Viet Magazine Editor Dies in Arson-Related Office Inferno

Times Staff Writer

A man identified as the editor and publisher of a prominent Vietnamese magazine in Orange County was killed Sunday in a fire that destroyed his office in the Little Saigon area of Garden Grove.

Police said the fire was “definitely arson,” making the death a murder.

Some Vietnamese journalists said they believe the editor was killed by militant anti-Communists upset by his publication of an advertisement for an allegedly pro-Communist firm. “I know about politics,” a Vietnamese newspaper editor said. “I know better than to run that ad.”


The victim died when a 2 a.m. fire swept the small, one-story Vietnamese publishing office at 10708 Westminster Ave. His body was found on the floor of the office by firefighters.

He was identified by police as Tap Van Pham, 48, of Garden Grove. He also was known by his pen name, Hoai Diep Tu.

Pham was editor of Mai magazine, a “very popular” publication that covered entertainment news, according to Pham’s friends.

Escaped Vietnam in 1981

Friends said Pham was “a very well known journalist in Saigon before 1975,” the year that the North Vietnamese captured the city. Pham escaped by boat from Vietnam in 1981. He was described by friends as a staunch anti-Communist who had been trying in vain to get his wife and three children out of Vietnam ever since he came to the United States.

But friends said Pham’s death may have been caused by militant anti-Communists among Orange County’s Vietnamese community of 120,000 people. They said some in the Vietnamese community had protested Pham’s publishing an advertisement for an allegedly pro-Communist company in Mai magazine’s August issue.

The controversial ad, which is almost entirely in Vietnamese, was for a company with a Montreal mailing address offering to accept United States dollars from Vietnamese in the United States, convert them to Vietnamese currency and deposit the funds in Vietnam for friends or relatives. Sources in the Vietnamese community said the firm is suspected of having Communist sympathies.

“Tap accepted that ad and didn’t know anything about it,” said a 35-year-old former employee outside the fire-gutted magazine office Sunday morning. The woman broke into tears frequently as she described her former boss.

“He was not a Communist,” she said. “He escaped on the same boat with me in 1981. He had a wife named Mai--the same as the magazine--still in Vietnam with three children, and he was trying to get them to America.”

The woman declined to be photographed and asked not to be identified by name.

A crowd of about 15 Vietnamese immigrants stood outside the shell of the office on Sunday morning. While many of the spectators said they knew Pham, all asked not to be identified, indicating a fear of retaliation from the same people who may have started the fire at Pham’s business.

“I have a newspaper of my own, but I didn’t run the ad of that company,” said one Vietnamese woman at the fire scene. “My husband was in politics in Saigon. I know about politics. I know better than to run that ad.”

The editor of a Vietnamese-language daily newspaper in Orange County said in a telephone interview on Sunday that he doubts the fire was prompted by anger over the ad. “Other papers have published that same ad,” he said.

But he acknowledged that he will not use the ad “because I don’t want to give support to the Communist regime.” This editor asked that his name and that of his newspaper not be used.

‘Making a Lot of Money’

The newspaper editor said Pham “was very popular, and his magazine was doing very well, making a lot of money.” The editor said Pham had a long, distinguished journalistic background, including his work “on several publications” in Saigon before that city’s fall.

Capt. Jerry Halberstadt, an acting battalion chief for the Garden Grove Fire Department, estimated the damage at $40,000 to the office and $5,000 to its contents. The fire did not spread to adjoining businesses in the small shopping center, on Westminster Avenue between Brookhurst and Euclid streets in an area of many Vietnamese businesses.

Halberstadt said the fire was extinguished in 12 minutes, “but the fire was already in full progress when we arrived.”

He said the victim was declared dead at the scene. The cause of death was not immediately known. After an autopsy was performed, a coroner’s investigator said precise cause of death could not be determined until toxicological tests are completed. She said there were no wounds apparent on the body.

Halberstadt said firefighters had heard the talk among Vietnamese at the scene that the fire might have been started because of anger of anti-Communists over the magazine ad, “but it’s something I can’t confirm at this time.”

The exact cause of the fire was not known Sunday, investigators said. “It was from some kind of flammable (liquid),” said Fred Aiken, Garden Grove police investigator. But Aiken said he could not confirm that a firebomb had started the blaze.

In addition to Garden Grove police and firefighters, the blaze was being investigated by two agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.