Dao Nguyen served as head monk of Tu Nghiem Temple, one of many small Buddhist houses of worship that dot the neighborhoods of Little Saigon in Orange County.
His Santa Ana congregation was small but boisterous. And in recent months, he had been organizing a pilgrimage to Vietnam for temple members and their families. He collected tens of thousands of dollars — much of it in cash — promising a spiritual adventure back to the homeland, police and parishioners said.
But recently, some in the temple became suspicious about what Nguyen was doing with the money and contacted police.
On Friday, as police ramped up their investigation, detectives said they found the monk dead in a bedroom of the temple, the victim of an apparent suicide.
His death left temple members and neighbors stunned. While some accused him of taking their money, others defended him as a generous leader who reached out to those in the working-class neighborhood.
"I see how poor and struggling it is here. That's why I've been worshiping and supporting him for more than three years," said Truc Tam, finishing a vegetarian meal outside his home. "He is a good man. Anyone without a place to sleep or something to eat is invited inside. He does not turn people away."
There are scores of tiny Buddhist temples in or near Little Saigon, many of them little more than modest homes tucked in the middle of neighborhoods, only the small shrines in the front yards offering a clue as to what's inside.
"They make it easy for fellowship and create a warm neighborhood atmosphere," said Le Tan Huynh, a member of the executive board of the General Assn. of Buddhist Laypersons. "The monks know everyone's name."
Huynh estimated there are easily 100 of the small temples in the area, which fill the role of being a "neighborhood friend." He said most have congregations of 30 to 50 people, far more intimate than the mega-temples in the community that draw thousands.
Nguyen's temple was founded six years ago, a tiny whitewashed home on Fourth Street. Huynh said Nguyen spoke no English and may have been swindled as he tried to arrange for the pilgrimage to Vietnam.
But this month the would-be travelers confronted Nguyen at the temple, demanding that he refund their money.
Thirty-four people said they had given Nguyen from $1,100 to $7,700 for airline tickets and other travel expenses for the scheduled March 2 trip, $97,000 in all.
Nguyen said the travel documents, including passports, had burned in a fire in one of his bedrooms at the temple, an incident that investigators deemed to be suspicious, police said.
Then police said their investigation revealed that no airline tickets had ever been purchased.
The monk reportedly told police that he had paid an unidentified person in Vietnam to handle the travel arrangements and that the tickets had been delivered to him just hours before the fire.
He told officers that he later discovered the tickets and other travel documents were counterfeit and that the money had been stolen by his operative in Vietnam. Huynh said Nguyen had traveled to Vietnam about three months ago to meet with someone to help arrange the trip.
"He may have put his trust in this guy," Huynh said.
Oanh Hoang of Ontario, who said she spent $2,700 to travel with her sister-in-law and another woman, attended a preflight meeting where she said Nguyen gave each person an itinerary book and a scarf.
On March 1, Hoang remembers Nguyen contacting her "to tell me the temple was all burned." Shocked, she and others rushed to the temple.
"I didn't see a lot that was burned," she said. "He said that 38 passports were destroyed, but later mentioned he put them in the trunk of his car because they were wet."
News of Nguyen's reported suicide left Hoang saddened and conflicted.
"I'm sad to hear it, but if it's true he wasn't involved, he should stay around to find out what happened. Or if he took the money and spent it, we want to know. I just want things to be clear so I don't have to think about it anymore," she said.
Worshipers on Friday prepared for an evening prayer for Nguyen. Offerings such as soup, tofu and tree-ear mushrooms were placed at an altar inside the temple with a photo of the monk wearing a saffron robe.
Outside, residents in the congested neighborhood — a blend of Vietnamese and Latino families — looked on.
"I like how they gather to pray," said Maria Gomez, who has lived here more than 35 years. "There is a nice rhythm and they are nice people."