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By John Ravelo

SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, Oct. 26) – The alleged mastermind in the first bank robbery in the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas is now in the hands of federal authorities and was to be brought to Saipan's federal court today.

The U.S. District Court has scheduled this morning an initial appearance hearing for Vann Le, a former Saipan businessman who fled to Vietnam after local and federal authorities tagged him as the mastermind behind the April 2002 robbery at the City Trust Bank.

An Associated Press report said that Le was handed over to Federal Bureau of Investigation agents Saturday after almost a year in Vietnamese custody. Le was turned over by Vietnam's Ministry of Public Security at the Tan Son Nhat International Airport on Saturday, the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi said. His hometown in the United States was not immediately known.

Le was arrested in southern Ho Chi Minh City in December 2003 and was in Vietnamese custody until Saturday. Before Le could be brought to Saipan, Vietnam police had to ready extradition proceedings against him.

It was the third time in the past 12 months that Vietnam has handed over an American fugitive who had taken refuge in the country.

Le, a Vietnamese-born American national, reportedly went into hiding in Vietnam in January 2003 in the name of Bui Quang Khai with a business visa. He invested in a telephone and telecommunication equipment company in Ho Chi Minh City. On Saipan, he used to directly manage his own watersports company.

A former citizen of the central port city of Danang, Le was once sentenced to 10 months in prison by a HCM City court for falsifying government seals and documents, the AP report said.

Local and federal authorities announced solving the bank robbery case in February 2003, charging three men-including Le-in federal court. At that time, the Federal Bureau of Investigation took custody of the two other defendants, Norman Kapileo and Lionel Borja, while Le remained at large.

U.S. prosecutor Patrick Smith assured then, however, that a joint task force composed of FBI agents and the CNMI Department of Public Safety was tracking the suspect.

Smith charged the defendants with three criminal counts: Hobbs Act robbery conspiracy, Hobbs Act robbery and using and carrying a firearm during crime of violence.

Posing first as customers, Kapileo and Borja went to the Gualo Rai bank on April 12, 2002 and took off with some $8,649. Before the duo fled the scene with stolen money, Kapileo fired his gun.

Chief judge Alex R. Munson had already sentenced Kapileo to 15 years and 10 months imprisonment, after the defendant pleaded guilty to conspiring to rob the bank and another charge of using and carrying a gun during the robbery. Borja had also owned up to some of the charges in a plea agreement with the U.S. Attorney's Office.

Munson had also sentenced to 33 months imprisonment one Jason Ruluked for obstructing the probe on the bank robbery and making false statements to federal agents.

October 26, 2004

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