industry, allied with the FBI and big insurers, went on the offensive. Firms pooled intelligence and marked serial numbers on the most valuable chips.

In Silicon Valley, more than 500 federal and local law officers took part in a dawn raid last year dubbed Operation West Chips that rounded up more than 50 people, mostly Vietnamese immigrants. Last year 24 suspects in the Centon raid were indicted in San Francisco, and another 20 in San Jose, the capital of Silicon Valley. A further nine suspects were indicted earlier this year in Portland, Oregon.

Eleven of the 17 named in Monday's indictment were also charged in connection with a second robbery, in which $400,000 worth of chips were taken.