A Vietnamese immigrant gunned down Tuesday night in Westminster said Friday that he fears for his life and believes his attacker mistakenly thinks he is a Communist sympathizer.
"I lost friends, family, my cousins, uncles--I lost everything" when Saigon fell to the Marxist regime in 1975, Tran Khanh Van said. Van said he is a staunch anti-Communist interested only in the release of political prisoners in Vietnam and humanitarian aid to the country.
During an interview from his hospital bed at Fountain Valley Regional Hospital, Van, 44, of Santa Ana said he had dinner Tuesday night with a former lieutenant colonel of the South Vietnamese Rangers who had been imprisoned for seven years. When the Hanoi government released him because he was extremely ill, the colonel walked through Cambodia to Thailand and then came to the United States, Van said.
"We were talking about how to help release Communist prisoners if relations are ever normalized," Van said. "And I walked out of the restaurant and got shot for being a Communist."
Police say they have not determined a motive for the Tuesday night attack across the street from Van's real estate office. They say they have not ruled out the possibility that the attacker was angered by articles about Van, former director general of housing in Saigon. But they also have not ruled out attempted robbery, extortion or a personal dispute as motives. There is no evidence that Van was threatened with extortion, although he did receive threats after articles about him were published, the officer running the investigation said.
And investigators question whether the extremist group that claimed responsibility Wednesday for Van's shooting was in fact involved, Westminster Police Sgt. Bob Burnett said Friday.
In a letter mailed Wednesday to Vietnamese-language newspapers in Orange County, a group calling itself the Vietnamese Party to Exterminate Communists and Restore the Nation accused Van of being "a puppet of the Viet Cong." The group also claimed that it had issued an order for Van's slaying and urged continued efforts to do so.
The one-page letter--dated March 20, written in Vietnamese and postmarked from the City of Industry--included a typed copy of the group's alleged Feb. 28 execution order and a handwritten section stating the organization's "intent to execute all traitors and Communists inside the Vietnamese community overseas."
An editor of a local Vietnamese newspaper that received the letter said his paper and others had received three other letters from this organization, all postmarked from Las Vegas. The editor spoke Friday only on the condition that he not be named.
He said the first letter from the group arrived in 1981, ordering the execution of Duong Truong Lam, 27, a San Francisco student who published a pro-Communist tabloid called the Pagoda of our Village. Lam, director of a Vietnamese youth center, was shot and killed outside his apartment. About a year later, the editor said, a similar letter arrived regarding a pro-Hanoi organization in Los Angeles. The group's headquarters was burned down and did not reopen, he said. In 1983, refugee newspapers in Orange County received a third letter from the organization that, he said, ordered the execution of Nguyen Van Luy, 72, the founder and president of a San Francisco-based organization known as the Associated Vietnamese Community. Luy and his wife, Pham Thi Luy, 66, were shot outside their Sunset District home. She was killed.
Westminster police said they are considering the letter in their investigation but question the existence of "an organized group."
"They did the same thing up in Ontario, Canada," Burnett said. "They claimed they firebombed the building in which a group supporting normalization and trade agreements (with Vietnam) worked when, in fact, fire investigators found it was nothing more than faulty wiring. In San Francisco, they put it out ahead of time that that guy was going to be eliminated. I find it odd that they handwrote a date on their letter and claimed responsibility after the fact this time.
"It's been my experience that someone will sit in their living room and write a letter claiming they are this group . . . just to terrorize people and seem more powerful than they really are."
Van, speaking in a strong voice even though he is still being fed through intravenous tubes, said a friend called him at the hospital Wednesday with news of the letter.
"They said I was a traitor for betraying the Vietnamese cause," Van said, patting the bandaged wounds where he was shot twice in the stomach and shoulder. "Yes, what happened, I have to worry."
Still, Van said he does not know if his shooting was planned by the organization or was the act of an "emotional" individual who, "like me, lost family and friends to Communists."
"If I meet them, I tell them it's wrong, I'm on your side," Van said of his assailant. "All of us lost everything. We both want to free people from Vietnam. We might only disagree on how to get them out."
Van said he believes that some of his brief statements in the Los Angeles Times Sunday Magazine on Jan. 5 were misunderstood to mean that he sympathizes with Hanoi's Communist government, when he instead only "suggests" that diplomatic ties be renewed between Vietnam and the United States to secure the release of political prisoners and delivery of humanitarian aid.
He tried to clarify those statements Friday from his bed at the hospital, where he was moved from intensive care to a closely guarded room the day before.
Mention in the magazine article of his association with a loosely knit group of Vietnamese called the Reconstruction Development Study Group outraged refugees, Van and members of the immigrant community said.
Van was quoted in the article as saying that the group boasted about 300 members who believe it is time to establish a working relationship with Hanoi.
"The only way to change Vietnam's repressive Marxism is to work with those who will become the next generation of leaders," he said. Vietnamese newspapers in Orange County reprinted the article, and many of them took his statements "out of context, called me a Communist and they lambasted me," Van said.
He said he "crafted" a rebuttal for the Vietnamese-language newspapers but was told in anonymous telephone calls from at least one person claiming to be a newspaper editor and someone claiming to work for a Vietnamese cable-television station that "I would have to pay for long-term advertising to get it published--something I refused to do. I came here when I was 17 to get an education, and I learned what fair play is a long time ago," Van said. Burnett said police are looking into that accusation.
Van told a Times reporter earlier this year that some of the Reconstruction members had helped develop software programs to be used with computers taken to Vietnam by former Cal State Fullerton physics professor Edward Lee Cooperman. Cooperman launched the Scientific Committee for Vietnam and was close to many refugees trying to return to Vietnam. He was slain in his campus office by a Vietnamese student in 1984.
On Friday, however, Van said the Reconstruction group is not an active organization so much as a loosely connected network of former members of the American University Alumni Assn., formed in Vietnam before the fall of Saigon, who still meet to discuss "what will we do when relations are normalized--how we can help."
He said members had not provided any technical assistance to Cooperman's group because "it would not have been legal. . . . We just get together and talk, sometimes five guys, 10 guys, four guys, then we go home. We want to be like the Rand Corp. or the Save the Condor group if they open relations, like China has now. . . . We hope only when the time is right, with normalization, we can go home--but only if the system is free."
His friendship with Cooperman began in 1984 when he tried to send medical books to friends in Hanoi and learned from "the Department of Commerce and the FBI" that Cooperman's committee was the only group in the country licensed to ship technical books and equipment to Vietnam, and that even those shipments were closely monitored by federal officials. He decided not to bother when he learned "how difficult the procedure would be," Van said, but kept in touch by phone with Cooperman, who occasionally consulted him on such problems as how to deal with Vietnamese students he caught cheating.
Van said he remains frightened about his safety and that of his wife and two sons. They fear they will have to relocate from Orange County if the uproar does not wane, he said.
"This is a free country," Van said. "We come here for that. A safe haven. You're supposed to have the right to disagree, to pick the kind of job you want, the place you want to live. And if I can't do that, I will be very sad. We had lived in Oklahoma but wanted to move here, where all the Vietnamese are. We missed the weather, the food, the friends, the Buddhist temples. This is our home. If I were Communist, why would I want to live here, where such the majority are not?"