If Thien Minh Ly had looked up as he Rollerbladed in slow circles on the Tustin High School tennis courts, he would have seen a few stars flickering in the partly cloudy night sky over the nearby Santa Ana Mountains. The 5-foot-6, 117-pound immigrant with a gentle demeanor and a curiosity for discovery had been back in Orange County for a year after returning from graduate school at Georgetown University, and he was still mulling his next career move. Doctor? Lawyer? He’d even voiced a hope to one day serve as the first Vietnamese American ambassador to his birthplace.
The 24-year-old’s boyish looks belied his tenaciousness. With his family, Ly—born in Tuy Hoa, a coastal village in Central Vietnam—fled brutal conditions in communist Vietnam via boat in 1983 after his father, an officer in the South Vietnamese military, was released from a concentration camp. After a stint living in an Indonesian refugee camp, the family arrived in California. Only 12 years old at the time, Ly led his non-English-speaking parents and two younger siblings through the early difficulties of life in an alien country. The family eventually opened a video rental shop in Santa Ana. A few months before he went Rollerblading on that cool January 1996 night, he had used a blue-ink pen and a yellow Post-It note to memorialize a thought he’d stick to a page in his diary.
“I live in today and not very far into tomorrow,” he wrote. “I do my best every minute of the day, and when it’s over, I know there is more to come.”
But hazel-eyed death—dressed all in black, with Jack in the Box on his breath and carrying a butcher’s knife—appeared suddenly from the darkness, taunted Ly on the tennis courts, mocked his fear, showed him no mercy and robbed him of his dreams.
Time has a habit of letting us forget tragedies, even ones that spark outrage, like this one did in Little Saigon and in Asian communities across the nation. It’s been 12 years, but a key question about the murder is now the subject of a debate at the California Supreme Court. In coming weeks, the justices will finally announce if Ly really was the victim of a hate crime. For the killer, that decision is a matter of life or death.
“I guess if your [sic] not white your [sic] not right.”
—Ly’s murderer in a letter to a friend
* * *
Less than a quarter-mile from Ly’s home, on an apartment wall over a futon, was taped a big-toothed caricature of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with a gaping bullet hole between his eyebrows. The image came with a message: “If we could have killed four more, we would have had the rest of the week off.”
But that wasn’t enough for Gunner Jay Lindberg. The 21-year-old Orange County native had used a yellow crayon to add the word “DEATH” to the upper-left corner of the poster on his bedroom wall. A second, mass-produced poster on the same wall showed two young white girls playing joyously.
The room had a dirty white bedsheet for a curtain. On top of a small, cheap television and a cheaper VCR sat a plastic skull wearing a helmet with a swastika, two cross-country running trophies and miniature models of 1950s cars. A nightstand contained three bottles of Jack Daniels; books on violence; videos depicting gruesome real-life deaths; correspondence with the Aryan Nation, KKK groups, White Aryan Resistance, the New Order (a successor to the American Nazi Party) and National Association for the Advancement of White People; a folder with a list of people he wanted dead (mostly ex-friends and co-workers); a black notebook with thoughts on a coming intergalactic battle; an obnoxious spoof of an application to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); and a red-letter edition of the King James Bible, in which he had scrawled personal addresses for white supremacists in various states and this ominous note: “It’s not God’s will that everyone be healed in this life.”
A quick-tempered box stocker at a Tustin Kmart with a penchant for picking fights with Asians, African-Americans and Latinos—anyone, really—Lindberg didn’t graduate from high school and possessed few social skills but was artistically gifted. He’d converted both a white 2.5-pound Gourmet’s Choice fruit container and a cardboard San Francisco 49ers checkers box into storage for his marijuana stash after redecorating them with swirling, hand-drawn psychedelic images of anger, death and Hitler. If pot soothed other people’s minds, it only fueled Lindberg’s fantasies of becoming, he wrote, “the king of all evil and distruction [sic].”
Lindberg, who also took methamphetamines, never lived up to his narcissistic imagination. During an eight-year crime spree beginning at age 12, he proved himself to be little more than a thug who preyed on the defenseless. His victims included a cop’s 11-year-old son, whom he chased and shot in the throat with a BB gun; a day laborer, whom he attacked with a tree limb for the money in his pocket; a skateboarder, whom he repeatedly kicked in the stomach as he stole the board; the peers he angrily chased, firing a shotgun, over a perceived slight; an on-duty prison guard, whom he brutally ambushed; and an elderly woman, whom he pummeled during a home-invasion robbery for drug money.
But he committed his most heinous act on Ly. At 8 p.m. on Jan. 28, 1996, Lindberg took Domenic Michael Christopher, a Kmart co-worker, to his apartment after they finished a shift that consisted largely of watching the Super Bowl on television in the store’s break room. According to his own writings, Lindberg hoped to mold the impressionable 17-year-old, who liked karate and hadn’t been in trouble before, into his protégé. They smoked pot, talked about “robbery and shit like that” and left on foot—Lindberg carrying a butcher knife he’d stolen from his grandmother’s kitchen, according to police files. They stopped for dinner at Jack in the Box, and then walked the streets searching for a victim. At one point, they encountered a group of teenagers standing in a front yard, attempted to start a fight, failed and moved on.
Minutes later, they found and trapped the unsuspecting Ly, whose last seven minutes of life were the stuff of horror flicks. Lindberg called him a “Jap,” demanded his car keys, cursed him, punched him, stomped on his head, kicked his face, slashed his throat and stabbed him 22 times—in part, to celebrate a victory earlier that evening by what Lindberg hailed as “America’s team,” the Dallas Cowboys.
Among Ly’s final words were “What the fuck?”
“I thought [Lindberg] was a cool guy, you know, cool. He’s funny. He is . . . He’s cool, you know what I mean? . . . If I’d known he was psycho, I wouldn’t have hung with him.”
—Christopher to police a month after the murder
* * *
Law-enforcement officials say Lindberg was the first person Orange County sent to San Quentin State Prison’s death row under California’s hate-crime statute. Christopher, his now-remorseful accomplice, is serving a sentence of 25 years to life and is eligible to request parole in 2023.
Lindberg’s days are filled with exercising, writing pen pals, creating art, playing chess, daydreaming about Nordic lore and writing satanic poems that mock Ly’s death. Thanks to an automatic appeal of every death-penalty case, he’s also waiting for word from California’s highest court on the pending hate-crime question. The answer could remove him from death row.
During supreme court oral arguments in June, deputy state public defender Ronald F. Turner pleaded Lindberg’s case. He told Chief Justice Ronald George and six associate justices that his client’s death-penalty punishment must be overturned. Turner argued that two special circumstances the jury found to be true—that the murder was committed during the commission of an attempted robbery and that Ly’s race was a key factor in the crime—were, in fact, false.
“We’re not dealing with a rational individual here,” said Turner. “This was just a thrill kill, a bravado murder . . . motivated by male testosterone and nothing else.”
In a February 2005 letter to the Weekly, Lindberg echoed Turner’s assertion. “[The Orange County district attorney’s office] blew up the white-supremacist issue,” he wrote. “I’m not like that. I did have some things [reading materials] but it was something I had in prison in Missouri and I only viewed it with passing interest long ago.”
Oh, I killed a Jap a while ago. I stabbed him to death at Tustin High School. I walked up to him. Domenic was with me and I seen this guy Rollerblading and I had a knife. We walked in the tennis court where he was. I walked up to him. Domenic was right there. I walked right up to him and he was scared. I looked at him and said, “Oh, I thought I knew you,” and he got all happy that he wasn’t gonna get jumped. Then I hit him with one of my motherfuckers and he fell to the ground and he said in a very low voice, “What the fuck?” and “You can have whatever I got. I have nothing—only a key. You can have it.” Then I said, “You got a car.” Oh, I pulled the knife out—a butcher’s knife and he said, “No!” Then I put the knife to his throat and asked him, “Do you have a car?” And he grabbed my hand that I had the knife and looked at me, trying to get a description of me, so I stomped on his head three times and each times said, “Stop looking at me.” Then he was kinda knocked out. Dazzed. Then I stabbed him in the side about 7 or 8 times. He rolled over a little, so I stabbed his back about 18 or 19 times. Then he layed flat and I slit one side of his throat on his jugular vein. Oh, the sounds the guy was making were like “uhhhhh.” Then Domenic said, “Do it again,” and I said, “I already did, dude,” so I cut his other jugular vein and Domenic said, “Kill him? . . . Do it again.” I said, “He’s already dead.” Domenic said, “Stab him in the heart.” So I stabbed him about 20 to 21 times in the heart . . . He was dying just then, taking in some bloody gasps of air so I nudged his face with my shoe a few times. Then I told Domenic to kick him, so he kicked the fuck out of his face and he still has blood on his shoes all over [smiley face]. Then I ditched the knife after whipping it clean on to the side of the 5 freeway [smiley face]. Here’s the clippings from the newspaper and we were on all the news channels. [I’m] having a ball in Tustin. Wish you were here.
—Lindberg in a letter to his cousin
* * *
If Lindberg hadn’t written that letter describing the killing to a cousin in New Mexico and the cousin’s wife hadn’t contacted authorities, there’s a good chance the case would remain unsolved to this day.
Of course, Lindberg’s “Jap” was Thien Minh Ly.
At Tustin High, Ly wowed teachers by enrolling in advanced-placement classes in calculus, physics, Spanish, English, civics and economics—quite an achievement for an immigrant who’d known English fewer than six years. He earned an eighth-place ranking in a class of about 400. At UCLA, he served as president of the Vietnamese Student Association. In August 1995, he emerged from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., with a master’s degree in physiology.
The devout Buddhist returned to his parents’ OC home to decide his next move. Friends saw that he carried a study guide to the law school admissions exam, but he also spoke about his interest in medicine. While he debated his decision, he volunteered at a legal clinic established to help poor Asian immigrants in Southern California.
“My brother was such a loving, kind person,” Ly’s sister Thu says. “I can’t describe to you the pain his death caused my family. There were so many tears. How could this happen to him? It tore our hearts apart. . . . He inspired me to be the best person I can be.”
Though it’s been more than a decade since the crime, Thai—Thien’s younger brother—still can’t talk about it, according to Thu, who is married with several young children and living in San Diego. She dedicated her life to her slain brother, entered the military and served four years as a naval officer in places such as Kuwait and Iraq.
“He wanted me to be a strong and intelligent woman with the courage to find my own adventure,” she told the Weekly. “I often wonder what he would think of how I turned out if he were here. Such a thought often brings both smiles and tears.”
All I want to do is hurt and kill. . . . I’m a pure fucking evil dog and that’s no shit.”
—Lindberg in a letter to a relative two years before the murder
* * *
In anticipation of this story, I initiated contact with the condemned Lindberg at San Quentin several years ago. In return, I received handwritten letters loaded with smiley faces. Lindberg also likes to tell people that he’s insane, a word that’s tattooed on his upper left arm.
When I told him that I was going to write about him and requested a face-to-face interview, he first told me that a key witness who’d pissed him off during the Ly trial had died. He wrote, “Sounds like foul play!” Then he explained the conditions of our meeting.
“You’ll be locked into a small cage with me, and won’t be allowed a recorder or anything,” he wrote. “At first I was going to say NO. But if your [sic] wanting to do it then OK. Here’s your visiting form. You just fill it out and send it with a letter to me. Always, Gunner.”
The Department of Justice’s death-row-visitation form is lengthy, containing detailed questions about addresses, phone numbers, financial information, work history, schooling and relatives. It’s a treasure trove of personal data. And Lindberg wanted me to provide him with mine.
Suspicious, I called a high-ranking prison official, who laughed when I told him what Lindberg suggested.
“He knows damn well that he’s not supposed to receive that,” the official told me. “You have to be exceptionally careful with these people. Are you sure you want to be locked in the same room with him?”
I remembered that Senior Deputy District Attorney Debbie Lloyd, who prosecuted Lindberg, had told me that he is “a sick, sick dangerous man.”
“Would he be chained to a chair or a table?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “Like he told you, it’d just be you and him in a small room.”
“I thought [Ly] was a kid. Next thing I know, we’re [on the tennis courts], trying to hassle the guy, you know? Have some fun, you know? Screw around with the guy. We’re just playing around. The next thing I know, the dude’s on the ground. . . . He was gone. Weird. Toast.”
—Christopher explaining the murder to police after his arrest
* * *
Lindberg is a mess of contradictions. He’s a white supremacist who has also described himself as “half Apache Indian.” (“Stay White,” he liked to write to friends.) He has claimed to believe in Christianity, but simultaneously espoused a satanic view of life. (“You must kill to learn on your way to learning infanate [sic] wisdom knowledge from beyoned [sic] the grave,” he advised in a handwritten instruction manual.) He has declared his hatred of Asians, but his best friend, a cousin, was half-Japanese.
“Gooks and Nips . . . sound like a bunch of mice talking, like a fast-forward cassette,” he told fellow inmates inside the Orange County Jail, where he violently attacked two Vietnamese inmates while awaiting trial for killing Ly.
Predictably, Lindberg’s background was, according to a court-ordered psychiatric analysis obtained by the Weekly, “tumultuous and dysfunctional.” His mother and grandmother, an expert concluded, “apparently gave Gunner too much love . . . and covered for him when he got into trouble.”
He never had a steady father figure, either. His biological father, a marine stationed at the old El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, abandoned the family in 1977 after the birth of Lindberg’s younger brother, Jerry. Gunner, born at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Orange, was just two years old. Their mother then dated a series of men, prompting relocations to such places as Riverside, Oceanside, Las Vegas, Missouri and Kansas.
The mother married a marine stationed at Camp Pendleton in 1988. After a reassignment, the family moved to the U.S. military base on Okinawa. The following year, Gunner and several junior-high-school classmates stole a vehicle and sparked a wild, high-speed chase that ended with a collision. Japanese authorities were not amused. They expelled Gunner from the island. Afterward, he told friends he hated Asians.
Back in the U.S., Lindberg—now living with his grandmother in Oceanside, near San Diego—continued to slide into drugs and crime. He began to get drunk and smoke marijuana at the age of 12. He was cited for an assault a year later.
But the month of October 1990 truly signaled the horrors to come, according to his rap sheet. Then just 15, he chased a day laborer in a strawberry field, called him a “wetback,” and assaulted him with a tree limb for the money in his pocket. The man’s face was so severely cut that it took 19 stitches to sew up, and his arm was broken, with the bone protruding through the skin.
Also that month, Lindberg beat another teenager for a perceived slight and led a knife-drawn home-invasion robbery of 82-year-old Helen Tillman. Not satisfied with just the $50 robbery, he turned around at the front door, returned to the kitchen and slugged his victim in the face. The month ended with an arrest for possession of a controlled substance (methamphetamine).
The Tillman attack won Lindberg a court-ordered trip to Vision Quest, a program in San Diego for juvenile offenders. Reports show he socialized well and excelled at sports, especially running. Was he on the verge of turning his life around?
“I have a good personality. I’m honest and enjoy laughing and having fun. I enjoy most every sport, reading books, working out. I like good movies, some TV, mostly heavy metal music and some older rock. I’m into drawing. I was a bit of a wild child. I am very adventurous and love challenges. I am a great listener and always respectful.”
—Lindberg’s current pen-pal request
* * *
Lindberg ultimately failed at Vision Quest. Taking orders from adults and living in a structured environment annoyed him; he ran away. When he reappeared in Missouri, he continued his monstrous ways. He chased an 11-year-old on a bike in a park and shot him in the throat with a BB rifle after the kid said he was a cop’s son. The pellet lodged in the kid’s heart and required surgery. Lindberg attacked another boy, repeatedly kicking him in the ribs, to steal his skateboard. He chased two acquaintances down a highway, firing shotgun blasts at them. He interrupted a high-school beer party by shoving a shotgun under a teenager’s throat and threatening to pull the trigger; he ended up merely walloping the guy in the face with his fist.
During this crime spree, he was in and out of a Missouri juvenile facility and eventually landed in a state prison, where he ran the White Aryan Resistance, plotted the murders of enemies and ambushed a guard. On Halloween 1994, Lindberg began writing Gordon Jack Mohr, a Korean War veteran and right-wing racist who advocated that the enemies of Christ are those “who have mixed blood—the Oriental and Negroid races.” These people, Mohr (now deceased) claimed, are the “real enemies of freedom,” and “they have been trying and will continue to try to destroy the pure bloodline by interbreeding.”
Lindberg was hooked.
“Dear Mr. Mohr, I have received a copy of the Christian Patriot Crusader,” he wrote. “And I would like to stress my many thanks for yours and the Lord’s support while I’ve done my time in the Gulag! If it weren’t for you and God’s word I would have gave up a long time ago.”
After his release, Lindberg violated parole, fled Missouri and became a fugitive, according to court records. He landed undetected in Tustin, moved into a two-bedroom apartment with an older man and took a job at Kmart using a fake identity: Jerry Scott Lindberg, the name of his younger brother, who had committed suicide two years earlier on Gunner’s 18th birthday.
Three months later, he and Christopher left Ly’s mutilated, dying body on the tennis courts. Dripping their victim’s blood for several hundred feet, they walked away, excitedly analyzed their work, tossed the murder weapon down an embankment off Interstate 5, stopped at a Circle K for cigarettes, returned home, stored blood-soaked gloves, smoked more marijuana, played Super Nintendo, and then watched two videos: The Shining, a horror movie starring Jack Nicholson as a possessed, ax-wielding psychopath, and Kiefer Sutherland’s The Lost Boys, about two young men who battle a group of teenage vampires.
At sunrise the following morning, a Tustin High School groundskeeper driving a golf cart found Ly’s corpse. Police were both disgusted and perplexed. Lindberg, back in the safety of obscurity, felt rejuvenated. To celebrate, he wrote a song, a portion of which goes like this:
Spill the blood of the meek.
The meek shall inharet shit.
I reak Havok. Melt minds Drifting
Threw the sandz of time time time time (echo to fade)
To the insane the sound is
Real. You inshure them a quick kill
From your so called reality pill.
In the ruffle beneath your skin
You fill my vibes, oh your so Alive.
I hear, I smell, is that pain or
Fear I hear. Can’t you hear or see
I just killed thee, see your shattered
Body beyond the brushhhhhhh.
Your soul is mine
For the beginning and
All Time. At the end of this
* * *
There are 669 killers—including “Night Stalker” Richard Ramirez and Scott Peterson—awaiting execution in California. Every person facing the ultimate punishment is afforded an automatic appeal at taxpayer expense. The goal is to ensure that the arrest, trial and conviction were righteous. Ronald F. Turner, the deputy state public defender for Lindberg, is arguing that Lindberg was denied a fair trial. His claims include:
• Evidence of two uncharged robberies Lindberg committed as a juvenile prejudiced the jury against him on the murder charges.
• Ronald Miller, a Huntington Beach cop, should not have been allowed to testify as an expert on the relationship between Lindberg and white-supremacist groups, in part because he’d never interviewed the defendant.
• Judge Robert Fitzgerald repeatedly shifted the burden of proof to the defense and gave defective jury instructions that allowed the panel majority to pressure several jurors who’d proclaimed “sympathy” for Lindberg and a desire to keep him off death row.
But at the June 3 supreme court session in Los Angeles, Turner spent the bulk of his time arguing against the two special circumstances—the commission of an attempted robbery and the commission of a hate crime—that transformed the case from a simple killing to a death-row matter. Both were defective findings, he says.
“The evidence presented at trial was insufficient to prove that Lindberg attempted to rob Mr. Ly,” he said. “Nothing was taken from the victim, even though Lindberg had the opportunity to take Mr. Ly’s [baseball] cap, his [house] key or his Rollerblades,” said Turner.
Supervising Deputy Attorney General Rhonda L. Cartwright-Ladendorf reminded the justices that Lindberg had asked Ly at knifepoint, “Do you have a car?”
But to Turner, Lindberg had been “merely posing the question.”
“If Lindberg had any real intent to take a car, he would have stopped and questioned Mr. Ly further,” he said. “Instead, Lindberg repeatedly kicked Mr. Ly in the head, and then stabbed him in the side, back and chest.”
The public defender saved his most strenuous attack on the case for the hate-crime enhancement. He told the justices that the evidence presented at trial “did not establish that Lindberg possessed a racial bias,” did not prove that he hated Asians or “murdered Ly because of his race.”
Turner also said “it tainted the jury to equate Lindberg with Hitler” because his client was not educated and there is no way to know if he understood the meaning of the Nazi SS lightning bolts he drew on letters and displayed in his bedroom.
“When we see murder on a high-school campus, we get angry and we try to make sense of it,” Turner told the court. “The killer was white and the victim was Vietnamese, therefore [people conclude] it must be a hate crime.”
Turner provided an alternative rationale for the crime. It wasn’t white supremacy that dominated Lindberg’s mind but “his fascination with death and with the occult.” His client’s post-murder writings proved, he said, that the killing was the “very first level” in Lindberg’s “dark journey to godhood.”
Associate Justice Carol A. Corrigan interrupted Turner’s presentation to ask, “Are we to ignore all of his [racist] literature?
Yes, he replied. “We don’t know if he believed it. . . . Lindberg was an extremely angry individual who was caught up in ideas of death and destruction, but neither indicated his anger was directed to non-whites or Asians specifically.”
To bolster his point, the public defender claimed that poor lighting conditions at the high-school tennis courts would have prevented Lindberg from determining the race of the person Rollerblading on the night of the murder. During the trial, the jury considered and dismissed this point. And it didn’t seem to impress Corrigan, either.
She interrupted Turner’s presentation again. This time, her words may have been more of a statement than a question:
“How about this,” Corrigan said. “Was he close enough to tell [Ly was Asian] while he was stabbing him?”
Turner had no good answer.
The supreme court is expected to issue its ruling this summer.
CNN-featured investigative reporter R. Scott Moxley has won Journalist of the Year honors at the Los Angeles Press Club; been named Distinguished Journalist of the Year by the LA Society of Professional Journalists; obtained one of the last exclusive prison interviews with Charles Manson disciple Susan Atkins; won inclusion in Jeffrey Toobin’s The Best American Crime Reporting for his coverage of a white supremacist’s senseless murder of a beloved Vietnamese refugee; launched multi-year probes that resulted in the FBI arrests and convictions of the top three ranking members of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department; and gained praise from New York Times Magazine writers for his “herculean job” exposing entrenched Southern California law enforcement corruption.