For the past seven weeks, FBI agents and San Francisco-area police detectives have quietly searched the Chinese communities of Los Angeles County for clues to the whereabouts of a mysterious tape recording said to reveal new details in the slaying of San Francisco journalist Henry Liu.
The possible existence of a tape-recorded confession by Chen Chi-li, the Taiwanese leader of the United Bamboo gang wanted in the United States in connection with the Liu murder, was considered so sensitive a lead that Bay Area authorities never contacted local law enforcement agencies about their inquiries here--a courtesy typically extended by visiting police agencies.
But their journey into the shadowy world of the United Bamboo gang has so far proved fruitless. After questioning two dozen Chinese businessmen and reputed Chinese underworld figures in Monterey Park, San Gabriel and Alhambra, police investigators say they have not found the recording nor anyone who admits to hearing it.
"We've exhausted a number of . . . leads, but we're still looking," said Police Detective Michael Scott of Daly City, the San Francisco suburb where Liu resided and was shot to death Oct. 15. "I'm convinced there is a tape. There's no doubt in my mind. Finding it may be our last chance at tying this whole thing together."
The quest for the tape recording, which police believe may detail the plot and motive for the Liu murder, adds another layer of intrigue to a crime already shrouded in international mystery.
It has taken on new urgency in recent days with reports that Chen has confessed to Taiwan authorities from his jail cell in Taipei and has implicated at least one Taiwanese intelligence officer in the plot. Police believe the recording may provide further links to high officials in the Taiwanese government.
According to wire service reports from Taiwan, the officer alleged by Chen to have a role in in the murder works for the intelligence bureau of the Defense Ministry. That bureau is headed by Wong Shih-ling, a two-star admiral who once served as military attache for the Taiwanese delegation in Washington.
Taiwan authorities announced Tuesday that they had relieved Wong of his duties, arrested and jailed one of his subordinates in connection with the Liu murder and appointed a special commission to investigate the bureau's possible role in the killing, according to the official Taiwan news agency.
State Department spokesman Alan Romberg said in Washington on Tuesday that the possible involvement of members of the intelligence organization was a "serious matter. The Taiwan authorities appear to appreciate the seriousness of the case," he added.
Suspicion on Timing The timing of Taiwan's announcement, however, has aroused suspicion among some local Chinese who say the arrest and investigation came only after the contents of Chen's purported tape recording were leaked last week to a pro-Peking newspaper in Hong Kong.
They argue that the announcement may be Taiwan's way of defusing the situation and protecting high government authorities connected to the Liu murder. For this reason, they say, finding Chen's tape recording--if it exists--is critical and may be the only way of discovering the truth.
Police believe it is possible that only parts of Chen's recording were released to the Wen Wei Po newspaper, with the more explosive sections held back as a bargaining chip by United Bamboo leaders in Taiwan anxious to ensure their leader's safety.
Chen's tape recording, according to a Jan. 9 article in Wen Wei Po, asserted that Taiwanese authorities had ordered Liu killed because he was disloyal to the nation and to the ruling Chiang family. Liu, who moved to the United States 17 years ago from Taiwan, wrote numerous articles and a book critical of Taiwan's ruling Kuomintang Party and President Chiang Ching-kuo.
Local police note that the Chinese community and its press in the United States are often fiercely divided along pro-Taiwan, pro-China lines with each side looking for opportunities to turn rumors into propaganda points. Monterey Park Police Chief Jon D. Elder believes the existence of a tape recording by Chen Chi-li is another example of a rumor elevated to fact by the Chinese-language press.
"There's an endless propaganda war out there between Taiwan and Peking," Elder said. "On top of that, the Chinese community here is fraught with rumors. If I had to bet, I'd say the tape is just one more rumor."
But Daly City police investigators--who have worked closely on the case with FBI agents in San Francisco and Los Angeles--believe that the tape exists and are continuing their search for it, even while acknowledging that obtaining the recording would present a whole set of new problems with verification.
A leader of United Bamboo in Southern California, who says he met with Chen in Los Angeles both before and after the shooting, said police were correct in assuming a tape recording exists.
The gang leader, who talked on the condition that he remain unidentified, said he had not heard the tape, but that Chen told him he was going to make it and give it to associates in California because he suspected government authorities involved in the murder might turn on him and arrest him once he returned to Taiwan. A tape recording, the gang leader said, would be like an insurance policy.
"He said he was going to make the tape just in case something happened to him," the gang leader said. "I know there is a tape but I don't think it's in California anymore. When the time is right, it will be given to police."
Alleged Threats The gang leader said Chen agreed to mastermind the killing because the Taiwanese government had threatened a crackdown on the Bamboo gang and that murdering a government enemy like Henry Liu would be a way to curry favor.
(On Nov. 13, Taiwan authorities swept down on the gang, arresting more than 300 members, including Chen. Daly City police have issued a murder warrant for Chen, 43, and have identified two Taiwanese Bamboo gang members, Wu Tun, 38, and Tung Kuei-sen, 32, as suspects. Wu is being held in Taiwan and Tung is reportedly at large in the Philippines.)
The Bamboo gang, this leader said, is always looking for ways to ingratiate itself with officials, whose sanction is needed if the group is to successfully conduct its gambling, prostitution and extortion practices.
In their attempt to find the tape recording, FBI agents and Daly City police detectives have focused their attention on a Monterey Park businessmen, Chang An-lo, and Los Angeles attorney William K. Sudo.
Chang, 36, who is described in police intelligence reports as the leader of the Bamboo gang for the Los Angeles area, is a Stanford University graduate student studying theoretical mathematics and the owner of a Chinese restaurant in Monterey Park.
Chang, who police believe may have known the tape's whereabouts, has taken a one-year leave of absence from Stanford because of financial reasons, according to university records.
Contacted at his restaurant, Chang said he had been questioned by the FBI but denied knowing anything about the tape recording. He also denied police intelligence reports that in March, 1983, he and others met with Chen Chi-li at the restaurant to discuss organization of the Bamboo gang in Los Angeles.
Says He Quit Gang "The Bamboo gang really has no activity here," Chang said. "I used to be in it as a kid in Taiwan but no longer. I'm a student and businessman now."
While trying to piece together Chen's movements in Los Angeles before the murder, police and FBI have also questioned Sudo, an attorney and director of the Los Angeles National Bank, which has four branches, including one in Chinatown and one in Monterey Park.
Sudo, who is ethnically Japanese, and his Chinese wife, Lucy, had several contacts with Chen just days before the murder. Sudo told The Times that two Taiwanese actresses, who were friends of the family, put Chen in contact with him.
"Mr. Chen wanted to establish some business here and he asked me if I could help him," said Sudo, who said he never met Chen before but could not be more specific because of an attorney-client relationship with Chen. "The contacts had nothing to do with Henry Liu's murder. Mr. Chen seemed like a businessman."
Sudo acknowledged that his wife accompanied Chen and several others for a two-day trip to Las Vegas, where police believe a small Bamboo gang organization exists. Sudo said the reasons for the trip were "purely entertainment" and that he did not accompany the group because he was out of town on business.
"Most people who come from overseas want to go to Las Vegas," he explained. "They like the gambling and the entertainment."
Sudo said that at one point Chen asked if Lucy Sudo would be interested in forming a women's social group associated with the Bamboo gang.
"He said they needed Chinese women to do social and charitable work," Sudo recalled. "Lucy wanted to find out more about it, what was involved. She found out that it would be a full-time job. We have children, so she turned it down."
Also contributing to this story were Times staff writers Dan Morain in San Francisco and David Holley in Los Angeles.