Ringleader of Family Arson Crew in California Pleads Guilty in $4M Operation

Tyler Chen, 48, pleaded guilty this week in the Santa Clara County Superior Court in California following his arrest on multiple felony counts of insurance fraud and arson for his role in setting fires in a $4 million fraud scheme.

His wife, Kim, 45, also pleaded guilty this week on multiple felony counts. Four co-conspirators including business associate, Ha Nguyen, 64, of Stockton, were also arrested and charged. The Chens and Nguyen will return to court Jan. 3, 2020, for sentencing.

California Department of Insurance investigators discovered the scam in January 2014, when they received a tip through the department’s consumer hotline regarding a string of home, business and warehouse fires that occurred between December 2011 and September 2013.

Tyler Chen

The tipster gave the exact address of where the next house fire would occur. The CDI launched a joint investigation dubbed Operation Firebird with the San Jose Fire Department, the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office and the San Joaquin County District Attorney’s Office into fires that occurred at a business and two homes in San Jose and Stockton owned by the Chens.

Both the residential fires were reported to have started when chicken was being fried and left unattended on the stove. Chen reportedly orchestrated the entire scam to make it appear as though the fire was the result of a careless cooking incident. Furthermore, Chen proceeded to plant smoke-damaged items in the homes, many of which they had already used in insurance claims from other fires in their warehouses and businesses.

Chen and Nguyen rented a number of warehouses for an import and export business they co-owned. According to investigators, the business partners used smoke-damaged possessions to also claim damage from fires in their other warehouses. The investigation also found that goods claimed to be damaged in the fire had been purchased, but had not yet been received, which led detectives to arrest Nguyen for his role in the fraud scheme.

Chen and Nguyen attempted to claim damages of $5.6 million, of which roughly $4 as paid out by five victim insurance companies.

Chen recruited a family member, a co-worker, and another local business owner to take part in their ruse. Co-conspirators, Trang Huynh, 35, of Stockton, Suong (Sandy) Ngo, 51, of Santa Clara, and Duyen Pham, 51, of San Jose, were also arrested for their involvement.

Nguyen pleaded guilty to multiple felony counts of insurance fraud and arson on Sept. 16.

The Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office is prosecuting this case. The Chens, Ha Nguyen, and Duyen Pham are scheduled to return to court on Jan. 3, 2020 for sentencing. Suong (Sandy) Ngo will return to court on Dec. 19 at 1:30 p.m. The San Joaquin County District Attorney’s Office is also prosecuting this case.