Gambling on professional football games might seem like a harmless all-American pastime, but for a Vietnamese native living in Buffalo it turned out to be a bad bet.
The man hit a losing streak of $24,000 in unpaid wagers that drew the wrath of another Vietnamese native as well as a 70-year-old Cheektowaga bookie, authorities said.
The Cheektowaga bookie, authorities said, began threatening the Vietnamese bettor with physical violence. So the gambler, whose name was withheld, sought the help of law enforcement officials.
Federal agents Friday arrested Thi C. Nguyen, a 33-year-old West Seneca nail salon owner, and Eric Battistoni, a Cheektowaga resident who may have ties to organized crime, the FBI said.
They were charged with extortion by members of the FBI’s Safe Streets Task Force.
Nguyen, owner of A.J. Nails at Southgate Plaza on Union Road in West Seneca, served as Battistoni’s link to gamblers in Buffalo Niagara’s Asian community, authorities said.
Fearful of his well-being, the victim first went to police in April to express concern about the threats. When another round of threats began May 7, the FBI got involved.
“Battistoni and Nguyen showed up unannounced at the victim’s place of business and made threats of force and violence to collect the debts,” FBI Supervisory Agent James A. Jancewicz said.
The victim assisted the FBI task force on two occasions, meeting with Battistoni and paying portions of his gambling debt, while agents secretly watched the transactions, which were also tape-recorded, according to the criminal complaint against the suspects.
As the investigation progressed, Jancewicz said, task force members determined that Nguyen had a more extensive relationship with Battistoni.
“We believe Nguyen served as an intermediary for Battistoni, taking bets for the Asian community,” Jancewicz said.
Evidence pointing to a Mafia connection with Battistoni was also uncovered and is being investigated, the supervisory agent said.
U.S. Magistrate Judge H. Kenneth Schroeder Jr. arraigned Battistoni and Nguyen on Friday.
Schroeder previously issued a search warrant for Battistoni’s residence at 68 Le Havre Drive. A warrant was not issued for Nguyen’s home at 82 Southgate Drive, though he agreed to let task force members search it.
Playing a role in the investigation regarding other leads that have not been made public are members of the Buffalo office of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and fire marshals with the Buffalo Fire Department. Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael McCabe is prosecuting the case.