Memorial to Kim Pham

A memorial to Kim Pham near where she was killed. As Santa Ana police detectives try to make sense of the melee that led to her death, the investigation is running into a wall of silence. (Allen J. Schaben, Los Angeles Times / January 22, 2014)

She was beaten and stomped to death in the early morning hours outside a Santa Ana nightclub amid a group of fellow Vietnamese Americans.

Some of her friends may have seen who knocked the 23-year-old Huntington Beach woman to the ground or who kicked her in the head as a crowd encircled them. Some may hold the clues that could bring Kim Pham's killers to justice.

But as Santa Ana police detectives try to make sense of the melee that led to her death, the investigation is running into a wall of silence. Pham's friends have failed to come forward. One flatly refused to meet with law enforcement, despite pleas from the police.

Longtime observers of Orange County's sprawling Vietnamese population say the dynamic doesn't surprise them in a community where distrust of authority — and reluctance to cooperate with police — still runs through generations. Many arrived in America with fresh memories of the deeply corrupt government back home.

"People worry that there will be retaliation," said Cmdr. Tim Vu, the highest-ranking Vietnamese American in law enforcement in Orange County. "They don't know the court system and are intimidated by it."

Vu said it is hard to convince some in the community that retaliation against witnesses is rare. "We need to reassure immigrants or potential witnesses that it's not about them," he said. "It's about all the evidence and all other witnesses."

Though many young Vietnamese Americans, like Pham, are deeply Westernized, some are living with older family members who put little faith in cooperating with police.

"Culture comes into play when they're heavily influenced by parents or grandparents who cannot forget the distrust," Vu said. "If the elders say 'Don't talk,' they may not talk."

Pham was a recent Chapman University graduate and an aspiring journalist. So far, police have arrested two women in connection with her death and are looking for a third. A reward for information has climbed to $11,000.

Ken Nguyen, a volunteer who acts as Santa Ana's liaison to the local Vietnamese community, said at least eight Vietnamese American youths were with Pham in the early hours of Jan. 18, waiting to celebrate a birthday at The Crosby, a trendy Santa Ana nightspot.

One of Pham's friends, who was not in the crowd that night, said the fight may have started after the victim unintentionally stepped into another group's photo.

Nguyen said Pham's ex-boyfriend, who was in her entourage, tried to rescue her from her attackers but was pulled away by a bouncer.

Despite public pleas for assistance, detectives have not been able to find the former boyfriend or learn the identities of Pham's other friends, with the exception of one young woman named "Katie," he said.

Nguyen said he personally appealed to her and to her parents, but they expressed fear and have hired a lawyer.

Civic leaders are now reaching out to witnesses through the Vietnamese-language media, stressing they will be treated with respect if they come forward and can meet privately with the police chief or even the mayor.

"Their identities will be protected if they wish," Nguyen said. "These are the things we offered the youths, and so far, they are quiet."

Police said some in Little Saigon — which stretches across central Orange County — still cling to a "code of silence."

"But this is a crime and a tragedy," Nguyen said. "We need witness help."

Nghia X. Nguyen, who heads the Vietnamese American Federation of Southern California, a community group that promotes cultural ties and social services, said he hopes the witnesses will realize how much they can help.

"We need to have faith in the law," he said.