The head monk at a Buddhist temple in Santa Ana was found dead there from an apparent suicide–after becoming the subject of a police investigation into allegations he defrauded 34 congregants out of $97,000 for a trip to Vietnam that never happened, police said today.
The body of 44-year-old Dao Nguyen was found about 9:15 a.m. Thursday at Tu Nghiem Temple, 5418 W. Fourth St., Santa Ana, police say.
The same statement indicates Nguyen remains a "person of interest" in the theft of thousands of dollars from temple members "but detectives have not discounted the possibility that additional persons might be involved. Detectives hope that a pending review of bank, email, and telephone records, as well as additional interviews with potential witnesses and victims will identify the perpetrator(s)."
This is a wild one. On Feb. 28, a fire broke out in Nguyen's bedroom at the temple, but it was extinguished by another resident before firefighters arrived. Nguyen claimed that the tickets and passport documents he collected for the congregation trip were destroyed in the fire, according to Santa Ana Police, who note Orange County Fire Authority investigators consider the blaze suspicious but have not concluded their investigation.
Then, around 11:15 a.m. on March 1, police were dispatched to the temple, where a group of about 30 people was demanding money back from Nguyen that he'd collected for the trip. Detectives say they identified 34 congregants who had each given the head monk between $1,100 and $7,700 for airline tickets and travel expenses to Vietnam, for a flight that was to depart on March 2. The group had planned to tour Buddhist temples throughout the country.
"Subsequent investigation revealed that no tickets were ever purchased," reads the police advisory. "Nguyen claimed that he had paid an unidentified suspect in Vietnam to handle the group's logistics (lodging, transportation, meals) once they arrived in the country. An additional suspect in the United States was to handle the purchase of the airline tickets. This person allegedly delivered the tickets on February 28th, just hours before the fire."
But when the airline was contacted, it was determined no tickets had been sold in the names of the "fraud" victims, according to police.
"Nguyen alleges that the tickets were counterfeit and that the money was stolen by this unidentified person who has not yet been located," the statement adds.
The investigation continues, and anyone with information is asked to contact police Cpl. Shannon Rackley at 714.245.8431.