Terror in Little Saigon
An Old War Comes to a New Country
The journalists were assassinated on American soil, one after another.
Duong Trong Lam was the first. He was 27 years old and ran a Vietnamese-language publication called Cai Dinh Lang, which he mailed to immigrants around the country. A gunman found him as he walked out of his San Francisco apartment building one morning and shot him, a single bullet piercing his pulmonary artery, just above the heart.
For magazine publisher Pham Van Tap, the end came more slowly. He was sleeping in his small office in Garden Grove, California, when an arsonist set fire to the building. He was heard screaming before he succumbed to smoke inhalation.
In Houston, a killer chased Nguyen Dam Phong from his home in his pajamas and shot him seven times with a .45-caliber handgun. The murder marked the end of Dam Phong’s twice-monthly broadsheet newspaper, which he had named Tu Do: Freedom.
All together, five Vietnamese-American journalists were killed between 1981 and 1990. All worked for small publications serving the refugee population that sought shelter in the U.S. after the fall of Saigon in 1975. At least two other people were murdered as well.
FBI agents came to believe that the journalists’ killings, along with an array of fire-bombings and beatings, were terrorist acts ordered by an organization called the National United Front for the Liberation of Vietnam, a prominent group led by former military commanders from South Vietnam. Agents theorized that the Front was intimidating or executing those who defied it, FBI documents show, and even sometimes those simply sympathetic to the victorious Communists in Vietnam. But the FBI never made a single arrest for the killings or terror crimes, and the case was formally closed two decades ago.
Violent attacks on journalists often function as a brutal form of censorship, and as a result often stir public mourning and outrage. In the months after Arizona reporter Don Bolles was murdered in 1976, a group of nearly 40 reporters from around the country dedicated themselves to continuing his reporting on organized crime and making a statement about freedom of expression. Suspects in the murder were ultimately identified and convicted. The mass slaying of staffers at the French weekly Charlie Hebdo sparked vigils and protests around the world.
Last year, when fighters from the Islamic State Group executed war correspondent James Foley, President Obama praised him as a man “who courageously told the stories of his fellow human beings,” and promised to hunt his killers.
“Our reach is long,” Obama said. “We are patient. Justice will be done.”
The families of the murdered Vietnamese-American journalists long ago gave up hope of seeing justice done. They remain disappointed and confused. They expected more of the government they had adopted as their own, excited by its promise of liberty and convinced of its fearlessness in seeking the truth.
Early in 2014, ProPublica and Frontline reopened the investigation. We obtained thousands of pages of newly declassified FBI documents, as well as CIA cables and immigration files. We uncovered additional leads and witnesses not previously interviewed by either the FBI or local authorities -- including former members of the Front who told us the group had operated a secret assassination unit in the U.S. It was a tip the FBI had chased for years but had never conclusively proved.
The Front openly raised money in America to restart the Vietnam War, even launching three failed invasions from the borders of Thailand and Laos. Our reporting shows that officials at the State Department, the Department of Defense, the Central Intelligence Agency and the FBI knew about the Front’s military operations in Southeast Asia. But federal authorities never acted to enforce the Neutrality Act, which bars residents and citizens of this country from efforts to overthrow a foreign government.
In Pearland, Texas, outside of Houston, there is a cemetery ringed by tall pine and oak trees. Near the back of the graveyard, close to a muddy stream, lies the headstone of Nguyen Dam Phong. Grass has crept over the small, rectangular marker. A single dead rose, withered and black, stands in a metal vase.
But the words chiseled into the marble some 33 years ago are still legible: Killed in pursuit of truth and justice through journalism.
Today, ProPublica and Frontline, here and in the television documentary “Terror in Little Saigon,” tell the story of a reign of intimidation and murder for which no one has been held to account.
Part I: The Front
His name was Hoang Co Minh. He had a mess of thinning, coal-black hair and a caterpillar mustache. It was 1983, and Minh had come to a packed convention center in Washington, D.C., to make an announcement: He intended to reconquer Vietnam.
Minh, a former officer in the South Vietnamese Navy, told the assembled crowd that he’d built a force that would topple the Hanoi government and liberate his homeland from the totalitarian rule of the Communists.
The crowd -– thousands of Vietnamese refugees who’d fled the country after Saigon fell in 1975 -– erupted in celebration, and in some cases, tears of joy. Clad in black, a long plaid scarf draped around his neck, Minh smiled broadly and let the audience’s ecstatic reaction wash over him. Video of the event shows Minh thrusting both hands into the air and waving like a head of state.
Minh had started his guerrilla army a few years earlier. It was called the National United Front for the Liberation of Vietnam. The group had established a base in the wilds of Southeast Asia -– a secret location within striking distance of Vietnam -– and built a network of chapters across the U.S that raised money for the coming invasion.
Those U.S. chapters, it seems, had already opened what amounted to a second front, this one in America: Front members used violence to silence Vietnamese-Americans who dared question the group’s politics or aims. Calling for normalized relations with the Communist victors back home was enough to merit a beating or, in some cases, a death sentence.
FBI agents eventually opened a domestic terrorism investigation into the Front’s activities. Thousands of pages of newly declassified FBI records obtained by ProPublica and Frontline show that the agents came to suspect that Minh’s group had orchestrated the killing of Vietnamese-American journalists, as well as a wide variety of fire-bombings, beatings and death threats.
In a memo that has never before been made public, an FBI investigator captured it simply: The Front, the agent wrote, had “undertaken a campaign to silence all opposition to it.”
The scope of the suspected terrorism was extensive. Journalists were slain in Texas, California and Virginia. A string of arsons stretched from Montreal to Orange County, California. Death threats were issued -- to individuals, families and businesses across the country. And investigators believed the Front also mailed out communiqués claiming responsibility for the crimes.
Still, some 30 years later, the FBI has arrested no one for the violence or terrorism, much less charged and convicted them. Again and again, local police departments opened investigations that ended with no resolution. The FBI quietly closed its inquiry in the late 1990s, making it one of the most significant unsolved domestic terror cases in the country.
To reconstruct this chapter of history, largely hidden from the majority of Americans, ProPublica and Frontline acquired and scrutinized the FBI’s case files, as well as the records of local law enforcement agencies in Houston, San Francisco and the suburbs of Washington, D.C. We tracked down former police detectives, federal agents and prosecutors, and a number of people who had emerged as suspects. We also interviewed former government and military officials from the U.S., Vietnam and Thailand.
As well, we found and spoke with more than two dozen former members of the Front. We tracked down a number of former Front soldiers and traveled to Thailand to meet former Laotian guerillas who had once fought alongside them.
Finally, we spent hours with the families of the dead, and with people who had been shot or beaten. Some of the victims had never spoken publicly -– either because they remained afraid or because they had become disillusioned with American law enforcement.
Our investigation lays bare the failure of the authorities to curb the Front’s violence and suggests that there are promising leads to pursue should the FBI or others decide to reopen the case. The new information includes accounts from former Front members who had never spoken to law enforcement, one of whom admitted that the Front was responsible for the killing of two of the journalists. Records and interviews show that Minh, as a means of disciplining his ragtag army overseas, ordered the killing of his own recruits, possibly as many as 10. The dead may have included Vietnamese-American citizens of the U.S., giving the FBI authority to investigate the crimes.
ProPublica and Frontline invited the current leadership of the FBI to discuss the bureau’s investigation of the Front. James Comey, the bureau’s director, would not be interviewed, and neither would the bureau’s specialists in domestic terrorism. The FBI also would not answer a series of detailed questions about the actions taken, and not taken, by the bureau during the many years of its investigation. Instead, it issued a statement:
In the early 1980s, the FBI launched a series of investigations into the alleged politically motivated attacks in Vietnamese-American communities. While initially worked as separate cases across multiple field offices, the investigations were eventually consolidated under a major case designation codenamed ‘VOECRN’ at the direction of then-Director Louis Freeh. These cases were led by experienced FBI professionals who collected evidence and conducted numerous interviews while working closely with Department of Justice attorneys to identify those responsible for the crimes and seek justice for the victims. Despite those efforts, after 15 years of investigation, DOJ and FBI officials concluded that thus far, there is insufficient evidence to pursue prosecution.
Spokespeople for the other government agencies with knowledge of the Front’s existence would not comment.
Minh ultimately mounted three failed incursions into Vietnam and died in 1987 during one of them. The Front, after a suspected decade of terror stretching from 1980 to 1991, suffered its own divisions and diminished prestige. Some of its onetime leaders have died; others live sprinkled across the country, retired from careers as doctors, restaurant owners or county workers.
Among the former Front members interviewed by ProPublica and Frontline, some insisted the group never engaged in any kind of violent activity in the U.S.
“Never. Never,” said Pham To Tu, a Houston resident who said he joined the organization in its early days. The group’s enemies, he added, “spread rumors about us.”
Every now and again, the Front’s former leaders turn out for memorial services or reunions or rallies that still call for the overthrow of the regime in Hanoi. They mingle with men in freshly pressed military uniforms. The air at the events is one of pride and enduring anger, bitterness and defiance.
Trang Q. Nguyen, a co-founder of Little Saigon TV and Radio in Orange County, California, said the Front’s efforts to intimidate journalists were well known in the Vietnamese-American media. And she is clear about why she thinks the group was able to elude the authorities: “People were scared.”
Like many Vietnamese who fled to the U.S. in the aftermath of the war, Hoang Co Minh experienced a precipitous drop in status when he arrived in this country.
He was an educated man, schooled at Saigon University’s law school and the South Vietnamese naval academy, and, later, in the 1960s, at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. During the war, he commanded a coastal minesweeper, a 370-ton vessel with a crew of nearly 40 sailors. He held the rank of rear admiral in the South Vietnamese Navy.
Richard Armitage, a former U.S. Navy officer who worked closely with the South Vietnamese Navy before rising to a senior Pentagon position in the 1980s, knew Minh well and called him a “noted combat soldier.’’
But by 1975, Minh no longer had a country, or a Navy to help direct. He set off for America on the day Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese. By the time he reached the U.S., immigration records show, he had $200 stashed in a Korean bank account, a small chunk of gold, and a couple of cheap rings. He was effectively destitute.
Along with Armitage, Minh had some influential friends: James Kelly, a retired U.S. Navy officer who served as a senior director on the National Security Council during the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, invited Minh’s family to live with him in the Virginia suburbs outside of Washington. But Minh’s new life in America nonetheless started humbly. He did yard work for suburban homeowners and later began hiring himself out as a house painter.
Moving to a foreign land is rarely easy. But the Vietnamese who came to America by the hundreds of thousands during the 1970s weren’t the typical economic migrants seeking better jobs and living conditions. They were refugees of a brutal war that had killed an estimated 3 million people. They had been forced to choose between exile or life under the harsh rule of the Communists.
The ensuing exodus was Biblical in scale, set on overloaded boats and in an archipelago of miserable refugee camps, all stuffed with scared people.
Many who stayed in Vietnam wound up dead or in Communist re-education camps where food was scarce and physical abuse abundant. “The Communists had lists of people who had cooperated with the Americans. Those people were called traitors,” recalled a South Vietnamese infantryman in “Tears Before the Rain,” an oral history. They “were shot right away, right there in the street,” he said. “The Communists had no mercy.”
Each wave of refugees brought with it disturbing tales of conditions in Southern Vietnam as the Hanoi government remade the country.
By the 1980s, there were some 400,000 Vietnamese living in the U.S., clustering in places like San Francisco, San Jose, Houston, New Orleans, Northern Virginia and Orange County, California. Traumatized, these new communities, often called Little Saigons, proved remarkably resilient, and in time, even wonderfully vibrant. But in the earliest years, they could be insular: handicapped by language barriers, heartsick for their homeland, hungry for vengeance.
Minh recognized the hunger, shared it and set about developing a plan for satisfying it.
After abandoning his house painting business in Virginia, Minh by 1981 had moved to Fresno, California. On immigration paperwork, he said he’d taken up a new job working for a refugee relief organization. Whether he ever did join such an effort, Minh had certainly spent years mixing in circles of fellow former South Vietnamese military officers and others nursing the desire to take up the fight again back in Vietnam. And in those circles, Minh appears to have regained a degree of his former stature.
“I had a very deep respect for him,” said Nguyen Xuan Nghia, a former senior Front official. Another former member called Minh “clever” and “brave.”
And so when a loose collection of men eager to return to their homeland banded together to form the Front, Minh became their leader. He cultivated a small, devoted following, and within two years he was ready to take his message more broadly to the Vietnamese-American community.
“We resolve to rise up to topple the Viet Cong oligarchy from power,” said one early Front propaganda piece. The Front’s aim was to create a “humane, free and just democracy.”
To do that, interviews and FBI files show, the Front developed a ruthless ethical calculus, believing its men were justified in taking nearly any action to advance their struggle.
Minh had a grand vision for the army he wanted to build. The Front would not only recruit in the U.S., but also use its network of contacts among former South Vietnamese government and military officials to attract volunteer soldiers from the ranks of refugees in Asia and Australia.
In time, Minh secured a tract of land in the forests of Northeast Thailand to establish a secret base of operations. The Front’s recruits would live at the base, drilling and strategizing. When the moment was right, they would slip into Vietnam and mount a classic guerrilla campaign, linking up with anti-Communist partisans within the country, spreading revolt from village to village. Eventually, the Hanoi government would collapse just as Saigon had.
Like any army, the rebels needed a reliable supply chain that could deliver all the necessities of combat to the base. Weapons. Ammunition. Food. Medicine. Uniforms. Communications gear.
To keep the warriors equipped, Minh and his colleagues created a sophisticated fundraising apparatus in the U.S. It started with Front chapters across the country. Chapter members pledged money to the group, often on a monthly basis. The Front began publishing a magazine called Khang Chien, or Resistance, to spread news of their insurgency and bring in more contributions. They even opened a chain of pho noodle houses to generate revenue.
Combat-hardened veterans flocked to the Front. For South Vietnamese soldiers and sailors, the war had certainly been harrowing, but it also had provided a profound sense of purpose and camaraderie. Now many of these veterans found themselves adrift in America, toiling at menial jobs in an alien land. For them, the idea of reviving the fight held deep emotional appeal.
A journalist who attended some of the Front’s rallies in the early 1980s described them as “surreal” events with an ecstatic, near-religious feel.
One of the group’s founders, Do Thong Minh, helped sketch out the Front’s organizational chart in a recent interview. At the top was Hoang Co Minh, who ran the operation from the Front’s encampment in Thailand and communicated with his lieutenants around the world via courier and coded messages. His deputy, a South Vietnamese war hero named Le Hong, also helped direct the Front’s trainees in Thailand. Another man oversaw the Front’s radio operations, which beamed insurrectionist messages into Vietnam from a transmitter in the Thai base.
In the U.S., an executive committee of roughly 10 people handled fundraising and publicity. Led by an ex-colonel from the South Vietnamese army, the committee established Front chapters in Europe and Canada, as well as Australia and Asia.
To build excitement -- and keep the money coming in -- the Front’s propaganda arm distributed photos of Minh and his soldiers, clad in fatigues, preparing for war at the secret base. One pamphlet included a picture of troops who had just finished basic training. They were kneeling, their rifles held aloft. The men pledged “to dedicate their entire lives to the liberation of Vietnam.”
In the U.S., Front loyalists began dressing in a uniform of chocolate-colored, button-down shirts and khaki pants; they became known as “brown shirts” within the Vietnamese-American communities, a historical echo that some found frightening. They held regular chapter meetings and staged protests against the Hanoi regime.
The brown shirts also supported the troops by raising money. They prodded owners of Vietnamese-American retail businesses to make cash contributions to the Front and to place donation cans for the group in their stores and restaurants. Some shop owners felt that the Front was shaking them down and complained to the FBI.
Agents in San Francisco, for example, received information that the Front used “extortion and other illegal means in the collection and solicitation of money,” according to an FBI memo. Another FBI report estimated that the Front’s cash-generating efforts had raised “several million dollars.”
Some Vietnamese-Americans began to wonder where all that money was going. Was it really being used to the supply the soldiers?
That, they learned, was a question they shouldn’t ask.
It was about 11:20 p.m. on Sept. 22, 1990, when Le Triet pulled his car into the driveway of his house in Baileys Crossroads, Virginia, outside Washington, D.C. Triet, one of the best-known writers in the Vietnamese diaspora, was returning home from a dinner party with his wife.
A spray of .380 caliber bullets shattered their car window. Within moments Triet and his wife, Dang-Tran Thi Tuyet, were dead.
Investigators later theorized that two killers armed with automatic pistols followed the couple to their modest one-story home. To FBI agents, it looked like a professional hit.
Triet, a columnist for Van Nghe Tien Phong, a popular monthly magazine, had mixed erudition with an acerbic tone. His columns discussed poetry and literature, controversies within the Vietnamese-American community, and, often, his disdain for the Front. While Triet was staunchly anti-Communist, he was skeptical of the Front and its leadership. Convinced that the organization was more concerned with fundraising than actually overthrowing the Hanoi government, Triet frequently criticized the Front in print.
In one issue he bluntly accused Front leaders of endangering their own soldiers. “The comedy will end with a tragedy,” he wrote.
FBI documents make clear that the Front had been offended, and had threatened Triet. The writer, records show, began carrying a .22-caliber revolver and varying his driving routes. Shortly before Triet was killed, he met with Front leaders at a home in Frederick, Maryland, according to FBI records and interviews. The Front leaders tried to persuade him to quit criticizing the organization in print. He refused.
Newspapers, magazines and newsletters had become vital outlets for the emerging Vietnamese refugee community. For publishers and readers alike, the publications amounted to an initial, thrilling taste of life in a democracy.
“Vietnam never had a history of a free press,” said Jeffrey Brody, a communications professor at California State University, Fullerton. Brody, who covered Little Saigon for the Orange County Register, said that for Vietnamese reporters arriving in the U.S. during the 1970s and 1980s, “it was a Wild West of freedom, of opportunity to say what you want.”
Some entrepreneurs hoped to become media moguls. Others saw their mission in altruistic terms. A large chunk of the immigrant populace was still learning English, desperate for Vietnamese-language news sources. These emerging publications came to serve as a crucial guide for those learning to navigate a new culture.
For the Front, the Vietnamese-American media could be quite useful. If the organization wanted to draw people to its events and persuade them to bankroll its guerrilla war, it needed the Vietnamese-language press to spread its message and publish its appeals.
But journalists could also be a threat, and several of them, Triet included, slammed the group for its heavy-handed fundraising tactics and questioned whether the money was really going to the soldiers. They demanded a thorough accounting of the donations. They didn’t believe Minh’s claims that he had built a 10,000-man army and they told their readers the real number was likely far lower.
The FBI’s files, typed up in field offices around the country, are rich with accounts of what happened when journalists criticized the Front: threats, intimidation and violence. One communiqué threatened a writer with death, along with four newspaper publishers who ran his stories. A hit list mailed out to the Vietnamese-language media identified five journalists who had criticized the Front. It labeled them “traitors” and said they would be executed. Two of the people on the list ended up dead.
A group of Front members dressed in their customary brown shirts assaulted an Orange County, California, newspaper owner twice; his attackers were angered by an article he’d published “regarding the Front’s scheme to defraud the Vietnamese community,” according to an FBI report.
Front members mounted a harassment campaign against the staff of Viet Press, another Orange County newspaper, pressuring businesses to pull their advertisements until the paper shut down. “I lost, I believe, about $84,000,” the publisher, Nguyen Tu A, recalled.
In Fresno, gunmen shot a writer in the face after he dared take on the Front in a newspaper essay. He survived.
Pham Van Tap wasn’t as fortunate. Tap ran MAI, an entertainment-focused magazine that carried ads for three companies engaged in commerce with Vietnam, wiring money or shipping packages to the country. An arsonist torched Tap’s office in Garden Grove while he slept in the building. He died of smoke inhalation. Another communiqué, sent to the Vietnamese-American press, followed the killing. This one said Tap had been killed because he was a greedy character who supported the Communists by publishing the ads.
Duong Trong Lam, 27, was killed in San Francisco for being unacceptably sympathetic to the Hanoi regime. While Lam didn’t openly criticize the Front, he had opposed the Vietnam War and his pro-Communist views, deeply unpopular with many Vietnamese-Americans, were reflected in his newspaper.
The communique issued after Lam’s murder was signed by the Vietnamese Organization to Exterminate Communists and Restore the Nation, or VOECRN. The FBI came to theorize that VOECRN -- the name would pop up in other acts of violence -- was simply a kind of cover name for the Front.
If the effort was meant to disguise the Front’s role in the growing catalogue of mayhem, it didn’t work.
“What appeared to link them all together were the communiqués,” said Katherine Tang-Wilcox, a former agent who helped lead the FBI probe. “There were death threats, there were attacks, the murders. These communiqués, they took credit for them, or they threatened they were going to do it.”
Tang-Wilcox said investigators eventually began to collect accounts from former members of the Front who said the group had actually created a death squad and code-named it “K-9.” An FBI investigative summary dated Nov. 4, 1991 is laden with references to K-9. One report names K-9’s alleged leader. Another connects K-9 to specific murders. Yet another calls K-9 the Front’s “enforcement branch.”
“K-9 was established as the assassination arm of the Front,” Tang-Wilcox recalled.
Now retired from the bureau, Tang-Wilcox remains unsure about who ordered the hits. But she is convinced that the Front and its death squad were responsible for the killing of Triet and his wife. And she is just as certain that the group killed Houston publisher Nguyen Dam Phong years before.
When Dam Phong started his newspaper in 1981, it was difficult to find a typewriter with the accent marks used in the Vietnamese script. So Dam Phong painstakingly went through the copy line by line, writing in the accents by hand with a pen. He was, by any measure, a media pioneer, one of the first Vietnamese immigrants to establish a newspaper in the U.S.
After spending his days working as an assistant in a dentist’s office, Dam Phong came home and poured himself into the paper, tapping at the typewriter, pasting up columns of copy on a light table. The enterprise devoured his time and gobbled up his money. Still, Dam Phong loved it.
“The objective was to be the voice for the people,” said his son, Tu Nguyen, who helped distribute the paper, named Tu Do. “Really that was his goal. He was not in it to make money. There was no money to be made.”
His father, he said, was driven to hunt for the truth, regardless of the consequences.
Dam Phong eventually began to publish his version of the truth about the Front. Dam Phong had no love for Communism, but he thought Minh was a fraud, a charlatan who was misleading the Vietnamese people. So he attacked the Front in editorials -- in one he labeled Minh and his followers “clowns” -- and in muckraking articles.
In 1982, the Front pulled off a major publicity coup: CBS News described Minh’s guerrillas and their cause in a dramatic segment that aired nationally. Featuring footage of Front soldiers trudging through the jungle, the story relayed the Front’s claim that its troops had gone behind enemy lines and set up camp in the Vietnamese backcountry.
Dam Phong began poking holes in the story, discovering that the troops hadn’t gotten anywhere near Vietnam. One headline in Tu Do shouted: The Truth About Admiral’s Minh Return to Vietnam. Dam Phong flew to Bangkok, where his reporting led to more revelations, including the location of the Front’s base in Thailand, which the group had tried to keep secret.
The Front tried to silence Dam Phong using an array of different tactics, according to his son, Tu. They tried to bribe him with envelopes of cash, but he refused. Then, Tu recalled, there was an incessant series of phone calls “from people threatening to kill him if he doesn’t stop publishing the articles about the Front.” Finally, there was a meeting with Front leaders in a restaurant in downtown Houston.
The leaders, Tu said, gave his father an ultimatum: Stop the stories or perish.
Days later, Dam Phong was dead, shot in his pajamas and left in his driveway. The assassin -- or assassins -- left behind no shell casings.
“I do think that, particularly with Nguyen Dam Phong in Houston, and Le Triet and his wife, unfortunately, in Fairfax, Virginia -- there is a distinct belief on my part that the National Front for the Liberation of Vietnam was responsible for those murders,” said Tang-Wilcox, the former FBI agent.
Of Dam Phong’s murder, she said, “There were no other motives developed, other than the problems that he was having with the Front, because of the articles he was publishing. And then the way the murder was conducted. The casings were picked up and collected ... That was someone who was highly trained, that knew what they were doing, and wasn’t going to leave any evidence that would be remotely helpful behind. And the communiqué was left with him.”
“It was an assassination.”
One man says he knows who was responsible for Dam Phong’s death. He is a former South Vietnamese officer and a onetime member of the Front. His light-brown skin is lined by age, his dark hair streaked with white.
In August, he agreed to an interview with ProPublica and Frontline at his tidy one-story home. He said he would discuss the activities of the Front only if we did not name him and referred to his current residence only as a Southern town.
After a long conversation in Vietnamese and English, we placed a list of five names before him, those of the dead journalists. He squinted, leaned forward and pointed a thin finger at the first two names: Duong Trong Lam and Nguyen Dam Phong.
“We killed them,” he said quietly.
What about the others?
“I’m not sure,” he replied. “And I don’t want to say anything unless I’m completely sure.”
The man would not say who pulled the trigger or who gave the orders. His demeanor was sober, but he did not evince any obvious remorse. He said he had never been interviewed by anyone in American law enforcement.
In all, ProPublica and Frontline found five former Front members who acknowledged that a death squad known as K-9 had done the group’s dirtiest work. One was Tran Van Be Tu.
In the early 1980s, Be Tu was a hardcore anti-Communist: He was sentenced to seven years in prison for attempted murder after shooting a man named Tran Khanh Van in Westminster, California, in 1986. Van had been quoted in a Los Angeles Times feature story advocating for dialogue with the Communist government in Vietnam.
“I shoot, he fell like a tree,” Be Tu said. “Communists are like sick, sick people.”
Saying he had broken with the Front before the shooting, Be Tu nonetheless spoke with familiarity and pride about his years with the Front, and about the fear the group struck in its enemies. He said people in Orange County regarded those who killed supposed Communists as heroes. Be Tu said he’d been recruited to join the K-9 unit, but chose not to, though he admired its work.
“K-9, they do a good job, they professional,” he said. “And they never get caught.”
A longtime friend of two of the Front’s top commanders -- men the FBI suspected of directing attacks – Be Tu said he thought K-9 had murdered Dam Phong, and was likely responsible for the slayings of Pham Van Tap and Le Triet and his wife.
We asked him directly if he knew the name of the person who had killed Dam Phong.
“Sound like you FBI,” he said.
Vietnamese-Americans have in many respects lived out the classic immigrant trajectory -- gradually shedding their identity as exiles and assimilating into the American mainstream.
But venture into any of America’s Little Saigon neighborhoods, and it’s not hard to detect the enduring tensions, an amalgam of secret histories and disputed allegiances. The slur of “Communist” is still sometimes hurled at business competitors or rival politicians.
Former members of the Front, and those who consider themselves the victims of the group’s violent tactics, live alongside each other in these immigrant corners of California and Virginia, Houston and New Orleans. Silence remains the dominant language. Even all these years later, Front members are less than eager to revisit explosive allegations, and victims are often scared to be seen as making trouble.
Doan Van Toai was a writer and activist who criticized the Front in print. In 1989, he was shot in the face near his home in Fresno, California. Toai still doesn’t know for sure who tried to kill him -- there have been no arrests -- and is careful not to implicate anybody.
But Toai is sure he was targeted because of his writings and public statements. And he got the message. After the shooting, Toai stopped writing and withdrew from the public eye.
In the 1980s, Tam Nguyen worked as a journalist for a Vietnamese-language newspaper in San Jose that challenged the Front. Tam didn’t write the contentious stories -- “I wouldn’t dare” -- but when he showed up at a Front event with his camera in hand, Front loyalists assaulted him, leaving him bloody and shaken.
Today Tam is a San Jose City Council member, representing the city’s 7th District. The era of terror, he said, is “a painful memory I tried to bury deep down.” Around San Jose -- at the coffee shops and shopping malls and Buddhist temples -- he sometimes encounters his old foes from the Front, much older, perhaps mellowed. It can be deeply uncomfortable, he said.
Nguyen Xuan Nghia was a member of the Front and today he speaks of his decade with the group with a blend of defensiveness and regret.
Nghia served as a key strategist and communications chief for the Front during the 1980s, and spent roughly a decade in the group’s top echelon. Trained as an economist, and a longtime student of Asian history, Nghia today lives in Orange County, California. He is, of all things, a prolific columnist, appearing regularly as a commentator in other Vietnamese media.
In a series of interviews with ProPublica and Frontline, Nghia offered shifting takes on the Front. At first, he insisted that the organization wasn’t connected in any way to attacks on journalists or others in the U.S.
In later conversations, when confronted with evidence of the Front’s violence, he adopted a different line. In a videotaped interview, Nghia said it was “quite possible” that Front members were behind the assassination of Dam Phong and could have committed other crimes. There was, he acknowledged, a violent faction within the organization, and when the videographers turned off the cameras, Nghia admitted he had participated in a Front meeting during which members discussed a plan to assassinate a well-known newspaper editor in Orange County. Nghia said he dissuaded his colleagues from killing the man.
“It was a dark chapter in my life,” he said.
In Houston, Dam Phong’s family wants nothing more than for the darkness around his death to lift. After the killing, the family didn’t have the money to move to a new home. So for years his wife and many of his 10 children continued to live at the address where Dam Phong was slain.
For Tu, his father’s death was devastating, but not really surprising. Tu knew about the threatening phone calls. He knew his father had bought a handgun for protection and kept a German shepherd to guard the house.
“They told him they were going to take him out,” Tu recalled.
Tu, who once helped his father deliver the newspaper in the family sedan, is now a computer engineer. He lives in an upscale neighborhood of tranquil tree-lined streets.
On some weekends he takes his two children to the cemetery in nearby Pearland, to the grave of Dam Phong.
Sometimes he squats down, stares at the ground and speaks, in a near whisper, to his father. He talks of gaining certainty, if not full justice.
“For us, we just want an answer,” he said. “That’s it.”
Part II: A Failed Case Grows Colder
Just 24 hours after Duong Trong Lam’s murder on July 21, 1981, a San Francisco police detective wrote out a short list of motives that might explain how the 27-year-old newspaper publisher had come to be fatally shot outside his apartment building. Some of the detective’s guesses were routine: love perhaps, maybe money.
But police records show the detective had reason to consider another possibility: politics. Lam and the newspaper he put out were seen as sympathetic to the Communists back in Vietnam, and Lam had received threats from those in the Vietnamese-American community who considered him a traitor.
Within days of Lam’s murder, a public claim of credit surfaced – a communiqué sent to the Associated Press saying Lam had been punished because he was pro-Communist. Weeks later, Lam’s friends wrote formally to the local police and the FBI, citing the communiqué and expressing worry that Lam’s murder was part of a widening pattern of politically motivated violence.
The authorities, records and interviews show, nonetheless rebuffed the idea. Pressed by Lam’s friends, federal prosecutors asked the FBI if Lam’s murder might have been “a possible terrorist act.” The FBI stood by its position that the killing was not political.
Ultimately, agents spent years investigating a string of similar crimes in Vietnamese-American enclaves -- separately, in field offices around the country -- before recognizing their mistake: Not only was Lam killed for expressing his views, they came to believe, but he was one of a number of Vietnamese-American journalists murdered by an organization with dreams of one day retaking Vietnam and dedicated to wiping out anyone who challenged it. By then, the FBI suspected that the organization, known as the Front, was responsible for killings in California, Texas and Virginia, and for a raft of arsons, beatings and threats across the U.S.
In 1995, the bureau consolidated some two dozen incidents into a single “major case,” creating a squad of agents to chase down leads. Still, it never succeeded in making a criminal case against the Front for the violent acts.
ProPublica and Frontline’s examination of the local and federal investigations of the Front shows they were marked by a lack of expertise, resources, urgency and even, on occasion, basic curiosity. Tips were ignored and leads were allowed to grow cold. While some investigators did earnest and diligent work, no high-level informants were ever developed. Wiretaps, a classic tool for penetrating secretive organizations, were never used, according to investigators who worked the case. Agents often pleaded for resources as basic as translators. And, hampering it throughout, the investigation held little appeal for the FBI’s best and brightest; in an era of other high-profile cases, this one wasn’t going to make anyone’s career.
The FBI closed the case in the late 1990s. In a statement to ProPublica and Frontline, the bureau said talented investigators had worked doggedly, but simply were never able to produce enough evidence to sustain a prosecution of the terrorist crimes. Local law enforcement departments, including the San Francisco Police Department, would not comment on the cases.
ProPublica and Frontline interviewed five people directly involved with the FBI investigation, as well as local police detectives. We obtained 30-year-old case files and investigative reports from seven jurisdictions. We spoke with at least 10 people identified in the files as suspects in the crimes.
For the law enforcement officials most intimately involved in the investigations of the Front, the inability to make a case haunts them.
Katherine Tang-Wilcox, a former FBI agent who helped lead the investigation for years, still vividly recalls the compendium of violence and trauma the bureau believed the Front responsible for: the professional hits, the taunting death threats and claims of credit, the bereft families of the dead. She said the case had given her an ulcer and led to her retirement.
But she doesn’t think the cases have to stay closed.
“Should they be reopened if new information’s developed? Oh, yeah,” Tang-Wilcox said. “Because if one person comes forward, that’ll encourage others to come forward. Somebody knows who’s responsible for each and every one of these acts. There’s somebody that knows. And there is no statute of limitation on homicide.”
Duong Trong Lam was shot in the chest shortly after 11 a.m. in the streets of San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood. He managed to stagger some 20 feet before he collapsed onto the sidewalk. There had been shouting, witnesses told police, and one, possibly two, Asian men had fled the scene.
Lam’s family and friends quickly told detectives Lam had no shortage of enemies. His pro-Communist newspaper was widely hated. He’d been threatened for months. His sister, Nancy Duong, had been menaced, too, when a man placed a gun against her head.
“They say, ‘You’re Viet Cong! Get out of the country,’” Nancy Duong recalled.
Napoleon Hendrix and Earl Sanders were the San Francisco Police Department detectives assigned to the Lam case. They didn’t think much of the idea that Lam’s murder was a political hit.
“If that was a political assassination,” Sanders told a local newspaper in 1981, “the guy should go back to assassin school.”
Hendrix and Sanders were more enamored of the idea the killing resulted from a dispute about money. They arrested and charged a man who had worked as a cashier and waiter at a restaurant Lam owned. But the case fell apart and was dismissed by a judge.
Nancy Duong said that from the very start, she told investigators that Lam’s politics were likely behind his death. She informed them of the threats and phone calls to her house claiming credit for his death.
“I tried everything,” she said, “to give them information.”
“I don’t think they cared that much.”
The basics of Lam’s life story should have made it obvious where to start the search for his killer.
Lam left Vietnam in 1971 as war was tearing it apart. When he got to the U.S., he enrolled at Ohio’s Oberlin College and, later, at the University of California, Berkeley. They were liberal schools, and as a student, Lam came to decry the bloody conflict in Vietnam. After college, he headed for San Francisco -- he had a pile of shaggy hippie hair and an ailing Volkswagen bug -- where he rented a cheap apartment and threw himself into an array of projects, including what would become his monthly newspaper, Cai Dinh Lang.
He launched the publication, which was supportive of the victorious Communist regime in Hanoi, in the summer of 1980. Writing in Vietnamese, he described the paper as a bulletin for “information” and “socialist ideology.” The stories weren’t always scintillating; one issue featured a front-page account of a conference held by the rulers of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.
However dry, such coverage was incendiary for many in the Vietnamese-American community. Memories of the war were raw; those sympathetic to Hanoi were loathed.
Nguyen Dang Khoa had fought in the war, and he had joined a chapter of the Front in Oakland, California. In an interview, we asked him what his reaction had been to Lam’s murder.
“Of course I was ecstatic. I was very happy,” he said.
Lam, not surprisingly, had been threatened repeatedly in the lone year his newspaper existed. A friend of his told this to investigators, as did Lam’s sister.
“Before he die, about two months, you know, he kept receiving a lot of phone calls, a lot of warning letters,” the friend told police. “I think there is some organization behind it.”
Hendrix and Sanders, the two local detectives, made some effort to understand the intrigue and anger that defined Little Saigon. But transcripts of the interviews they conducted capture some of their exasperation – with people who didn’t speak the language, or those they worried were not being forthright.
Jayson Wechter, a well-known San Francisco private investigator who examined Lam’s murder during the early 1980s, wrote about such difficulties in an article for California Lawyer magazine.
Coming from a country “with a notoriously corrupt legal system, the Vietnamese brought with them a historical prejudice against government and legal authorities,” Wechter wrote. At the time, he pointed out, California had only one Vietnamese-speaking police officer, a Marine Corps veteran who had fought in the war.
Around the country, the story was much the same. In Houston, for example, there were no Vietnamese-Americans involved in the initial police probe of the killing of newspaper publisher Dam Phong in 1982. The later FBI investigation was hobbled by similar problems. Agents working cases involving the Front could not speak Vietnamese; the files are littered with messages from agents asking the bureau to hire more translators.
There is a 1984 call for the “emergency hiring of linguists.” Six years later, a memo shows the Special Agent-in-Charge for the San Francisco Field Office still asking headquarters for help. “There is currently no one, either Special Agents or Support personnel in the San Francisco division, capable of translating Vietnamese into English,” he wrote. “Consequently, there is no resource pool from which to locate a linguist.”
“There was a culture barrier, and people were afraid to talk,“ said Trang Q. Nguyen, a Southern California consultant to Vietnamese-language media.
Some of those people -- whether in San Francisco or Houston, San Jose or Virginia -- were afraid not of the police but of the Front finding out they had talked to the police.
Doan Van Toai, a writer and activist, was shot in the face in 1989 in Fresno, California. The shooter has never been caught, and Toai has rarely spoken publicly about his case. But in a recent interview with ProPublica and Frontline, Toai said the authorities were completely unprepared to investigate his case and others like it. That said, he understood what they were up against.
Of people in the Vietnamese community, Toai said, “They never cooperate.”
Still, Lam’s murder came early in the Front’s violent campaign, and its investigation seems to have lacked the most fundamental kind of effort. His friends and relatives had spoken of telephoned threats to Lam, and later of calls to his family from people claiming to have killed him. There’s no evidence in the case files that detectives even examined Lam’s phone records, or those of his sister.
Several weeks after the killing, San Francisco detectives received a handwritten note identifying a suspect, complete with name, address and telephone number. The suspect was described as a former South Vietnamese police official who had conducted interrogations of suspected Communists back in Saigon. The note said the man was now a member of a militant anti-Communist organization: the Front.
The San Francisco detectives had the message translated into English. But they never followed up on the lead. In a homicide case file running hundreds of pages, there is no sign the detectives ever interviewed the man identified in the handwritten note.
ProPublica and Frontline located the man in San Jose and interviewed him. He said it was true that he’d once been a police officer in Saigon. But he insisted that he wasn’t involved with the Front and hadn’t killed Lam.
Asked if he had ever spoken to the San Francisco police about the killing, he answered quickly: “No.” He said he had spoken briefly with FBI agents some 15 years after the murder.
Whether or not the man was connected to Lam’s murder, the fact that the authorities left the lead completely unexplored for so long gnaws at Lam’s family and friends.
Lam’s supporters eventually began beseeching the FBI and federal prosecutors to get involved. They insisted that not only was Lam’s murder political, but that a spate of violent acts had been carried out against others open to a nonviolent relationship with Communist Vietnam. Ultimately, they wrote directly to Joseph Russoniello, then the U.S. attorney in San Francisco, saying the case had been “bungled” by the San Francisco detectives “who refused to investigate potential political motives for the murder.”
Russoniello was moved to send a note to the FBI, asking if there was any reason to believe the killing of Lam was a terrorist act. A senior FBI agent came to his office to assure him there was not.
The FBI stuck to that conclusion even after more journalists were killed in what appeared to be political assassinations. When magazine publisher Pham Van Tap was murdered in Southern California in 1987, federal agents in Los Angeles saw a similarity between his murder and that of Lam. They reached out to their colleagues in San Francisco, asking for their files on Lam’s killing.
“SFPD and FBI investigations determined that Lam’s murder was for personal reasons and that there was a lack of evidence suggesting any political motivation,” an investigator in San Francisco wrote back. Drafted by a member of an FBI anti-terror squad, the memo was marked “secret” and sent in December 1987. The FBI redacted the name of the agent before declassifying the document and releasing it to ProPublica and Frontline.
Today, Nancy Duong keeps a black-and-white photo of her brother next to a small Buddhist altar. In the picture, Lam is young and smiling.
“I don’t know what happened to my brother,” she said, “even now.”
If the FBI was stymied in solving individual crimes it suspected were committed by the Front, there was another way the agency could have built a case against the group.
The U.S. Neutrality Act makes it a federal crime for any U.S. citizen or resident to financially support or take part in “any military or naval expedition” against a state “with whom the United States is at peace.”
The Front never tried very hard to hide the fact that it was engaging in conduct that violated the act.
It held public events in cities across the country, imploring attendees to donate money to its war effort. Photos of “resistance rallies” in Santa Ana, California, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., show giant crowds gathered to support the cause. The FBI found that the Front ran ads in the Vietnamese-American press directly linking donations to weapons; writing a check to the organization, the ads promised, would allow it to purchase arms such as assault rifles and shoulder-fired rockets.
And then there was the military base the group established in Thailand, from which it would try to invade Vietnam. Photographs and film clips of the training at the camp were used to raise more money, and one clip was featured in a story about the Front’s military ambitions broadcast nationally on CBS television.
But a review of thousands of pages of FBI investigative files, as well as interviews with former agents and prosecutors, turns up no serious discussion of making a Neutrality Act case -- even after the FBI came to suspect the Front of carrying out assassinations on American soil.
ProPublica and Frontline asked the FBI and the U.S. attorney in San Francisco why the Front had never been prosecuted for raising money with the aim of toppling the government of Vietnam. Neither provided an answer.
Tang-Wilcox, one of the top agents on the Front investigation, said she did not think making such a case would have been feasible given the politics of the 1980s.
At the time, the U.S. had committed to what became known as the Reagan Doctrine, under which America would support armed anti-Communist movements. The U.S. was backing rebels fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, a proxy army in the Angolan civil war and, infamously, the Contras fighting in Nicaragua.
Eugene Kontorovich, a professor at the Northwestern University School of Law who has written widely on the Neutrality Act, said he was not surprised no case was made against the Front. Neutrality Act prosecutions are extremely rare, he said, even when individuals and groups are clearly violating “the core of what the act prohibits.” The rarity of such cases, he said, could leave any effort to bring one open to allegations of selective prosecution.
On Neutrality Act cases, Kontorovich said, “no prosecutor is eager to be a pioneer.”
Though federal prosecutors did not act on evidence that the Front was violating the Neutrality Act, records and interviews show an array of federal agencies -- the State Department, the CIA, the Department of Defense -- were well aware of the group’s activities and aims.
In fact, Hoang Co Minh, the Front’s leader and the man who oversaw the group’s training camp in Thailand, at one point met with a State Department official in Bangkok to discuss his plans for invading Vietnam, according to an interview with a retired State Department employee and the memoir of a former Front leader.
But the man the Front counted as its most important contact in the American government was Richard Armitage.
Armitage was a man with a long and deep history in Vietnam. He served as an officer in the U.S. Navy during the war, and met and befriended Minh in the 1970s. Armitage was later tasked with assisting the evacuation of the South Vietnamese Navy and its officers as the fall of Saigon loomed. Armitage went on to serve as a senior official in the Department of Defense in the Reagan administration, overseeing policy for Southeast Asia. He also served as a deputy secretary of state for George W. Bush.
The FBI interviewed Armitage during its investigation of the Front. The substance of that 1991 interview was written up in a formal debriefing memo, known in FBI parlance as a 302 document. Armitage told the FBI that he had stayed friends with Minh for years after his arrival in the U.S. in 1975. He also told the FBI that he believed the Front to be capable of political assassinations, and that he had heard rumors that the Front was indeed carrying out such killings in the U.S.
Armitage would not agree to an interview with ProPublica and Frontline. But he did respond to written questions. Armitage wrote that he had considered Minh “one of the finest officers” he’d met in Vietnam. He confirmed that he had told the FBI about the rumors of the Front killing people in the U.S., and acknowledged that he had not informed anyone in law enforcement about those rumors prior to the 1991 interview.
Armitage told ProPublica and Frontline that he had considered Minh’s idea of invading Vietnam “a fool’s errand.” But, Armitage said, he had been of some assistance to Minh when the guerilla commander was setting up his camp in Thailand: Armitage said he had vouched for Minh to his Thai counterparts.
ProPublica and Frontline found no evidence that any U.S. government agency financed the Front. Indeed, Armitage wrote that he had made clear to Thai officials that there was no formal program for the U.S. to provide support for Minh’s military aims.
Still, Armitage’s help seems to have paid off: A Thai general named Sutsai Hatsadin became the Front’s patron, allowing Minh to set up his guerrilla base on a remote parcel of heavily forested land in Northeast Thailand, not far from the Mekong River and the border with Laos.
Located atop a hill, Minh’s base was a grueling six-hour hike from the nearest village. In time, he and his followers cleared trees and built a collection of rudimentary wooden structures. He drew a few hundred men to the encampment, training them in guerrilla tactics and equipping them with small arms and fatigues.
A declassified 1984 CIA cable says Minh and his troops were funded by money contributed by Vietnamese refugees as well as “modest clandestine support from ‘certain elements’ of the Royal Thai Army.” Money raised by the Front in the U.S. was at times transported to Thailand by courier.
The group’s fundraising had allowed it to buy a variety of light combat weapons, including AK-47 and M16 rifles and M72 anti-tank rockets, according to interviews with Front members as well as other anti-Communist combatants in the area at the time. Minh’s plan was to move east, crossing the Mekong and trekking over the breadth of Laos before stealing into Vietnam.
After a long truck ride over a series of slippery mud roads through the Thai countryside, ProPublica and Frontline found one of Minh’s old Laotian allies living in a rural farming hamlet. The man said Minh was brutal about punishing those who lost heart for the mission. The Laotian fighter, as well as five men who had joined the Front and traveled to the camp in Thailand, said that Minh had executed as many as 10 of his own soldiers for insubordination or lack of devotion. It is possible one or more of them were U.S. citizens.
The FBI had received at least one report of killings in the camp. A Front member escaped in 1986 and contacted the bureau in Honolulu, telling agents that two recruits had been murdered at the camp. It is not clear what the FBI did with the information.
The indictment announced on April 10, 1991 by federal prosecutors in San Jose seemed like the break that could finally end the Front’s terror campaign. Five Front officials were charged with taking tens of thousands of dollars raised for the war effort overseas for their personal use, and then not paying taxes on that money.
“The diverted donations constituted income to the defendants, which they failed to report or account for to the Internal Revenue Service,” read the charging sheet.
Two of the defendants faced up to 20 years in prison. Another was looking at 15.
Doug Zwemke, a former San Jose police sergeant who helped federal prosecutors build the tax case, said he was convinced it would eventually get the defendants to “roll,” providing information about the Front’s violence against journalists and others in exchange for lighter sentences.
“To err is human,” Zwemke said, “to snitch is divine.”
“So you would have rolled them, and they would have gone,” Zwemke said. “And then you would start filling in the organization chart.”
Quite possibly, he said, the authorities could have gotten information on, and then indictments of, “the hitters, the murderers.”
“It could have opened a lot of doors,” said Zwemke.
The case was years in the making, and it had begun with a tip from one of Zwemke’s informants in San Jose, a hub for Vietnamese Americans.
Working with the FBI and Zwemke, agents for the IRS painstakingly traced money as it moved through a tangle of Front-controlled bank accounts and businesses between 1984 and 1987. Funds poured into Front bank accounts in California from donors all over the world. The group transferred large sums to Bangkok, presumably for the use of the soldiers in Thailand. But some of the money allegedly wound up in the personal accounts of top Front personnel, including Minh’s brother, Hoang Co Dinh, who used three aliases. (Dinh refused to talk about the case with ProPublica and Frontline.)
The indicted Front members insisted they were innocent.
As part of their defense, their lawyers argued that the Front members were immune from prosecution because they had struck a secret deal with the CIA and the Department of Defense. In exchange for their help in locating American prisoners of war in Vietnam, the agencies had given the Front permission to do as it wished with the money raised in America.
Prosecutors scoffed at the claim. One defense lawyer, interviewed recently, insisted there was evidence to substantiate the men’s assertion, but the lawyer would neither disclose nor discuss it.
ProPublica and Frontline sought to obtain the entire case file to reconstruct what happened. Surprisingly, staff at the federal courthouses in San Jose and San Francisco said the file had been lost, and the Federal Records Center, which archives old court records, was also unable locate the documents.
The office of the current U.S. attorney in San Francisco would not discuss the case. The Department of Defense and CIA also both refused to talk about the Front.
The few court records that have survived, as well as interviews with some of those involved, show the case came to a sudden, anticlimactic end.
On January 4, 1995, some four years after the indictments had been announced, U.S. District Judge James Ware held a hearing on a motion made by lawyers for the Front members. The lawyers argued that their clients had been denied their right to a speedy trial. The judge, embarrassed, conceded that they were right, and dismissed the case.
Zwemke said he heard about the dismissal in a phone call from the prosecutor’s office. The assistant U.S. attorney said little more than, “Sorry, I wasn’t watching the clock,” Zwemke recalled.
“You got to be kidding me.”
Prosecutors determined they could not refile the charges – many of the alleged offenses had occurred a decade earlier and law enforcement officials said the legal window for bringing a new case had expired. Investigators concluded that finding newer evidence would be difficult, as the Front had improved its bookkeeping.
“They had started being careful about what they were doing, so that paper trail that had been there before, now was not going to be there,” said Tang-Wilcox, the former FBI agent.
The moment she had waited for, a case that might crack the Front, “was gone,” she said.
Zwemke was devastated. Among other things, the informant who had first brought him the tip had been killed in the course of the investigation.
“Whether he was murdered for helping me or because of the Front,” Zwemke said, “the murderer has never been caught.”
News of the case’s dismissal “sent shock waves” through a Vietnamese-American community already skeptical about how much priority U.S. law enforcement put on investigating the Front’s violence, according to an FBI memo. The bureau concluded that the outcome -- on “a technicality in the law” -- had only deepened cynicism among Vietnamese Americans.
Later in 1995, Louis Freeh, then the director of the FBI, visited the San Francisco office, where Tang-Wilcox had been grinding along in her pursuit of the Front.
For years, often working solo, she had pulled together a mountain of files from agents across the country, and had scoured them for ways to connect the group to more than two dozen criminal acts.
Finally given an audience with Freeh, Tang-Wilcox said she made a direct plea to him in front of other agents: Either give me the resources to pursue this case or shut it down.
Nearly 15 years after Lam’s murder gave an early intimation of the Front’s tactics, Freeh decided to make the group a priority. The investigation was formally declared a “major case” on organized crime and domestic terrorism grounds, a move that brought it additional agents.
Teamed with roughly half a dozen agents, Tang-Wilcox did considerable work. She traveled to France to interview a writer who had been beaten into a coma in Orange County’s Little Saigon in 1988. Her colleagues in the Washington, D.C., area conducted some 200 interviews on the murders of Le Triet and Do Trong Nhan, slain colleagues at Tien Phong magazine. The bureau’s crime lab re-examined forensic evidence collected years before by local police in different jurisdictions; in the case of Lam, for example, the agents tried to match the bullet pulled from his body to firearms in an FBI database.
The bureau code-named the investigation VOECRN, for the Vietnamese Organization to Exterminate Communists and Restore the Nation. Investigators believed the Front used the name to take credit for terror acts and killings that it carried out. The files contain offers by people to work as informants; there are lists of those suspected of being “assassins,” making clear agents believed the Front had a death squad, one known as “K-9.” There are Front organization charts, as well.
The files -- from both before and after the investigation was made a major case -- also capture the agents’ mix of occasional optimism and consistent frustration. In one memo, an agent lamented the “overwhelming complexity” of the investigation. Part of that complexity owed to the fact that there was violence being committed in Vietnamese-American communities by gangs and extortionists. Any individual act of violence, the agents wrote, could have multiple explanations. And then there was what one memo called the “inherent distrust of law enforcement and government” among Vietnamese Americans.
Internally, agents acknowledged one looming price for failing to solve these crimes. A note written by an agent in Los Angeles in 1991 warned superiors about the risks of prematurely closing the investigation.
“The FBI would have to be prepared to answer questions either now or in the future from congressmen and Vietnamese lobbyists as to why the investigation was closed,” the agent wrote. Among other things, the agent wrote, the FBI would have to explain how after so many years it had failed to infiltrate the top ranks of the Front.
Interviews with former agents and prosecutors who worked on the case suggest that despite the infusion of resources in 1995, many agents regarded it as a bastard child within the FBI. One retired agent who worked on the probe described it as a “wild goose chase” propelled by nothing but “conspiracy theories.” Another former agent voiced disdain for the victims, saying their decisions to be outspoken about controversial issues rendered them undeserving of sympathy. More than one former agent criticized Tang-Wilcox’s leadership, suggesting she was in over her head.
“It wasn’t something every agent wanted to take on,” Tang-Wilcox acknowledged.
By contrast, agents were eager to join the hunt for the Unabomber, the anarchist who authored a 35,000-word anti-technology manifesto and mailed explosives to airline executives, academics, and others. The task force searching for the serial bomber -- he killed three and injured 24 -- swelled to over 150 full-time personnel, many of them based in the San Francisco office. Thanks to a tip from the killer’s brother, the FBI captured him in 1996.
The years it took federal agents to fully recognize the political nature of the violence against Vietnamese-American journalists were costly.
ProPublica and Frontline’s examination shows that in 1995, when the FBI finally went to pull together the 30 death threats and claims of credit that agents suspected had been issued by the Front, it realized that 19 of the original documents had either never been collected or been destroyed or lost.
And while FBI records show agents subpoenaed phone records on some 80 people, Tang-Wilcox said the bureau never developed enough detailed information to get a judge to approve a wire-tap. Such setbacks, agents and prosecutors acknowledge, help explain why, even though federal grand juries were convened in the Bay area in the 1980s and again in the 1990s, no indictments related to the violence were handed up.
Johnny Nguyen appeared before one of those grand juries. In the 1980s and early 1990s, according to the FBI, Johnny Nguyen owned a convenience store in Houston and worked in some capacity at a local law firm. He was known around Houston as a successful businessman. He was also a former sergeant in the South Vietnamese infantry and a proud member of the Front. To this day, he says he worships the Front’s founder, Hoang Co Minh.
The FBI, with the help of the Houston Police Department, sought to develop as much information as possible on Johnny Nguyen. One informant told agents that as “chief assassin for the Front’s K-9 group,” Johnny Nguyen had killed Dam Phong, the Houston newspaper publisher, “because he published articles which criticized the Front and its activities.” Other informants, the records show, backed that theory, including a former member of the Front.
Much about the nature of Johnny Nguyen’s grand jury appearance is unknown. The former agents and prosecutors are barred by law from discussing it. But Johnny Nguyen freely admits he testified, and he takes the lack of charges as evidence of his innocence.
After months of searching, ProPublica and Frontline found Johnny Nguyen, now in his 70s, wearing a dark suit at an annual memorial service in Houston for Hoang Co Minh. He said he never knew Dam Phong, much less harmed him. He flatly denied that he was ever a member of K-9.
“Police bullshit,” he said.
Asked if the Front had ever been involved in violence against its critics, Johnny Nguyen said, in both Vietnamese and English, “Never.”
Johnny Nguyen is a proud man. These days, he runs a driving school. And while he acknowledged he needed to renew his own license, he was intent on demonstrating he was no enfeebled senior. At one point, he took off his jacket and shirt and showed off his biceps.
Of those who thought him capable of murder, he said, “I told them, ‘Okay, go and tell the FBI that I’m the K-9. Tell the FBI to lock me up.’ I told them, ‘No proof. No evidence.’“
The FBI’s renewed push to crack the Front in 1995 lasted a couple of years. The bureau would not say when exactly the domestic terror case was formally closed. But the statement the FBI provided in response to our detailed questions about their inquiry could well have been issued 20 years ago:
These cases were led by experienced FBI professionals who collected evidence and conducted numerous interviews while working closely with Department of Justice attorneys to identify those responsible for the crimes and seek justice for the victims. Despite those efforts, after 15 years of investigation, DOJ and FBI officials concluded that thus far, there is insufficient evidence to pursue prosecution.
In her interview with ProPublica and Frontline, Tang-Wilcox went further. She expressed regret.
“I do feel badly,” she said. “I was never able to bring someone to justice, to bring closure to those victims’ families.”
With the closing of the federal investigation, the homicide cases -- Le Triet and Do Trong Nhan in Virginia, Pham Van Tap in Garden Grove, California, Nguyen Dam Phong in Houston and Duong Trong Lam in San Francisco -- were returned to the local police, allowing them to keep hunting for the killers if they so desired.
There doesn’t seem to have been much appetite at the local level to continue the investigations. After months of trying to meet with cold case detectives at the San Francisco Police Department about Duong Trong Lam’s killing, ProPublica and Frontline recently got a call.
The detectives couldn’t talk about the case. They said they had just fished the files out of the archives and started reading them.
A Note on Names:
We’ve tried to render names as the people in the story prefer. Vietnamese names are generally given in the Vietnamese fashion: family name first, middle, and given name. For example, Duong Trong Lam. Vietnamese-Americans who typically prefer ordering their names in the opposite way are referred to in that manner.
Additional reporting by Richard Rowley of Frontline. Interactive story presentation for FRONTLINE by Sara Obeidat, Abrams Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Columbia Journalism School Fellowships.