Demise of a kingpin, rise of an empire
Updated 9:39 AM ET, Tue September 7, 2021
Hong Kong (CNN)When FBI agent Mark Calnan finally met the kingpin whose drug syndicate he'd been investigating for the past six years, he was surprised.
With his black hair parted down the middle and modest fashion sense, Tse Chi Lop didn't look like the head of a multinational operation that had flooded the streets of New York with heroin before his arrest on August 12, 1998.
And, as he sat in a spartan interrogation room in Hong Kong, he didn't really behave like one, either.
Suspects usually reacted to arrest in one of two ways, the now-retired agent told CNN from his home in New Jersey. Combative types embraced the machismo that helped them navigate the cutthroat world of drug dealing. Cooperative ones worried that not talking meant longer prison time.
Tse didn't do either. He was calm, friendly and strategically tight-lipped -- even when Calnan told him the United States would be requesting his extradition.
Tse just smiled.
"He was impressive," said Calnan. "He was different."
By the end of that year, Tse was in New York, where he pleaded guilty to a single charge of conspiracy to import heroin into the US and was sentenced to nine years in prison. But if the authorities that put Tse behind bars were hoping he'd emerge from prison a changed man, it seems they were wrong.
Two decades later, Tse had allegedly become the head of a methamphetamine cartel earning an estimated $17 billion a year. Long since out of prison, he was reportedly living a lavish lifestyle built on the drug empire he purportedly operated with relative anonymity until his existence was revealed in a news report in 2019.
Then in January this year, Tse was arrested at Amsterdam's Schipol International Airport at the behest of Australian Federal Police (AFP), which had led a sprawling, decade-long investigation into his organization.
The man who once calmly sat opposite Calnan is now accused of being the mastermind behind the Sam Gor syndicate, arguably the biggest drug-trafficking operation in Asia's history. Australian authorities are seeking Tse's extradition on methamphetamine trafficking charges.
Tse, through his lawyer, declined to speak to CNN for this story. During an extradition hearing in June, he told a Dutch judge he was innocent of the charges.
As prosecutors prepare their case against Tse, CNN has investigated his early years, to better understand the man Australian authorities claim is one of the most-successful meth masterminds of the 21st century.
This is the story of Tse's first syndicate: how it thrived in American prisons; how police from around the world tore it apart; and how, from its ashes, this seemingly unassuming man from southern China was, allegedly, able to lay the groundwork for a multibillion-dollar drug empire from a prison in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.
The FBI investigation that led to Tse's arrest in Hong Kong began on a street corner in the Bronx, about 20 years after the US government launched its war on drugs under President Richard Nixon.
To end what Republicans called in 1980 a "murderous epidemic of drug abuse" sweeping the country, the government had invested heavily in anti-drug policing and passed laws that toughened sentences for drug offenders.
But the tough mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes and investments in policing were not having the desired effect.
By 1992, heroin in the US was getting cheaper and purer, according to a White House report at the time, and most of it was coming from Southeast Asia. That heroin was among the purest found in the US, the report said, and easy to overdose on from small amounts. The consequences were dire, especially in New York City, which was home to most of America's heroin addicts. Thousands of people were sent to emergency rooms each year after using the drug. Hundreds were dying.
That year, Calnan got a tip from a colleague about drugs being sold in the Bronx, on the corner of 183rd and Walton, and it would change his career. At the time, he was working for the FBI in New York, as a member of the Criminal Squad 25. C-25, as it was known, was tasked with tackling the growing problem of organized crime involving Asians and Asian-Americans -- especially those dealing the heroin from Southeast Asia that was flooding into the US.
As Calnan and his team began to surveil the street corner, a few miles from Yankee Stadium, and identify suspects and tap phones, one name kept coming up: Sonny.
The problem was there were at least two suspects named Sonny. There was Sonny from New Jersey and Sonny from Leavenworth, the US penitentiary in Kansas. One was Sonny on the outside and -- to their surprise -- the other was Sonny on the inside.
Sonny on the outside, they learned, was a Malaysian heroin dealer living in New Jersey. Sonny on the inside was the boss, and he had figured out how to run a heroin business from a federal prison.
Yim Ling didn't hear the assailants quietly enter her home in Kingston, New York, on a warm autumn day in 1983. She was in her bedroom, changing to go to work at her family's Chinese tea house, when someone grabbed her from behind.
She fought back, but one of her kidnappers allegedly covered her mouth with a chemical substance, likely chloroform, according to an account from a local police officer assigned to the case.
The government believes Yim was accidentally killed in the initial struggle, though her captors never mentioned that when extorting her husband for nearly $200,000 in ransom. Yim's body was never found.
Authorities charged several people for the abduction, including Yong Bing Gong, then a 23-year-old former employee at Yim's family tea house. Gong was sentenced to life in prison, where he became Sonny on the inside: the supplier for the heroin dealers on the New York street corner Calnan was monitoring.
Gong was cutting drug deals in the very place meant to punish people for dealing drugs.
Gong spoke to CNN through phone calls, letters and emails, though he declined to discuss specifics about his conviction on heroin trafficking charges, which were handed down while he was in prison. Gong hoped that sharing parts of his story would bring attention to what he feels are his unfairly long sentences. He was handed another 27 years in prison for heroin trafficking in addition to his first life sentence. After nearly 40 years behind bars, Gong believes he has paid his debt to society and should not be "left to rot and die, forgotten and forsaken by everyone I know."
"I know I am not an angel, but I am still a human being," Gong said.
Born in 1960 in Malaysia, Gong turned to a life of crime at a young age. His father owned a timber company in Indonesia and was often away, and his mother had six children -- too many to focus on controlling her wayward son.
That left Gong, as he put it, to "run the streets."
He joined a gang at 12 years old and eventually became a lieutenant. By 20 he was in a Malaysian jail, serving a two-year sentence after several run-ins with the law. Following his release in 1982, he went to the US.
Within about a year, he was in prison for Yim's abdu