Terror in Little Saigon: An Old War Comes to a New Country

Terror in Little Saigon: An Old War Comes to a New Country
Illustration by Rob Dobi

By A.C. Thompson, ProPublica

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 when an arsonist set fire to the building. He was heard screaming before he succumbed to smoke inhalation.

In Houston, a killer chased pajama-clad Nguyen Dam Phong from his home and shot him seven times with a .45-caliber handgun. The murder marked the end of Dam Phong's twice-monthly broadsheet newspaper, Tu Do.

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 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 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 bureau never made a single arrest for the killings or terror crimes, and the case was formally closed two decades ago.

Early in 2014, ProPublica and Frontline opened their investigation. They obtained thousands of pages of newly declassified FBI documents, as well as CIA cables and immigration files. They uncovered additional leads and witnesses not previously interviewed by either the FBI or local authorities--including former members of the Front who said 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.

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 Dam Phong's headstone. Grass has crept over the small, rectangular marker. A 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."

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.

A former officer in the South Vietnamese Navy, Minh 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--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.

A few years earlier, Minh had started his guerrilla army, the Front. 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: 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.

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. 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. They tracked down former police detectives, federal agents and prosecutors, as well as a number of people who had emerged as suspects. They also interviewed former government and military officials from the U.S., Vietnam and Thailand.

They found and spoke with more than two dozen former members of the Front. They traveled to Thailand to meet former Laotian guerrillas who had once fought alongside them. Their investigation lays bare the failure of the authorities to curb the Front's violence and suggests 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 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. But the FBI 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:

"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," the statement reads in part. "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, 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."  

Grave marker for one of The Front's victims, Dam Phong
Grave marker for one of The Front's victims, Dam Phong
Frontline

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.

Minh's new life in America started humbly in Virginia. 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.

The ensuing exodus was Biblical in scale, set on overloaded boats and in an archipelago of miserable refugee camps, all stuffed with scared people.

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 such as San Francisco, San Jose, Houston, New Orleans, Northern Virginia and Orange County. Traumatized, these new communities, often called Little Saigons, proved remarkably resilient and, in time, 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, Minh had moved to Fresno by 1981. 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."

So when a loose collection of men eager to return to their homeland banded together to form the Front, Minh became the 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.  

A.C. Thompson at the Thailand-Laos border
A.C. Thompson at the Thailand-Laos border
Frontline

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.

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, with members pledging money, often on a monthly basis. The group began publishing a magazine, Khang Chien (Resistance), to spread news of its insurgency and bring in more contributions. The Front even opened a chain of pho noodle houses to generate revenue.

Combat-hardened veterans flocked to the group. For South Vietnamese soldiers and sailors, the war had certainly been harrowing, but it also had provided a profound sense of purpose and camaraderie. 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.

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.

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 as if the Front were 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 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 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 Bailey's 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 the couple's 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 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.

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, telling 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, along with four newspaper publishers who ran his stories, with death. 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.

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. A communiqué sent to the Vietnamese-American press following his death said Tap had been killed because he was a greedy character who supported the Communists by publishing the ads.

Duong Trong Lam was murdered in San Francisco for being unacceptably sympathetic to the Hanoi regime. The communiqué issued after Lam's death was signed by the Vietnamese Organization to Exterminate Communists and Restore the Nation (VOECRN). As the acronym would pop up in regards to other acts of violence, the FBI came to theorize that VOECRN was simply a kind of cover name for the Front.

If the effort was meant to disguise the Front's role in the growing catalog 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 created a death squad, code-named "K-9."

"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 the Front and its death squad were responsible for the killing of Triet and his wife. And she is just as certain 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. "The objective was to be the voice for the people," said his son, Tu Nguyen, who helped distribute Tu Do. 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 and 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 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.

The Front tried to silence Dam Phong using an array of different tactics, according to his son. They tried to bribe him with envelopes of cash, but he refused. Then, Nguyen 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.

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 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." She concluded bluntly, "It was 
an assassination."  

Dam Phong's son, Tu Nguyen
Dam Phong's son, Tu Nguyen
Edmund D. Fountain/Special to ProPublica

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 the media did not name him and referred to his current residence only as a Southern town.

After a long conversation in Vietnamese and English, the reporters 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." 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 Tran Khanh Van in Westminster in 1986. Van had been quoted in a Los Angeles Times feature story advocating for dialogue with the Communist government in Vietnam.

"Communists are like sick, sick people," Be Tu said.

Saying he had broken with the Front before the shooting, Be Tu nonetheless spoke with familiarity and pride about his years with the Front, as well as 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 he chose not to, though he admired its work.

"K-9, they do a good job, they professional," he said. "And they never get caught."

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 one another 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.

Nguyen Xuan Nghia 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 now lives in Orange County. He is, of all things, a prolific columnist, appearing regularly as a commentator in Vietnamese media.

In a series of interviews with ProPublica and Frontline, Nghia offered shifting takes on the Front. At first, he insisted 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.

Editor's Note: We've tried to render names as the people in the story prefer. Vietnamese names are generally given in the Vietnamese fashion with family name first, then 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.


Sponsor Content

Newsletters

All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories
    Send:

Newsletters

All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >