The FBI investigation into the Daly City murder of Chinese-American writer Henry Liu has intensified in recent weeks as federal authorities look into possible links between Liu's killers and high Taiwanese government officials.
In addition, the FBI reportedly is looking for a tape recording of a conversation that purportedly took place between Chen Chi-li, the gang leader who has confessed to planning the Liu killing, and high Taiwanese government officials. The murder plot was allegedly discussed in that conversation.
Existence of this tape recording is mentioned in a separate taped confession Chen made in Los Angeles two days after the Oct. 15 murder, and which already is in the hands of the FBI. Chen's taped confession, a copy of which was obtained last week by The Times, implicates three high-ranking Taiwan military intelligence officers in the murder plot but makes no mention of other government officials.
The intensified FBI probe comes as officials in Taiwan prepare for the murder trial of Chen, which is scheduled to begin today. Chen, chief of the United Bamboo gang, Taiwan's largest underworld organization, and two gang associates, Wu Tun and Tung Kuei-sen, have been charged with the murder of Liu. Chen and Wu are in custody in Taiwan; Tung is still at large and believed to be in the Philippines.
Tung will be tried in absentia. All three men are being tried in Taiwan because that nation has no extradition treaty with the United States.
The trials will be held before a three-judge panel (there are no jury trials in Taiwan) and the defendants could be sentenced to death if convicted.
Trial Length Uncertain
A spokesman for the Coordinating Council for North American Affairs, Taiwan's unofficial consulate in the United States, said the trial could last anywhere from "one day to several weeks."
"It's hard to say how long it might take," said Paul Chang, a spokesman in the Los Angeles office of the council. "They might be able to conclude the entire process in one session, or it might take several sessions on consecutive days."
Meanwhile, U.S. Atty. Joseph P. Russoniello in San Francisco confirmed the FBI investigation. "They're pursuing it on their own to determine whether and to what extent the assault was engineered, directed, ordered or abetted by high-ranking government officials," he said.
The U.S. State Department is assisting the investigation by acting as a conduit between the FBI and Taiwan.
"The FBI has asked the State Department to facilitate their requests for information from Taiwan in the Liu murder," one State Department official said. "They're really pushing the investigation . . . . If there's any effort (by Taiwan) to sweep this under the rug, America won't let them."
Russoniello said the investigation is being carried out under federal anti-terrorism and civil rights statutes. However, because of the lack of an extradition treaty with Taiwan, it is unclear whether anyone charged as a result of the investigation would ever come to trial here.
Since the day of Liu's slaying in the garage of his Daly City home just south of San Francisco, Liu's family and friends have contended that the killing was a political assassination carried out by powerful figures in Taiwan.
However, the intelligence officers named in Chen's tape-recorded confession, who include Vice Adm. Wang Hsi-ling, former head of the country's military intelligence agency, have denied that they ordered Chen to assassinate Liu, according to wire news service reports from Taiwan. The officers, who are now in military custody, will be indicted shortly and tried by the military in open court, the Associated Press reported Tuesday.
The FBI would not comment on the investigation, but friends of Chen Chi-li told The Times that FBI agents traveled to Houston two weeks ago to question them on the whereabouts of the second tape recording and any links between the gang leader and one of the sons of Taiwan President Chiang Ching-kuo.
These friends allege that Chen, who has numerous business interests in Taiwan, had a longstanding friendship with Chiang Hsiao-wu, the president's second son, who heads the country's national broadcasting corporation and who is reported to have links to the nation's intelligence apparatus. Chiang Hsiao-wu has repeatedly denied knowing Chen Chi-li or having any role in the intelligence bureau.
"They asked a number of questions about the relationship between Chen and Chiang Hsiao-wu," said one of Chen's close associates who was questioned by the FBI in Houston, where several of the gang leader's friends now reside.
'Haven't Found It'
"They asked where the second tape might be and we told them we have searched many months for this tape but still haven't found it," the associate said.
The second tape recording, the associate said, is one that Chen is believed to have made surreptitiously in Taiwan while discussing the murder with government officials. His associates said Chen brought this tape to the United States as insurance in case he was arrested when he returned to Taiwan.
Liu, a 51-year-old naturalized American citizen, wrote books and newspaper articles that were critical of Taiwan's Nationalist Party and the ruling Chiang family.
A copy of Chen's taped confession, a key piece of evidence in the case, was given to The Times by local members of the Bamboo Gang, to whom Chen entrusted the tape. In it, Chen said he was recruited into Taiwan's military intelligence agency and was ordered by Vice Adm. Wang to kill Liu because Liu had betrayed his native Taiwan and the Chiang family with his writings.