Nguyen, a Southern California consultant to Vietnamese-language media. Some of those people — whether in San Francisco or Houston, San Jose or Virginia — were afraid not of the police but of the Front finding out they had talked to the police. Doan Van Toai, a writer and activist, was shot in the face in in Fresno, California.
The shooter has never been caught, and Toai has rarely spoken publicly about his case. But in a recent interview with ProPublica and Frontline, Toai said the authorities were completely unprepared to investigate his case and others like it. That said, he understood what they were up against. His friends and relatives had spoken of telephoned threats to Lam, and later of calls to his family from people claiming to have killed him. Several weeks after the killing, San Francisco detectives received a handwritten note identifying a suspect, complete with name, address and telephone number.
The suspect was described as a former South Vietnamese police official who had conducted interrogations of suspected Communists back in Saigon. The note said the man was now a member of a militant anti-Communist organization: the Front. The San Francisco detectives had the message translated into English.
But they never followed up on the lead. In a homicide case file running hundreds of pages, there is no sign the detectives ever interviewed the man identified in the handwritten note. ProPublica and Frontline located the man in San Jose and interviewed him. Russoniello was moved to send a note to the FBI, asking if there was any reason to believe the killing of Lam was a terrorist act.
A senior FBI agent came to his office to assure him there was not. The FBI stuck to that conclusion even after more journalists were killed in what appeared to be political assassinations. When magazine publisher Pham Van Tap was murdered in Southern California in , federal agents in Los Angeles saw a similarity between his murder and that of Lam. The FBI redacted the name of the agent before declassifying the document and releasing it to ProPublica and Frontline.
Terror in Little Saigon — ProPublica
Today, Nancy Duong keeps a black-and-white photo of her brother next to a small Buddhist altar. In the picture, Lam is young and smiling. If the FBI was stymied in solving individual crimes it suspected were committed by the Front, there was another way the agency could have built a case against the group. The Front never tried very hard to hide the fact that it was engaging in conduct that violated the act. It held public events in cities across the country, imploring attendees to donate money to its war effort.
The FBI found that the Front ran ads in the Vietnamese-American press directly linking donations to weapons; writing a check to the organization, the ads promised, would allow it to purchase arms such as assault rifles and shoulder-fired rockets. And then there was the military base the group established in Thailand, from which it would try to invade Vietnam. But a review of thousands of pages of FBI investigative files, as well as interviews with former agents and prosecutors, turns up no serious discussion of making a Neutrality Act case — even after the FBI came to suspect the Front of carrying out assassinations on American soil.
Neither provided an answer. Tang-Wilcox, one of the top agents on the Front investigation, said she did not think making such a case would have been feasible given the politics of the s. At the time, the US had committed to what became known as the Reagan Doctrine, under which America would support armed anti-Communist movements.
The US was backing rebels fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, a proxy army in the Angolan civil war and, infamously, the Contras fighting in Nicaragua.
Eugene Kontorovich, a professor at the Northwestern University School of Law who has written widely on the Neutrality Act, said he was not surprised no case was made against the Front. But the man the Front counted as its most important contact in the American government was Richard Armitage. Armitage was a man with a long and deep history in Vietnam.
He served as an officer in the US Navy during the war, and met and befriended Minh in the s. Armitage was later tasked with assisting the evacuation of the South Vietnamese Navy and its officers as the fall of Saigon loomed. Armitage went on to serve as a senior official in the Department of Defense in the Reagan administration, overseeing policy for Southeast Asia. He also served as a deputy secretary of state for George W. The substance of that interview was written up in a formal debriefing memo, known in FBI parlance as a document.
He also told the FBI that he believed the Front to be capable of political assassinations, and that he had heard rumors that the Front was indeed carrying out such killings in the US. Armitage would not agree to an interview with ProPublica and Frontline. But he did respond to written questions. He confirmed that he had told the FBI about the rumors of the Front killing people in the US, and acknowledged that he had not informed anyone in law enforcement about those rumors prior to the interview.
In time, he and his followers cleared trees and built a collection of rudimentary wooden structures. He drew a few hundred men to the encampment, training them in guerrilla tactics and equipping them with small arms and fatigues. The man said Minh was brutal about punishing those who lost heart for the mission. The Laotian fighter, as well as five men who had joined the Front and traveled to the camp in Thailand, said that Minh had executed as many as 10 of his own soldiers for insubordination or lack of devotion. It is possible one or more of them were US citizens.
The FBI had received at least one report of killings in the camp. A Front member escaped in and contacted the bureau in Honolulu, telling agents that two recruits had been murdered at the camp. It is not clear what the FBI did with the information. Five Front officials were charged with taking tens of thousands of dollars raised for the war effort overseas for their personal use, and then not paying taxes on that money. Working with the FBI and Zwemke, agents for the IRS painstakingly traced money as it moved through a tangle of Front-controlled bank accounts and businesses between and Funds poured into Front bank accounts in California from donors all over the world.
The group transferred large sums to Bangkok, presumably for the use of the soldiers in Thailand. Dinh refused to talk about the case with ProPublica and Frontline. As part of their defense, their lawyers argued that the Front members were immune from prosecution because they had struck a secret deal with the CIA and the Department of Defense.
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In exchange for their help in locating American prisoners of war in Vietnam, the agencies had given the Front permission to do as it wished with the money raised in America. Prosecutors scoffed at the claim. ProPublica and Frontline sought to obtain the entire case file to reconstruct what happened. Surprisingly, staff at the federal courthouses in San Jose and San Francisco said the file had been lost, and the Federal Records Center, which archives old court records, was also unable locate the documents. The office of the current US attorney in San Francisco would not discuss the case.
Terror in Little Saigon
The few court records that have survived, as well as interviews with some of those involved, show the case came to a sudden, anticlimactic end. On January 4, , some four years after the indictments had been announced, US District Judge James Ware held a hearing on a motion made by lawyers for the Front members. The lawyers argued that their clients had been denied their right to a speedy trial.
The judge, embarrassed, conceded that they were right, and dismissed the case. Prosecutors determined they could not refile the charges — many of the alleged offenses had occurred a decade earlier and law enforcement officials said the legal window for bringing a new case had expired.
Investigators concluded that finding newer evidence would be difficult, as the Front had improved its bookkeeping. Zwemke was devastated. Among other things, the informant who had first brought him the tip had been killed in the course of the investigation. For years, often working solo, she had pulled together a mountain of files from agents across the country, and had scoured them for ways to connect the group to more than two dozen criminal acts.
Finally given an audience with Freeh, Tang-Wilcox said she made a direct plea to him in front of other agents: Either give me the resources to pursue this case or shut it down. Teamed with roughly half a dozen agents, Tang-Wilcox did considerable work.
Her colleagues in the Washington, D. Investigators believed the Front used the name to take credit for terror acts and killings that it carried out.
Part of that complexity owed to the fact that there was violence being committed in Vietnamese-American communities by gangs and extortionists. Any individual act of violence, the agents wrote, could have multiple explanations. Internally, agents acknowledged one looming price for failing to solve these crimes. A note written by an agent in Los Angeles in warnedsuperiors about the risks of prematurely closing the investigation. Among other things, the agent wrote, the FBI would have to explain how after so many years it had failed to infiltrate the top ranks of the Front.
Interviews with former agents and prosecutors who worked on the case suggest that despite the infusion of resources in , many agents regarded it as a bastard child within the FBI. By contrast, agents were eager to join the hunt for the Unabomber, the anarchist who authored a 35,word anti-technology manifesto and mailed explosives to airline executives, academics, and others.
The task force searching for the serial bomber — he killed three and injured 24 — swelled to over full-time personnel, many of them based in the San Francisco office. The years it took federal agents to fully recognize the political nature of the violence against Vietnamese-American journalists were costly.
And while FBI records show agents subpoenaed phone records on some 80 people, Tang-Wilcox said the bureau never developed enough detailed information to get a judge to approve a wire-tap. Such setbacks, agents and prosecutors acknowledge, help explain why, even though federal grand juries were convened in the Bay area in the s and again in the s, no indictments related to the violence were handed up.
Johnny Nguyen appeared before one of those grand juries. In the s and early s, according to the FBI, Johnny Nguyen owned a convenience store in Houston and worked in some capacity at a local law firm. He was known around Houston as a successful businessman.