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Feds crack human smuggling ring linked to $6M Windsor mansion, records show


Detroit — Federal agents are investigating a smuggling ring sneaking immigrants across the U.S.-Canada border, a human pipeline linked to a $6 million riverfront mansion in Windsor that stretches to a dock behind a landmark Detroit restaurant, according to unsealed court records.

The court records describe an alleged low-tech smuggling conspiracy along the Detroit River that's part of a long-running battle between smugglers hauling drugs and humans across the river while trying to evade border guards equipped with thermal imaging devices, maritime radar, ground sensors and more.

In a criminal complaint unsealed Monday, charges were filed against Sterling Heights resident Quang Dang Hoang after authorities say smugglers last year used a pontoon boat in broad daylight and arrived at docks at Sindbad's Restaurant and Marina.

"Hopefully," Sindbad's owner Marc Blancke told The Detroit News, "they’ve stopped that."

The latest case was unsealed two years after a federal judge imprisoned a Canadian man caught using an egg-shaped, Wi-Fi-equipped submarine to smuggle drugs and money underwater, in near silence and with two cameras providing lookout.

It also comes amid a spike in illegal immigration. Last year, federal agents apprehended 7,707 adults traveling alone in Detroit and along the international water boundary between the U.S. and Canada, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection statistics. That is a 178% increase from a year earlier.

The investigation started on April 12, when a concerned citizen stopped a Border Patrol agent near The Whittier, a high-rise on East Jefferson, east of Van Dyke.

"The concerned citizen told the agent that he had just witnessed a possible human smuggling event — a group of approximately six individuals who appeared to be of Asian descent being dropped off by a pontoon boat at Sindbad's Restaurant and Marina," Border Patrol Agent Michael Pastrone wrote in an affidavit filed in federal court.

Sindbad's is further east off E. Jefferson and at the end of St. Clair Street, which ends at the river.

The agent walked to the Sindbad's marina and spotted a fishing boat captain. Unprompted, the captain said he saw a newer dark-colored pontoon boat with a white stripe drop off six people who appeared to be of Asian descent.

The six people did not have any fishing gear or baggage, the fishing boat captain said.

The event was so suspicious that the fishing boat captain shot photos of the pontoon boat as it left Sindbad's at 6:24 p.m. on April 12.

That night, agents reviewed radar tracks of vessels along the Detroit River and discovered one boat had arrived near Sindbad's and left around 6:24 p.m. The radar tracks indicated the boat had traveled from Canada, south of Belle Isle.

Investigators found the pontoon nearby one day later.

It was found at a 7,500-square-foot waterfront home in the 5600 block of Riverside Drive E. in Windsor.

The home and property include 184-feet of waterfront and a backyard resort featuring a pool, whirlpool, terraces, gas firepit, dock and a boat lift. The home carried the most expensive price tag in Windsor when it was listed for $5.995 million in spring 2016.

The mansion overlooks the south shore of Belle Isle and faces several island landmarks, including the Rev. Samuel Francis Smith memorial flagpole and nearby baseball diamonds.

The mansion is the home of Charles John Lavin, a 53-year-old Dearborn Heights resident and dual citizen of Canada and the U.S., according to the court filing.

The Border Patrol agent met the fishing boat captain the next day and showed him Lavin's photo. The captain recognized Lavin as the man operating the pontoon during the alleged smuggling operation at Sindbad's two days earlier, according to the affidavit.

Lavin has not been charged with wrongdoing, and he did not respond to a message seeking comment Tuesday. A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Detroit declined comment.

The investigation continued as agents searched for surveillance cameras near Sindbad's that might show people coming and going from the restaurant during the time people were spotted on the pontoon.

An agent reviewed footage from one surveillance camera at a nearby store. The footage showed a 2017 maroon Chrysler Pacifica heading northbound on St. Clair Street away from Sindbad's at 6:33 p.m. on April 12.

The street leads to East Jefferson. Investigators searched footage from automated cameras along East Jefferson that read vehicle license plates and discovered the 2017 maroon Chrysler Pacifica was registered to Hoang, a Vietnamese citizen and lawful permanent resident of the United States.

Investigators spent days surveilling Hoang, 36, who owns VP's Nail Salon in Auburn Hills. On April 15, they watched him and Ho Thong, a Vietnamese national in the U.S. illegally, driving to the salon. An agent went inside and saw both men at work, according to the affidavit.

In early May, investigators pulled over the Pacifica and questioned Hoang and Thong. Agents received permission to search photos on Thong's cellphone.

They found photos and videos from October 2021 of Thong and several other people of Asian descent at Lavin's mansion in Windsor, according to the court filing.

In another video, "Thong was observed riding on a pontoon boat as a passenger with the other unknown individuals while Lavin was operating the pontoon boat," the agent wrote.

Thong was charged with an immigration violation and Hoang was cited for not carrying his lawfully permanent resident card.

In July, investigators obtained a warrant to search Hoang's and Thong's cellphones and found more videos. One video showed Thong and others at Lavin's mansion in Windsor and another movie showed Lavin ferrying people on the pontoon boat. One photo showed Thong in front of Sindbad's.

Prosecutors describe Hoang as playing an active role in transporting, harboring and employing people in the country illegally.

According to the affidavit, the government's evidence includes a photo in Hoang's phone showing the exterior of Sindbad's. That photo was shot April 12, the day six people allegedly were smuggled into the U.S. at Sindbad's dock.

Hoang was charged Monday with alien smuggling conspiracy, transporting and harboring illegal aliens and a conspiracy charge of employing illegal aliens and released on $10,000 unsecured bond Monday after a brief appearance in federal court. If convicted, he could be sentenced to more than 20 years in federal prison.

His court-appointed lawyer, Rhonda Brazile, declined comment Tuesday.

Blancke, the owner of Sindbad's, cooperated with investigators and said he and his staff work closely with federal investigators from the Department of Homeland Security and Border Patrol.

"We've got signs posted: If you see suspicious behavior, call 911," he said.

He recalls seeing suspected smuggling twice over the years.

One incident involved people being dropped off and picked up in a truck.

"Nice people, carrying bags and stuff," he said. "That's not normal."

rsnell@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @robertsnellnews