Terror in Little SaigonView film
WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY
A.C. THOMPSON: [voice-over] We tell ourselves that our work matters, that it’s worth the risk, that it will be remembered. When another journalist is killed, we rush to tell their story and to say to the world that their life was not wasted.
And so it shouldn’t have taken this long to get here. Over 30 years late, I’ve arrived at Dam Phong’s grave. His case is three decades cold, without a conviction or an arrest, just this headstone telling us that Dam Phong died for journalism.
TU NGUYEN, Dam Phong’s Son: My dad was always controversial. Any time when you write the truth and the truth is not for sale, you are controversial. My dad get threatened all the time.
A.C. THOMPSON: [on camera] What do you remember about the day your father was killed?
TU NGUYEN: I wanted to know if he need me to help him with the newspaper, the delivery. So I call home, and someone answer the phone who was an American. I hung up. I thought I got the wrong number.
I call him again. The same person introduced himself as a sergeant with the HPD. Then he say, “Son, you need to come home quick. There’s been an incident.” And then at that time, I knew it was over.
NEWSCASTER: Houston police detectives are still trying to find out who killed Vietnamese newspaper editor Dam Phong Nguyen, nightbeat reporter—
A.C. THOMPSON: [voice-over] Dam Phong’s sons gave me an old VHS tape.
NEWSCASTER: Journalism was Dam Phong Nguyen’s life and possibly caused his death.
A.C. THOMPSON: On August 24th, 1982, this 45-year-old newspaper publisher and father of 10 was shot and killed in front of his home in Houston, Texas.
NEWSCASTER: Nguyen’s 19-year-old son, Tu, wants to do political work to help other—
A.C. THOMPSON: It’s strange to see their young faces back then, saying brave words for the camera.
TU NGUYEN: He died for his country. He died for the truth.
NGUYEN NGUYEN, Dam Phong’s Son: The most important thing is freedom.
A.C. THOMPSON: It’s as if their story is frozen in time, without an ending.
NGUYEN NGUYEN: My father’s body was laying right over there. The blood drips all the way inside. My mother was on the phone with him, so she heard everything. And he said, “Honey, wait. I have to answer this door.” My mom heard the voice, that he talk to a person, and then all of a sudden, my father scream and then the gun fired again.
A.C. THOMPSON: [on camera] There was an audible sound from the weapon.
NGUYEN NGUYEN: But no witness on the right, no witness up front.
A.C. THOMPSON: [voice-over] The police never made an arrest, but Dam Phong’s sons say his old papers are full of suspects.
NGUYEN NGUYEN: The clues are all here.
TU NGUYEN: In his writing, in the newspaper.
A.C. THOMPSON: They tell me he was a dogged investigator whose stories on politics and corruption made him powerful enemies in the Vietnamese-American community.
NGUYEN NGUYEN: He receive threat all the time. I heard some of the threat come in the phone that said, “Tell your father to stop what he’s doing or he will pay the consequences.”
A.C. THOMPSON: [on camera] How many of these threats do you remember getting on the phone that you heard?
NGUYEN NGUYEN: At least three a week.
A.C. THOMPSON: Well, do you know if the Houston police translated this into English?
NGUYEN NGUYEN: No. We gave them all the latest newspaper, and they never gave us a feedback.
A.C. THOMPSON: You gave them to them?
NGUYEN NGUYEN: I gave it to them because since they have no witnesses, this is the only evidence.
A.C. THOMPSON: [voice-over] It wasn’t a lot to go on, a stack of old articles I would need to get translated. I tried to track down other reporters he knew.
[on camera] Hi. I’m calling for Pham Cong Tieu.
PERSON ON PHONE: [subtitles] I think you have the wrong number.
A.C. THOMPSON: [voice-over] But their numbers no longer work, and even his old advertisers have closed down.
These are the few details I can piece together— seven shots, no shell casings, little forensic evidence, and no witnesses. It all sounds like a professional hit. And even those who know about the case don’t want to talk.
[on camera] [on the phone] I just wondered if there’s any way to meet with the detectives who are currently assigned to the case and just talk on background— not for the record, just to get a better sense of the case.
[voice-over] Cold case units are usually eager to speak to the press, but no one at the Houston P.D. will talk about Dam Phong’s murder.
I’ve begun to read translations of Dam Phong’s newspapers, and it’s clear he wasn’t afraid of making dangerous enemies— Vietnamese gangs, con men targeting refugees, the KKK. But Dam Phong’s final articles took aim at an anti-communist political group called the Front.
He had an angry meeting with them at a restaurant down on Milam Street days before he was killed. But the restaurant is gone, and the Front no longer exists.
CLAUDIA KOLKER, Former L.A. Times Reporter: They were a community of mostly military elite who had been—
A.C. THOMPSON: A reporter who covered Houston for The L.A. Times tells me the Front was run by former officers in the U.S.-backed Army of South Vietnam. Years after the fall of Saigon, the war for them still hadn’t ended.
CLAUDIA KOLKER: They collected money, and they said that they had people on the ground in Vietnam in the jungles and they were organizing. And here in Houston, the top of a restaurant, people would put on their tan and brown shirts and they would meet, and they would even do some kinds of military exercises in hopes that they could take back Vietnam.
For them, the war did not end. They would call themselves freedom fighters. They didn’t see themselves as charging in to— to bring down a legitimate government. They were continuing a war that they had been dislodged from but still believed in.
A.C. THOMPSON: [on camera] What was the theory that was going around about who killed Dam Phong?
CLAUDIA KOLKER: There was something close to a consensus that it must have been connected to the Front. There were people who thought that he had it coming to him, that he was disloyal and unpatriotic for even questioning the Front, and that it was somehow damaging to the whole community and it was damaging to the cause. Many people thought that it was inevitable, that he wouldn’t survive this.
A.C. THOMPSON: [voice-over] Kolker says the Front was the only suspect she’d ever heard linked to the murder, but no one would give her anything more than rumors.
I tracked down one of Dam Phong’s old friends. He agrees to meet me at a restaurant.
A.C. THOMPSON: [on camera] When you look at the killing of Dam Phong, this could have been about lots of different people he offended. What do you think?
OLD FRIEND: [subtitles] I don’t think it was revenge. This is about politics.
A.C. THOMPSON: Who do you think killed Dam Phong?
OLD FRIEND: [subtitles] I know the organization, but not the individual. I only know it was K9. K9 was an organized group of assassins that silenced the Front’s opposition.
A.C. THOMPSON: So K9 was a death squad?
OLD FRIEND: That’s it.
A.C. THOMPSON: And what kind of personnel were on these teams?
OLD FRIEND: [subtitles] All veterans from every branch, but many from the navy.
A.C. THOMPSON: What made them want to kill Dam Phong?
OLD FRIEND: [subtitles] He used print media to criticize them too much. I tell him, “Turn down the volume, that they were planning something.
A.C. THOMPSON: So you warned him.
OLD FRIEND: [subtitles] I let him know a couple of months—
A.C. THOMPSON: A couple months before he got killed.
OLD FRIEND: And I let him know because he’s a friend of mine.
A.C. THOMPSON: How come this case is still unsolved?
OLD FRIEND: [subtitles] Because you see, Dam Phong— everybody knows. They’re scared. “Don’t talk. Stop.” Everybody stopped. If you talk, you’re gone.
A.C. THOMPSON: [voice-over] A Vietnamese guerrilla group meeting above a restaurant, a hit squad made up of former South Vietnamese soldiers. It’s all a bit hard to believe, but when I start looking into the Front, it’s clearly more than just a fringe group in Houston. It had thousands of members in dozens of cities and claimed it was raising an army to overthrow the communist government in Vietnam.
If K9 really was a hit squad targeting the Front’s critics, like Dam Phong, maybe there were other murders. I can’t find any similar cases in Houston, but I widen my search and find what looks like a match.
July 21st, 1981, a year before Dam Phong, another newspaper publisher, Duong Trong Lam, was gunned down in front of his home in San Francisco.
I’d worked as a police reporter in the Bay area for years, and I managed to get a copy of the police files from the Lam case. I’m looking for links to K9 and the Front, but the police files take me in a different direction. Among the papers, I find a communique claiming responsibility for the murder.
But it’s signed by yet another group, VOECRN. The Vietnamese Organization to Exterminate Communists and Restore the Nation had issued an execution order against Lam because of his pro-communist writing.
It looks like a political murder. I want to know if the FBI ever investigated it. I file a Freedom of Information Act request to see what comes up.
The local police had Lam’s murder pegged as a personal dispute. They wrapped up their investigation in a few weeks, charging his friend with the murder. But the whole thing fell apart, and the judge threw it out of court before the trial even began.
JAYSON WECHTER, Private Investigator: Lam was standing approximately here, because he was shot, threw up his hands, screamed, ran and fell to the ground, face down in front of that building there.
A.C. THOMPSON: Jayson Wechter is a private investigator who looked into the case.
JAYSON WECHTER: These are the three who get the best look at his face because he’s coming towards them.
A.C. THOMPSON: Wechter walks me through the crime scene, and it’s a tour of missed leads and lost opportunities.
JAYSON WECHTER: When we get further up, I’ll show you something I thought was a very glaring omission on the part of the police.
A.C. THOMPSON: He tells me they failed to interview witnesses, never did a full canvas of the neighborhood, and didn’t question a key suspect.
JAYSON WECHTER: The police never went there, never talked to anyone.
A.C. THOMPSON: The police never solved the case. So Wechter has brought along his own files to share with me. On top of Wechter’s files is the same strange communique from VOECRN.
[on camera] When you saw these letters, what did you think?
JAYSON WECHTER: I thought it could be possible. We know he’d been threatened. We have credible reports that people were looking for him with a gun. We have a credible report that someone had backed him into the end of the hallway, and he seemed to be in fear of his life.
The police looked at this through the prism of a homicide committed for personal reasons. That was the kind of thing they were fairly familiar with. I don’t think they explored the possibility of a political motive.
NANCY DUONG, Lam’s Sister: We came here at ‘75. Lam lived with me in this house.
A.C. THOMPSON: [voice-over] Lam’s sister, Nancy Duong, has fond memories of living with her brother in the ‘70s.
[on camera] So that’s him?
NANCY DUONG: That’s him. He’s a hippie at that time. [laughs] You can see.
A.C. THOMPSON: Wow. And then he had a newsletter.
NANCY DUONG: Yeah, that’s the one that get pissed off people.
A.C. THOMPSON: Did he get threats?
NANCY DUONG: Yes.
A.C. THOMPSON: What were the threats like?
NANCY DUONG: OK. I’m the one, first one they threat. And they threaten me with a gun.
A.C. THOMPSON: They put guns to your head?
NANCY DUONG: Uh-huh.
A.C. THOMPSON: What did the people say?
NANCY DUONG: They just say, “Get out of the country. I will kill the whole family.” It scared me to death. I’m not kidding. And Lam, he’s scared, too.
A.C. THOMPSON: So there was a letter that came out after your brother got killed, and it said the Vietnamese Organization to Exterminate Communists—
NANCY DUONG: I heard that. I heard that. They even call me.
A.C. THOMPSON: They called you.
NANCY DUONG: Yes.
A.C. THOMPSON: They said, “We’re a group, a terrorist group.”
NANCY DUONG: Yes. “We are the ones kill your brother.” I scared. I really scared.
A.C. THOMPSON: How many times do you think someone called you and—
NANCY DUONG: Oh, my God. You could say, it for two months, I just crazy. I have to cut the phone.
A.C. THOMPSON: You had to cut the phone.
NANCY DUONG: Because day and night.
A.C. THOMPSON: What did you think of the police investigation?
NANCY DUONG: I don’t think they care that much. It hurt me a lot. I try everything to give them information. I try everything because I want to know exactly what happened to him because to me, he’s the best. He have a kindness inside. When he died, I just— [weeps]
A.C. THOMPSON: [on the phone] Hi, Inspector Pierucci. This is A.C. Thompson with ProPublica and PBS FRONTLINE. I’m investigating the death of Duong Trong Lam in 1981. I would love to talk to you about the case. If you get a chance, please give me a call.
VOICEMAIL: Thank you for leaving your message—
A.C. THOMPSON: [voice-over] Two separate storylines have emerged, the Front with its alleged K9 hit squad in Houston, and VOECRN in San Francisco. But I can’t get anyone in law enforcement in either city to talk about it.
And then the Freedom of Information Act request I’d filed comes back, hundreds of partially redacted pages from an FBI investigation in the ‘90s. It pulled together dozens of crimes in cities from San Diego to Memphis to Alexandria, Virginia. It was captioned “266” for “domestic terrorism,” and it linked VOECRN to the Front and K9.
These FBI files reveal a nationwide reign of terror— seven murders and dozens of attacks, many targeting journalists who were critical of the Front. But the FBI closed the case in the late ‘90s, and today this unsolved wave of terror has been all but forgotten.
KATHERINE TANG WILCOX, Retired FBI Special Agent: I inherited a file room of documents, about probably from this desk over to the corner there. The reason I left, ultimately, is because I developed an ulcer, and it started affecting my health.
A.C. THOMPSON: Special Agent Katherine Tang Wilcox helped run the VOECRN investigation for the FBI. She amassed a mountain of evidence, but prosecutors were never able to bring a case.
[on camera] Throughout the files, we’ve got three different organizations. We’ve got VOECRN, we’ve got the Front, and we’ve got K9.
KATHERINE TANG WILCOX: Right.
A.C. THOMPSON: How were they tied together, in your mind?
KATHERINE TANG WILCOX: K9 was established as the assassination arm of the Front, to take care of the people who either represented a threat to them and their anti-communist movement, or were viewed as being communist.
I’m more inclined to believe that VOECRN was just a name given by either the Front leadership or K9 to take responsibility for— for the actions.
A.C. THOMPSON: But how did K9 operate? I mean, who was the boss?
KATHERINE TANG WILCOX: We never got enough information at that time because people were still so afraid to really pin down who was in K9. I do think that, particularly with Nguyen Dam Phong in Houston, there is a distinct belief on my part that the Front was responsible.
A.C. THOMPSON: Why do you think that Dam Phong was killed by the Front?
KATHERINE TANG WILCOX: 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.
A.C. THOMPSON: The shells?
KATHERINE TANG WILCOX: Yeah. 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.
A.C. THOMPSON: And what did that spell out to you?
KATHERINE TANG WILCOX: It was an assassination.
A.C. THOMPSON: [voice-over] But retired agents tell me the killings and violence were overshadowed by higher-profile cases at the time, like the Unabomber, and it didn’t get the resources it needed.
[on camera] It sounds crazy, a political death squad operating in the U.S. for a decade with impunity.
KATHERINE TANG WILCOX: I do feel badly I was never, ever able to bring someone to justice, to bring closure to those victims’ families. But even after we finally got a task force set up to address it, we— I— there was more than just me trying to work these cases all over the place, it wasn’t something every agent wanted to take on.
A.C. THOMPSON: Do you think the bureau should reopen the investigation?
KATHERINE TANG WILCOX: Should they be reopened if new information’s developed? Oh, yeah. Yeah, 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 even— and there is no statute of limitation on homicide.
A.C. THOMPSON: [voice-over] The FBI was never able to penetrate the Front’s leadership or flip a key member. But Special Agent Tang Wilcox is right, someone out there knows who’s responsible. They would be 30 years older now, but that might make it easier to talk.
The Front was led by former soldiers, and I managed to get an invitation to a South Vietnamese army reunion in San Jose. It all feels a bit surreal, but it’s still part of the Vietnamese-American culture today— the martial songs, the speeches calling for the overthrow of the communist government, the pressed uniforms from a military that hasn’t existed for 40 years.
Some of the vets are former Front members, and they’re eager to talk about the glory days of the battle against communism. When I turn the conversation to K9, they quickly become cagey.
The next day, a former South Vietnamese army ranger and Front member agrees to speak on camera.
[on camera] If you had seen someone that you thought was a communist back in the 1980s, what would have happened?
NGUYEN DANG KHOA, Former Front Member: [subtitles] At that point, I would have stabbed him, cut him, and do anything to kill him. If you’re Viet Cong, if you’re communist, if you’re a communist, I’d take you out. That’s what I would have done personally.
A.C. THOMPSON: What was the K9 unit? Because what people say is that the K9 assassinated people like Dam Phong, the journalist in Houston, and we’re just trying to figure out what’s rumor and what’s real.
NGUYEN DANG KHOA: [subtitles] I don’t hear, but somebody told me—
A.C. THOMPSON: You’re a smart guy. You knew about the K9.
[voice-over] It feels like Khoa knows more than he’s saying. But decades after the FBI closed the case, people are still reluctant to talk.
1st MAN: I don’t want to point the finger at any group.
A.C. THOMPSON: Over the following months, I track down dozens of victims and former Front members in Little Saigons from Orange County to Virginia.
2nd MAN: [subtitles] I don’t get it. I don’t get what this story is all about.
A.C. THOMPSON: Some seem genuinely scared, and many refuse to appear on camera.
[on camera] This is a call for Mr. Wong Co Dien. We’ve been trying to get in touch with you for months. We would really like to interview you.
But after countless meetings, a handful of former Front leaders confirms the suspicions in the FBI files, that K9 was a secret unit the Front used to target its enemies.
[on camera] Who was in charge of K9?
FORMER FRONT LEADER: [subtitles] I can only say that I don’t sure—
A.C. THOMPSON: [voice-over] I still don’t know who ran K9, who gave the orders, who pulled the trigger. The closest law enforcement ever came to cracking the Front’s leadership was with the same tool that took down Al Capone, a tax case.
The San Jose detective who helped build the federal tax case has retired to the hills of northern California. Doug Zwemke keeps his scrapbook from his investigations.
Sgt. DOUG ZWEMKE (Ret.), San Jose Police Dept.: Some of my friends call this the “Rolodex of Death.“
A.C. THOMPSON: It is filled with the photos of informants who were murdered while working with him.
DOUG ZWEMKE: He had a little sign on his chest. “I’m snitch, I die snitch.”
A.C. THOMPSON: [on camera] Oh, my God!
DOUG ZWEMKE: Yeah. She was an informant. She moves to Texas. They killed her and burned her. He got murdered. Here’s a guy that helped on the Front a little bit, but he was murdered in San Quentin.
Now here is the star, the person that started the whole thing. This is Freedom Fighter. And that’s his wife, Velvet. This is the guy that murdered him. Whether he was murdered for helping me or because of the Front, the murderer’s never been caught.
A.C. THOMPSON: How did you get on this case?
DOUG ZWEMKE: Freedom Fighter— he thought it would be a significant case for me to look into. It was right on, and it was verifiable. I didn’t have to believe what he was saying, I could just go out and it was right under my nose— demonstrations, rallies, fundraisers. Then you can see the money flow.
That was the key. How can we get arrests from this criminal enterprise, for pretty easy? You know, then just the tax. It’s— the money talks, and you can follow it.
A.C. THOMPSON: [voice-over] Zwemke tells me the Front was raising large sums of money to launch guerrilla operations against Vietnam. That would have been illegal under U.S. law, but he says it was easier to try to prosecute them for not paying their taxes.
[on camera] In your view, could you have used the tax case to squeeze information—
DOUG ZWEMKE: No question. No question. Human behavior is human behavior. Whether you’re Vietnamese or— or anything. The old axiom, to err is human, to snitch is divine. [laughs]
A.C. THOMPSON: So— so-
DOUG ZWEMKE: So you would have rolled them. And they would have gone. And then you’d start filling in the organization chart concerning the K9s, the murders, the national and the international perspective of this thing. It could have opened a lot of doors.
A.C. THOMPSON: How long did you work on the tax case?
DOUG ZWEMKE: We got to the indictment thing within a couple of years. And then it just kind of stalled and stalled and then appeals. And the U.S. attorney in that case gave me a call. “Sorry,” you know, “statutes ran, and I wasn’t watching the clock.” You got to be kidding me.
Anyway, the cases were lost. You know, I still think today that what they did in organizing, actually, an international organization— for them to pull that off in such a quick time, that takes money, that takes support, that takes materiel.
A.C. THOMPSON: [voice-over] It takes me a minute to understand exactly what Zwemke’s driving at.
DOUG ZWEMKE: Clearly, tacit support for their organization.
A.C. THOMPSON: And I hesitate to ask the obvious question.
[on camera] Your theory is somewhere in the background was the U.S. government.
DOUG ZWEMKE: Oh, yeah.
A.C. THOMPSON: [voice-over] Zwemke says the Front argued in court they were working with the CIA and Department of Defense. I don’t know what to make of his theory.
I try to look over the court filings myself, but they’ve disappeared from the archives. The U.S. attorney’s office won’t discuss the case, and neither will the CIA or the Department of Defense.
Zwemke told me other strange things about the Front, that its leaders were close to people in the Department of Defense, that they may have gotten help with their operations in Southeast Asia. But what, if anything, did this have to do with the story I’ve been investigating?
I learn of a former Front member who spent years in prison. He’d shot a man in Orange County over statements he’d made to The L.A. Times calling for dialogue with the communist government in Vietnam.
The would-be assassin’s name is Tran Van Be Tu, and he agrees to meet me at a hotel just off the expressway.
[on camera] So he came out of this photo shop—
TRAN VAN BE TU, Former Front Member: Yeah, yeah. And we tried to get him in the car. But he grabbed my hand like this. Look. Just, just— when I go like this, I shoot, he fell like a tree. I thought maybe he die.
Communist are like sick, sick people. So let the sick people— they die. They die.
A.C. THOMPSON: [voice-over] No regret, no remorse. For Be Tu, this was not attempted murder, it was an act of war.
TRAN VAN BE TU: We feel proud to do that. To me, I don’t call me a hero, you know, but that time, in Orange County, they call us like a hero.
A.C. THOMPSON: Be Tu had been a hard-core Front member. He says they’d even tried to recruit him to join K9, but he split from the group before the shooting.
[on camera] So you were recruited to join the K9 organization. Is that right?
TRAN VAN BE TU: Right, right.
A.C. THOMPSON: And it was your understanding that K9 was a hit squad or some kind of secret operations squad, is that right?
TRAN VAN BE TU: Exactly. That’s a secret unit, yes.
A.C. THOMPSON: Each chapter had people who were in the K9, so Houston, San Jose, Orange County— is that right?
TRAN VAN BE TU: Could be. Could be. Yes.
A.C. THOMPSON: Dam Phong’s family think that Dam Phong is criticizing the Front, and that got him killed. Does that sound accurate to you?
TRAN VAN BE TU: That’s what I heard, you know. That’s what I heard many, many time from people, our people around. K9 is professional. They do good job, but they never get caught.
A.C. THOMPSON: Do you know the name of the person who killed Dam Phong?
TRAN VAN BE TU: Sound like you are FBI! [laughs]
A.C. THOMPSON: [voice-over] Be Tu won’t go any further. But then I catch a major break. I find a high-ranking former Front leader who’s never spoken to anyone in law enforcement. He won’t reveal his identity or name the assassins, but he’s certain K9 killed Lam in San Francisco and Dam Phong in Houston.
In his last issue, Dam Phong talks about a secret reporting trip he hid from his wife. A few months before his death, Dam Phong went to Thailand, investigating the Front’s base there and its leader, Hoang Co Minh.
I’d focused on the Front’s U.S. leadership, but when I open Minh’s file, everything changes. On his citizenship application, he assumes a Japanese cover name, William Nakamura. The home address he cites belongs to an adviser for the U.S. National Security Council. And a surprising name shows up, Richard Armitage, a top Pentagon official.
The documents also show the Pentagon asked for Hoang Co Minh’s naturalization to be expedited, and their request is followed by six blank pages that have been redacted for national security reasons. It’s the immigration application of a man who’s been dead for almost 30 years. What possible national security reason would keep them classified now?
STEPHEN ENGELBERG, ProPublica Editor-in-Chief: There’s something here that’s more than 30 years old and still a classified fact.
A.C. THOMPSON: [on camera] Yeah.
STEPHEN ENGELBERG: I can’t even being to imagine. I mean, you know, so many things from that period have been declassified. What could still be a secret?
A.C. THOMPSON: I don’t get it.
[voice-over] What began as a murder investigation in Houston, Texas, has led to the Pentagon and beyond, to the jungles of Thailand.
[on camera] This is propaganda for the Front back in the early ‘80s. Here’s the leader, Hoang Co Minh, and here they are. They’re drilling out in the forest. Now, this is Thailand where they are.
STEPHEN ENGELBERG: When these pictures are taken, the war is practically, what, 10 years gone, right?
A.C. THOMPSON: Yeah, 5 to 10 years gone.
STEPHEN ENGELBERG: And it’s not over for them.
A.C. THOMPSON: Now check this out. This is when Hoang Co Minh wants to become a citizen.
STEPHEN ENGELBERG: Put it another way. A guy who is publicly raising money to start a war in Vietnam while living in the United States has a letter in his file that says the Defense Department wants to get this guy citizenship as soon as possible.
A.C. THOMPSON: Yeah.
STEPHEN ENGELBERG: That’s curious.
A.C. THOMPSON: That’s what I thought. And then the FBI goes and interviews Richard Armitage, so this is what he tells the FBI.
“I’m hearing rumors that they have a death squad.” Quote, “Armitage noted that it has been rumored that the Front assassination squads are comprised of former South Vietnamese navy SEALs and special forces members.”
STEPHEN ENGELBERG: Well, it’s fascinating. It does raise a question a very interesting question. I mean, that’s what we’ve got to report out.
A.C. THOMPSON: [voice-over] The FBI files focused on what the Front was doing in the United States, but Dam Phong followed them to Thailand. The Front claimed to have a base behind enemy lines in Vietnam, but Dam Phong revealed the camp’s real location in the jungles of Thailand. He wasn’t just editorializing against the Front, he was endangering their military enterprise.
Bangkok, Thailand. The U.S. has a long, close relationship with the military here, from the Vietnam war, when Thailand was a base for covert missions, to the war on terror, when it hosted a CIA black site. I arrive in Bangkok a year into a military coup. A junta of generals rules the country in the name of the monarchy. But if the generals are in power, maybe it will be easier for them to speak.
Chavalit Yongchaiyudh was prime minister of Thailand in the ‘90s, but he prefers to be referred to by his military rank of general.
[on camera] The group that we’re looking at was called the Front, and our understanding is that you set up a camp on the border with Laos. Do you remember the Front?
Gen. CHAVALIT YONGCHAIYUDH: Yeah. Yeah.
A.C. THOMPSON: And they were operating with the acknowledgment of the Thai government there on the border, right?
Gen. CHAVALIT YONGCHAIYUDH: Yeah. You can talk like that. Our prime minister authorized us to do so.
A.C. THOMPSON: Did you meet with Hoang Co Minh?
Gen. CHAVALIT YONGCHAIYUDH: Yeah, yeah. But I don’t know exactly who Hoang Co Minh at that time was.
A.C. THOMPSON: Our understanding is the Front— that they had about 200 fighters on your border, and they made several attempts to get into Vietnam or Laos.
Gen. CHAVALIT YONGCHAIYUDH: More than that.
A.C. THOMPSON: More than that?
Gen. CHAVALIT YONGCHAIYUDH: Yeah.
A.C. THOMPSON: They had more fighters than that.
Gen. CHAVALIT YONGCHAIYUDH: More than that. I don’t know exactly, but more than that.
A.C. THOMPSON: Do you think it’s possible that the U.S. was supporting this group?
Gen. CHAVALIT YONGCHAIYUDH: The U.S. government support a lot.
A.C. THOMPSON: These people had rocket launchers, assault rifles—
Gen. CHAVALIT YONGCHAIYUDH: I don’t know.
A.C. THOMPSON: Where do you think those came from?
Gen. CHAVALIT YONGCHAIYUDH: I don’t know.
A.C. THOMPSON: Do you think it was the U.S.?
Gen. CHAVALIT YONGCHAIYUDH: Well, they should come from somewhere. Positively, they had to have support. [laughs] OK? Finished?
A.C. THOMPSON: [voice-over] I wasn’t going to get anything more concrete out of the prime minister general. But I find more traces of the Front’s presence here— a book by a former Front soldier. The soldier’s unwilling to go on camera, but he claims to have survived one of the Front’s failed missions, and his emails to me are full of fascinating detail.
He says the Front demanded total obedience. No one was allowed to leave the base. The soldier even tells me that Hoang Co Minh executed members of the group, including at least one of the Vietnamese-Americans who’d come over to fight. The bodies, he says, were buried in the camp.
Ubon province, in the dense forests along the Mekong River form the cradle of Buddhism in Thailand. The hills here sheltered not only the Front’s base, but anti-communist Lao guerrillas, as well. The Front depended on them to guide them through Laos and into Vietnam. Hoang Co Minh died trying to invade Vietnam in 1987, and the Front soldiers who weren’t killed with him are long gone. But the Lao remain.
In the tiny hamlets near the border, I manage to find five former Lao fighters who worked with the Front.
[on camera] We’re trying to find Lao fighters who fought with this guy, Vietnamese resistance leader.
LAO FIGHTER: [subtitles] Yes, I know this person, Hoang Co Minh. He wanted us to guide him across the Mekong River to Vietnam. We traveled over many nights. We took them through Laos and then returned.
A.C. THOMPSON: Did you ever hear what happened to them?
LAO FIGHTER: [subtitles] No, we never heard.
A.C. THOMPSON: Did any of the Front’s fighters ever get tired of life there in the camp and try to leave?
LAO FIGHTER: [subtitles] I heard that some wanted to stop, but they weren’t allowed to leave, even if they wanted to. A year before the trip into Laos, the money men tried to escape. They were able to capture five of them and kill them. There are about five graves there.
A.C. THOMPSON: [voice-over] The fighter confirms what I’d heard earlier, that Hoang Co Minh was even willing to kill his own men.
LAO FIGHTER: [subtitles] The others were soldiers. The five people who escaped were buried somewhere else, without a grave.
A.C. THOMPSON: [on camera] So you think about 10 people are buried up there?
LAO FIGHTER: Yes, but five were buried at the top of the mountain. The five who stole were buried at the bottom.
A.C. THOMPSON: [voice-over] Thirty years ago, a guerrilla army led by Hoang Co Minh, an American citizen, used this jungle as a base to launch attacks on Vietnam. Somewhere in these mountains could be the remains of Front soldiers murdered by their own group.
In the dry season, it would be a day’s march from the nearest village. But the rains have begun, and no one will risk guiding me up there. I’ve learned all I can here.
Back in the U.S., the story is becoming more clear. I hear from Richard Armitage, who’s now a consultant in Washington. He won’t meet with me, but in a series of emails, he says he personally vouched for Hoang Co Minh to his Thai counterparts as the Front was trying to set up its operations. But however helpful that was, he insists the U.S. did not have a program of support for the Front.
I also learn Armitage wasn’t the only one who knew about the Front’s war efforts. I find CIA cables showing the agency was aware of the group. So was the National Security Council and the FBI. But no government agency moved to stop this cold war militia.
While Dam Phong’s family mourns his death in private, on the other side of Houston, an annual memorial is being held for someone else’s death, the Front’s leader, Hoang Co Minh. For months, I’ve been trying to track down a man the FBI listed as a suspect in Dam Phong’s murder, and in the back of the room, I finally meet him, Johnny Nguyen.
In the FBI files, multiple informants, including a former Front member, said he was in K9 and was involved in Dam Phong’s murder. Johnny says he was brought before a grand jury but was never charged with any crime. He agrees to speak with me after the memorial.
“JOHNNY” NGUYEN VAN XUNG, Former Front Member: [subtitles] Even though I left the organization, I display a picture of him, which I had enlarged, and I still worship him. Every year on the anniversary of Hoang Co Minh’s death, I can’t seem to stop my tears. It’s been 28 years.
A.C. THOMPSON: [on camera] This is what we’ve been told. At one point, you were a member of K9.
“JOHNNY” NGUYEN VAN XUNG: No, no. That’s wrong!
A.C. THOMPSON: That’s wrong. So you were never a member of the K9.
“JOHNNY” NGUYEN VAN XUNG: Police bull-[expletive deleted
A.C. THOMPSON: It’s bull-[expletive deleted]
“JOHNNY” NGUYEN VAN XUNG: Police bull-[expletive deleted] I told them, “OK, go to tell the FBI that I am the K9. Tell the FBI lock me up,” I told them. No proof. No evidence. They quiet.
A.C. THOMPSON: Was the Front ever involved in hurting or threatening or killing anybody here in the U.S.?
“JOHNNY” NGUYEN VAN XUNG: [subtitles] Never. Never. [in English] Never.
A.C. THOMPSON: Do you have any idea who was involved with killing Dam Phong?
“JOHNNY” NGUYEN VAN XUNG: We don’t involve and we don’t know. We don’t— we never involved like that. I never read the Dam Phong magazine. I never seen Dam Phong. I never know Dam Phong.
A.C. THOMPSON: Dam Phong’s family said, “People from the Front kept calling our house and threatening Dam Phong.”
“JOHNNY” NGUYEN VAN XUNG: I think they lie!
A.C. THOMPSON: Why would they lie?
“JOHNNY” NGUYEN VAN XUNG: You ask them!
A.C. THOMPSON: I did ask them, and that’s what they told me. They said—
“JOHNNY” NGUYEN VAN XUNG: You don’t ask me. You ask them.
A.C. THOMPSON: Why does the Front keep coming up in these discussions?
“JOHNNY” NGUYEN VAN XUNG: [subtitles] I don’t want to talk to him. He’s asking foolish questions. Tell him I don’t “deserve” to talk to him!
A.C. THOMPSON: Hey, Mr. Xung— Mr. Xung— [door slams behind Xung]
[voice-over] After talking to many former Front members and going over the documents, I’ve assembled a list of the group’s top brass. One is dead, but the rest are easy enough to find. Even though the Front dissolved years ago, its leaders remain prominent members of the community.
I set up an interview with Tran Minh Cong, but he stands me up at the last minute. Wong Co Dien won’t talk. Neither will Nguyen Kim. I’m down to one name, Nguyen Xuan Nghia. He was in charge of crafting the Front’s strategic vision.
NGUYEN XUAN NGHIA, Executive Committee Member of the Front: We tried to make things change inside of Vietnam.
A.C. THOMPSON: Nghia is not a man to shy away from a challenge or an argument.
NGUYEN XUAN NGHIA: I am among the executive committee of the overseas. I am not ashamed of what I have done with that. I have not done anything wrong.
A.C. THOMPSON: [on camera] There are people who say there were some members of the group who attacked people in the U.S., who didn’t agree with the group.
NGUYEN XUAN NGHIA: Yeah. I don’t remember exactly when, but there is a lot of big issues, or assassinations or violent actions against writers, or this or that nonsense. A lot of people talking about I am behind that kind of— [laughs] It makes me laugh.
A.C. THOMPSON: Because that’s not you. You weren’t behind it.
NGUYEN XUAN NGHIA: No.
A.C. THOMPSON: I want your help because it’s been many years and people like the family of Dam Phong, they want to know. They want to know who did this. So if you have any— any leads, any evidence, anything you can share—
NGUYEN XUAN NGHIA: I don’t want to be extreme, but look at what they have been writing, insulting the Front. They create a lot of problems all by themselves. You see a group of refugees and they lost their country and they landed here, and people look down on them. And now they say, “Are you the guy who pulled the gun to kill this reporter, or that journalist, or that writer,” for instance?
A.C. THOMPSON: I understand what you’re saying, but I do want to know because these were my colleagues.
NGUYEN XUAN NGHIA: When people keep talking about that kind of things—
A.C. THOMPSON: Well, here’s why. Here’s why people keep bringing it up. It’s because no one’s been arrested.
NGUYEN XUAN NGHIA: It gives a very bad image to the Vietnamese community here. I didn’t want the American audience to hear such kind of ridiculous and crazy thing among our community. And you keep asking me about that. It took about half an hour or two talking about that. And anyway, I didn’t want to ask it.
A.C. THOMPSON: [voice-over] Nghia was hard to pin down, but by now I’d seen enough documents and interviewed enough former Front members to know the group had a death squad. Along the way, I’d even gotten to a man the FBI never interviewed, a Front leader that admitted K9 had killed Lam in San Francisco and Dam Phong in Houston.
And five ex-Front members had confirmed to me what I’d heard about the murders in Thailand, crimes that could potentially be prosecuted under U.S. law.
It’s time to go back to where the story started and share what I’ve learned with Dam Phong’s sons.
[on camera] So look at this. This is terror incidents at that time— 1981, arson, murder of this guy Lam, San Francisco, death threat naming your father, attack on this gentleman, murder of your father, murder of these people. It goes on and on and on and on.
The Front had a death squad. It was called K9. Members of the group are telling us that K9 killed your father.
TU NGUYEN, Dam Phong’s Son: And my dad, he knew they were serious. But to him, his logic was, “Why would they want to take me out?” That’s the last thing what they want to do because in the newspaper, the reporter will be all over him. Being a reporter, he say, we look after each other. We’re very protective of each other.
A.C. THOMPSON: Yeah. My profession, the English language media, failed your father. We didn’t cover the story the way we should have, and that bothers me that people didn’t focus on him the way they should have.
TU NGUYEN: Thank you. You have— you have no idea. I waited 33 years to hear that. Thank you.
[at grave site]_ Hey, Dad. Your grandson’s cleaning, make sure it’s clean for you.
For us, we just want an answer. That’s it. An answer was long overdue. We never got from the police or anybody.
PHONG’S GRANDSON: Do we have anything to dry?
TU NGUYEN: No. Come on. Good job.
A.C. THOMPSON: [voice-over] Special Agent Katherine Tang Wilcox told me the case should be reopened if new evidence comes to light, and 20 years the case was closed, we’ve learned a lot.
After all the new information I’ve uncovered, I want to talk to the FBI, but they won’t do an interview or answer my questions. Instead, they send a statement saying the cases were led by experienced FBI professionals who collected evidence and conducted numerous interviews.
But they said despite those efforts, after 15 years of investigation, Department of Justice and FBI officials concluded that thus far, there is insufficient evidence to pursue prosecution.