The Six Flags theme park site in New Orleans East sits in weed-strewn limbo, a grim symbol of how slowly some parts of town have come back since Hurricane Katrina.
Redevelopment ideas have come and gone since the park closed as the storm bore down and never reopened. So far, nothing has panned out — unless you’re a pair of California entrepreneurs angling for a fast buck from a thrill-ride graveyard.
A judge in California sentenced Ngoc “Danny” Duong and Hong Lee “William” Wong last week to more than two years each in federal prison for defrauding investors by claiming they had won the right to demolish the theme park and sell the scrap metal.
After a trial that lasted 11 days, a jury in February convicted Duong, 61, and Wong, 46, of fabricating emails, a city services agreement and other written assurances purportedly penned by Deputy Mayor Cedric Grant, Property Management Director George Patterson and Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s economic development adviser, Aimee Quirk , among others.
Even New Orleans Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux’s name appeared in three emails to explain delays in the project as Duong and Wong wrangled six figures from a California company, Cheery Way Inc., and two Chinese firms, according to prosecutors.
According to Duong’s attorney, much of the money was for travel and expenses.
The convicted duo claimed they had signed a deal with the city for the rights to the park’s scrap metal. The Jester and the Muskrat Scrambler, it seemed, were headed for the furnace.
But as they made those assurances, beginning in 2010 and extending into 2011, the Landrieu administration had not even issued a request for proposals for the demolition work.
Still, Duong and Wong flew in the investors to view the abandoned theme park, said Denise Barton, an assistant U.S. attorney in Northern California who prosecuted the case. They used letterhead from both Quatrevaux’s office and the city to lend the scheme credibility.
“They both had businesses where they had previously sought out scrap metal throughout the country. I don’t think they had prolonged histories in New Orleans, but they had prior business dealings in many other states,” Barton said.
City officials were clueless about the emails and other documents with their names attached, she said.
Not that the two men failed to solicit city officials directly. Duong met at City Hall with Eddie Sens, deputy director of the city’s Department of Property Management, and others, Barton said.
The answer came back the same: Thank you. We’ll let you know when we’re ready.
The men submitted a formal proposal for the work in October 2011 and a general plan to redevelop the site for commercial use. It included possible water parks or other family entertainment, though the plan “wasn’t fleshed out,” Barton said. The city rejected their bid two months later.
Grant, Quirk, Quatrevaux and other city officials testified at the federal trial, where Duong and Wong were accused of taking in $100,000 in the con. U.S. District Judge Susan Illston ordered them jointly to forfeit $106,500, although Barton said the money remains in dispute. A restitution hearing is scheduled for July.
The jury convicted Duong, a partner in Incom Trading Corp., on eight counts of wire fraud and four counts of aggravated identity theft from a 14-count grand jury indictment handed up in July 2012.
Wong, a principal in Powell Trading Inc. and Powell Commodity Inc., was convicted on one count each of wire fraud and identity theft.
Illston on Friday sentenced Duong, of Fountain Valley, California, to 30 months in prison. She handed Wong, from Torrance, California, a 28-month sentence.
The judge ordered them to report to federal custody by Aug. 8.
In a sentencing memorandum, Duong’s attorney argued he never intended to simply take the money. His plan “was to clean up the Six Flags area and create a park or open space for the city, to give Cheery Way scrap metal and to get paid for his work,” attorney Claire Leary wrote, adding that his plan was to pay back the money if the deal fell through.
“He duped no one and he cheated no one,” Leary wrote.
Barton said the investors alerted the FBI to the alleged scam. The men were arrested in July 2012 — Duong at a Houston airport, Wong at his home. Both men testified at the trial, failing to persuade the jury they meant well.
“They were like a lot of folks we were hearing from,” said Tyler Gamble, a spokesman for Landrieu’s office. “They wanted to do something with (the site), but we hadn’t put the (request for proposals) together.”
Since the scam, an agreement between the city and a development team to turn the property into a shopping center has been scrapped. The Industrial Development Board is now entertaining new ideas for the park.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.