Rooted in Taiwan Connection : The Plot to Kill Henry Liu--Slayers Confess Details
In the late morning hours of last Oct. 12, Chang An-lo awoke in his Monterey Park home to discover that his house guest, a recent arrival from Taiwan, had disappeared overnight.
Chang thought it strange that his friend, a fellow member of the Taiwan-based United Bamboo crime syndicate, departed without saying so much as goodby. Later that afternoon, Chang received a cryptic message that his visitor, who had spent the lonely weeks away from his homeland playing guitar and cooking gourmet Chinese dishes, had “gone to kill a communist bandit.”
Four days later, reading the headlines of Chinese-language newspapers, Chang surmised the whereabouts of his friend. In a San Francisco suburb, Henry Liu--a gift shop owner and Chinese-language journalist critical of Taiwan--had been shot to death Oct. 15 in the garage of his home. The newspapers identified Liu as a liberal critic of the Nationalist Chinese regime, not a communist.
In the weeks that followed, Chang would be told that his roommate and two other United Bamboo gang members had assassinated the 51-year-old Liu, a naturalized American citizen, at the behest of high Taiwan intelligence officers, who told the killers that Liu had betrayed his native Taiwan and that his murder would be an act of patriotism.
“My friends came to this country and killed an American citizen,” said Chang, a Monterey Park restaurant owner known to fellow gang members as White Wolf. “But in Taiwan, it is your job, your duty, to kill communists. The government printed on their minds that Henry Liu was a communist. It wasn’t until after the murder that they found out he was just a writer.”
Two of the killers, including United Bamboo gang leader Chen Chi-li, were arrested, jailed and indicted after returning to Taiwan. They have confessed to the murder. Chang’s house guest also returned to Taiwan but escaped a month later and remains at large in the Philippines. Three top Taiwan military intelligence officials implicated by Chen in the murder have been stripped of their duties and arrested.
But the impact of the crime has extended far beyond that handful of people. The Liu murder has shaken the Taiwan government of President Chiang Ching-kuo; politically damaged Chiang Hsiao-wu, second son of President Chiang; thrown into question the succession of power on the island nation, and strained Taiwan’s relations with the United States.
Contents of Tape Recording
Now, in a series of interviews with The Times, Chang An-lo and other gang members and associates of the killers have disclosed the contents of Chen Chi-li’s tape-recorded confession of how the hit squad plotted and carried out the murder. The tape recording, which Chen entrusted to these associates, was given to police and the FBI and is considered a key piece of evidence in their investigation. It sheds new light on a slaying that was carefully planned but executed with inexplicable bungling.
As recounted by Chen’s associates and confirmed by police, Chen’s confession alleges that:
- He was made an agent of the Taiwan military intelligence bureau in July, 1984, three months before the murder. That same month, Chen says, he and a prominent Taiwan movie producer who also was a bureau agent received several days of espionage training.
- On Aug. 14, Chen and the movie producer met with Vice Adm. Wang Hsi-ling, the head of Taiwan’s military intelligence network, and two of his subordinates and were given orders to kill Liu. They were told Liu was an agent of the People’s Republic of China who had betrayed Taiwan with his critical writings. They were given photographs of Liu and the addresses of his home in Daly City and his two gift shops.
- Chen, who also has business interests in Taiwan, says he was chosen to head the hit team because he had a close relationship with unnamed government officials. In 1979, during a time of domestic crisis, Chen says, he agreed to reorganize the Bamboo Gang to help the Taiwan government gather intelligence and keep dissidents in line.
- Chen, who is nicknamed Dry Duck, and the movie producer arrived in the United States on Sept. 14, but the producer unexpectedly backed out of the plot and Chen recruited as triggermen two Bamboo gang members visiting from Taiwan.
Agrees With Police Reconstruction
Daly City police Lt. Thomas Reese, who interviewed Chen in his Taiwan jail cell, said Chen’s account of his movements in California and of how the killers stalked and confronted Liu conform to police reconstruction of the crime. But until investigations in Taiwan and the United States are completed, the tape’s allegations connecting Chen to government officials in Taiwan remain unproven.
What is certain is that on Jan. 15, two days after gang members turned the tape over to authorities, Vice Adm. Wang and the other two intelligence officials named in the recording were relieved of their duties and were placed under arrest. In the eyes of U.S. authorities, this lent immediate credibility to Chen’s confession because Taiwan’s martial-law regime had for two months denied any government connection to the murder.
Chen’s associates agreed to discuss the contents of his taped confession in an acknowledged effort to gain revenge for the gang leader, who they believe was double-crossed by the Taiwan government. They suggested that culpability in the plot may extend higher in the Taiwan government than Wang.
Chang An-lo spoke metaphorically of a rat caught in a glass. “The rat is the corrupt government, and the glass is Taiwan and its people. Our job is to kill the rat without shattering the glass,” he said.
Many of the sources spoke only on the condition that they not be identified, saying they feared reprisals against relatives still living in Taiwan.
Mysterious World of Bamboo Gang
For the past three months, the Liu murder has led Daly City police and FBI agents through the mysterious world of the United Bamboo gang, Taiwan’s largest organized crime syndicate.
Yet, despite the gang’s resources and experience, its 41-year-old leader, Chen, headed a hit squad in the Liu case that left a lengthy trail of evidence in its wake. Daly City police have what they consider an airtight case against Chen, but one they will probably never see prosecuted in the United States. Taiwan and the United States severed diplomatic relations in 1979 when the U.S. recognized China and do not have an extradition treaty.
In recent years, United Bamboo gang members with nicknames such as Green Snake, Yellow Bird and White Wolf have set up shop in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Las Vegas. Police agencies disagree over the extent of their illegal activities, which authorities say include gambling and money laundering.
Chang An-lo, the 36-year-old restaurant owner on leave from graduate studies at Stanford University, is identified by police as the gang’s leader in Southern California. Chang told The Times that police exaggerate the gang’s activities in the U.S. and that United Bamboo members here have been preoccupied recently with trying to ensure the safety of Chen, who was arrested in Taiwan along with 300 other gang members in a Nov. 13 government crackdown. Chen is scheduled to be tried later this month for the Liu murder and unrelated organized crime charges.
Before the crackdown, Chang said, the gang operated with relative impunity in Taiwan, combining legitimate business activities with such lucrative sidelines as extortion, gambling and prostitution.
Chang and other gang members said a symbiotic relationship developed over the years among the gang, government and big business.
That relationship, they say, was cemented in 1979 when Taiwan was rocked by a series of domestic incidents, including a violent confrontation between police and human rights demonstrators in the southern port city of Kaohsiung. Shortly thereafter, Chen’s friends and associates said, the government asked Chen to reorganize the Bamboo gang as an unofficial arm of the national security apparatus.
"(The) Kaohsiung (incident) convinced the government that it needed to enforce martial law without dirtying its hands,” said a confidant of Chen.
In the ensuing years, according to Bamboo Gang members, the underworld syndicate grew from 1,000 members to 40,000, forming a pervasive intelligence network that spied on opposition leaders and dissidents in Taiwan and gathered sensitive information on China.
But Chen was more than just the godfather of Taiwan’s largest underworld syndicate, his friends and associates said. In 1976, after his release from Green Island prison where he served time for blackmail, Chen began building a small business empire. By 1980, his interests included a recording company, several construction firms and Mei Hwa (“Beautiful China”) magazine.
Through his businesses, Chen became friends with some powerful figures inside Taiwan. In his taped confession, Chen said he first met Wang, the military intelligence chief, at a dinner party in July, 1984. Later that month, Chen and the film producer were made agents of the Intelligence Bureau of the Defense Ministry and were given code names and numbers. They then received surveillance and counter-intelligence training. On Aug. 14, at the agency’s secluded Green Mountain training facility, Wang gave the orders to kill Liu, according to Chen’s tape recorded confession.
An associate of Chen recalled that when the gang leader left for the United States in September, he was worried that he might be double crossed by the intelligence agency.
“I reminded him of a Chinese proverb that says ‘when you kill the bird, you hide the arrow; there is no need for the arrow anymore.’ He said he knew this proverb but that he had no choice,” the aide said.
Daly City police believe Chen Chi-li and the movie producer arrived in the U.S. Sept. 14 and, from the outset, encountered problems carrying out their assignment. They had planned to recruit Bamboo Gang members in the United States to do the actual shooting. Police said the two men decided this was futile when the leader of the Bamboo Gang in San Francisco failed to meet them in late September as arranged.
Then the producer suddenly backed out of the plot, saying he had to return to Taiwan because his 17-year-old daughter had run off with an 18-year-old boy.
“There was only one person left to do the murder,” explained Chen’s close friend. “And even though Chen had been trained . . . he isn’t a gunman.”
Chen’s confession says he called in as last minute replacements two Bamboo Gang members who had recently come to the United States for personal reasons. Wu Tun, 35, had left Taiwan in early September after police found a gun in his tea shop and threatened him with arrest. Tung Kuei-sen, 33, had been in the United States since July, exploring business opportunities in Southern California. He had been staying in Monterey Park with his best friend, Chang An-lo.
Drove to San Francisco
On Oct. 9, Chen Chi-li, Wu Tun, a San Gabriel man named David Yu and an unidentified man still sought by authorities drove from Los Angeles to San Francisco and rented a room at a San Francisco boarding house, five miles north of Liu’s home, according to police. Yu, who is not member of the Bamboo Gang, apparently agreed to help drive Chen to San Francisco because the two men had become friends in April, when Chen hired Yu to distribute his magazine in Los Angeles. On Oct. 12, Tung joined the group at the rooming house. From that point on, police say, the operation was marked by repeated bunglings and oversights.
Police said Chen’s first mistake was in observing Liu’s movements from a point only a few hundred feet from Liu’s home. Two days before the murder, Chen was sitting on a bench overlooking the Pacific Ocean near Liu’s home when a group of neighborhood children found him feeding candy to their lost dog. The children later identified Chen in a photo lineup as “the Asian man who couldn’t speak English.”
Also, when renting the getaway car, Yu signed his name to a contract and used his credit card as security. (Police arrested Yu in late November, but because there is no evidence that Yu drove to and from San Francisco knowing his friends had planned a murder, the San Mateo District Attorney refused to charge him and he was released.)
“It was planned well but they made several small mistakes,” said Daly City police detective Mike Scott. “The perfect crime turned out to be not so perfect.”
As the killers arrived in Los Angeles, Henry Liu was putting the finishing touches on an updated biography of President Chiang, who had been the target of Liu’s criticism in an earlier book. Liu, who left Taiwan 17 years ago and became an American citizen in 1974, enjoyed mixing political commentary with tidbits about the private indiscretions of the Chiang family. He did this regularly in his column in the San Francisco Journal, a Chinese-language newspaper, despite repeated attempts by representatives from Taiwan to silence him with money, according to Liu’s widow, Helen.
But then last January, Liu agreed to soften his critical biography of President Chiang after a friend and former Taiwan intelligence officer made a special trip to visit Liu and convey to him the government’s concern over the new book.
A few months later, Liu received $17,000 from Taiwan in four payments, apparently for changes in the book.
Despite being a stern critic of the Chiang family and the ruling Kuomintang Party, Liu passed on information to Taiwan officials gleaned from his travels and conversations. He would file periodic reports concerning everything from the character of China’s diplomatic corps in San Francisco to what a particular city in mainland China looked like.
Liu apparently did not discriminate in providing this information. State Department officials confirm that he also occasionally passed on information to FBI agents and to representatives of China.
“He was by no means a triple agent on the payroll of all three,” a State Department official said. “He was an asset to all three who passed on information and may have received an occasional payment for his efforts.”
It is not clear whether Liu’s role as an informant or the payments he received for altering his book were factors in his murder. The motive Chen gave for the slaying in his taped confession was that Liu had betrayed his country and joined forces with mainland China through his writings. Mrs. Liu believes her husband was ordered killed for three reasons: to punish him for his past writings, to prevent him from writing more books and to send a message to Taiwan dissidents living in the United States.
“I don’t think Chen Chi-li read any of Henry’s articles or knew anything about Henry before the murder,” she said in the living room of her Daly City home, surrounded by photographs of her husband and a memorial she has built to him. “I really don’t have any personal hatred toward the killers. I know they were just following orders.”
Shortly after 9 a.m. on Oct. 15, Liu was shot three times, once between the eyes and twice in the abdomen. He was pronounced dead an hour later in a Daly City hospital. The killers returned by car to Los Angeles, where, according to Chen’s confession, he telephoned intelligence officials in Taiwan and confirmed the hit.
The next day, the killers began poring over news accounts of the murder in Chinese-language dailies. It was then, according to Chen’s close friends and associates, that the gang leader realized his superiors had fooled him about Liu’s being a communist.
On Oct. 18, Chen decided to tape record details of his training and of the August meeting with top military intelligence officers. In a deep, monotone voice betraying little emotion, Chen emphasized that he did not receive money for the assassination and agreed to do it because he thought it was a patriotic act.
“The most powerful part of the tape comes when Chen Chi-li describes having learned who Henry Liu really was,” Daly City police Lt. Reese said. “He said he learned after the murder that Henry Liu’s mother died in poverty in mainland China. He felt some bond there because his mother also died in China. He said he realized that he and Henry Liu had a lot in common.”
The Chinese proverb of the bird and the arrow, friends said, was on Chen’s mind when he made the tape. In the end, they said, the tape was as much a form of insurance as it was a confession.
“Chen Chi-li is a smart man,” Chang An-lo said. “He knew the history of political assassinations in Taiwan. He knew that they sometimes kill the killer to keep him silent.”
When Chen returned to Taiwan Oct. 21, he was greeted at the airport by middle-level intelligence officers and a high police official who took him to a late night party at a Taipei private club, according to one associate who said he was there.
Less than a month later, Chen was arrested.
The subsequent detention of Vice Adm. Wang and his subordinates in Taiwan on Jan. 15 ignited what the State Department called an unprecedented political scandal in Taiwan’s government. Wang was a central figure in Taiwan intelligence gambits on American soil while a military attache in the 1970s.
Taiwan has admitted that Chen was employed by the military intelligence bureau to collect information on China. But it has steadfastly maintained that whatever Wang and other military intelligence officers may have done, they were not acting as agents of the Taiwan government. A military prosecutor is now investigating any role the intelligence officers may have had in the plot.
Despite such denials, the Liu murder has weakened the standing of political figures linked to the military and security apparatus, including Chiang Hsiao-wu, 39, second son of President Chiang Ching-kuo. In the past year, Chiang Hsiao-wu, the grandson of the late Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, has been gradually maneuvering toward a position of power. But the Liu incident has greatly lessened the possibility, considered likely a few months ago, that he will succeed his father, U.S. authorities say.
Chiang Hsiao-wu has been drawn into the Liu incident because of his reported ties to the intelligence apparatus and because of a friendship he is said to have had with Chen Chi-li. U.S. officials say Chiang Hsiao-wu has an important role in the country’s national security network although his formal position is president of Taiwan’s National Broadcasting Corp.
“It’s difficult to say who the players are in Taiwan intelligence,” said one U.S. official who has met Chiang Hsiao-wu. “The son would have influence in those areas not so much because of a formal title but because of who he is. Chiang Hsiao-wu would be able to call up anyone in the intelligence bureau and get a hearing.”
Friends and associates of Chen Chi-li said Chen first became acquainted with the Chiang family through business contacts in the late 1970s, and became friendly with Chiang Hsiao-wu in 1982. Chen Chi-li and Chiang Hsiao-wu met privately at Taipei spas and in Chiang’s office, according to one of Chen’s close aides who claims to have arranged the meetings. The aide said the men were careful to screen their relationship from public view.
First Phone Call
In fact, on the night Chen was arrested, the first person this associate telephoned for help was Chiang Hsiao-wu. The call, however, was never put through to Chiang, the aide said.
Chiang Hsiao-wu, in his first public comments to an American newspaper on the Liu murder, denied any role in the intelligence network and any relationship with Chen.
“For a decade now I have always worked in the field of mass communications,” he said in a telex from Taipei. “I have never worked nor held any office in any government institution in charge of national security affairs. And I have had no relationship whatsoever with Chen Chi-li. In fact, I have never met Chen nor did I have any knowledge of him until I read newspaper reports about him recently.”
Lt. Reese said that when he questioned Chen in Taiwan, he asked the gang leader about the possible involvement of top political figures in the murder.
“I asked him if he believed there was anyone higher than the military intelligence officer who ordered this act,” Reese recalled. “He only said that ‘I’m sure when all is said and done, and we’ve been through all the trials and hearings, the full truth will be known.’ ”
In the United States, Liu’s slaying has prompted calls on Capitol Hill to reevaluate U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, estimated at $800 million a year. It also has left many of Liu’s friends and members of a burgeoning Taiwan dissident community in this country uneasy.
“After he was killed, some of us either resorted to wearing bullet-proof vests or carrying guns,” said one Taiwan expatriate in San Francisco. “Others cancelled trips they had planned to Taiwan and other Asian countries. Our lives have changed because of this. We now live in fear.”
Also contributing to this story was Times staff writer David Holley