A Journey From Glory to the Grave : Prominent Vietnamese Family’s Saga Began in Palace, May End in Court in the Wake of a Double Death
“You are my baby,” Nam Tran Tran Van Chuong told her then-60-year-old son one evening in the summer of 1986, kissing his hand at the dinner table. Then, pulling out a sketch of her burial plot, she pointed to the place where her husband would lay beside her, and, on the other side, the spot where their son would join them someday.
It seemed a portrait of tranquillity, after years of upheaval, for this prominent Vietnamese family. Here in Washington, the parents--a former ambassador and his wife of royal blood--appeared reconciled with their long-wandering son. In a Roman villa, their youngest daughter, Madame Nhu, was safely exiled, and another daughter was teaching at a small North Carolina college.
One week later, on July 24, the mother and her husband, Tran Van Chuong, lay dead, crumpled one atop the other in their bedroom. Their only son, Tran Van Khiem, was arrested and accused of their murders.
The charge of patricide and matricide, charges that Khiem vehemently denied, shocked the Vietnamese and diplomatic communities. “The end did not match the beginning,” said Khiem’s sister, Lechi Oggeri. “For such beautiful lives, it should have been a beautiful end. The more you tell about the glories of the past, the more horrible the end becomes.”
Court Action Awaited
It was not the first time the bizarre or the tragic had touched this once-powerful family, whose fate seemed intertwined with the demise of a Vietnam the members once had known. Scenes from the past had been captured on front pages, recorded in books and singed into memories. The deaths of the ambassador and his wife and the arrest of Khiem are like the final act in a tragedy, whose denouement may be played out this month in D.C. Superior Court, where a judge will determine whether Khiem is mentally competent to stand trial for murder.
In passionate public letters and a six-hour telephone interview from St. Elizabeths Hospital, where he is being examined by psychiatrists, Khiem has talked of a global conspiracy that has come to focus on him. And he has alleged a conspiracy of a more intimate nature as well. Khiem said his sister Oggeri and her sons-in-law have conspired to paint him as a murderer to gain control of his parents’ $650,000 estate.
From her villa outside Rome, Madame Nhu has come to her brother’s aid, charging in a telephone interview that her sister Lechi (pronounced Leechee) Oggeri has been “excited” by “agents provocateurs.”
Lechi Oggeri’s husband, Etienne, said of Khiem, “He is a mad dog barking. And we don’t want to bark back.”
Madame Chuong’s beauty was renowned throughout Hanoi, as was her family tree. Her uncles had sat on the throne, and she was the cousin of Emperor Bao Dai, the ruler of Vietnam until he was deposed by Diem in 1955.
Her husband, whose father had been governor of a major province for years and whose brothers held important government posts, was practicing law when the three children were growing up. Schooled in France and Algeria, Chuong was the first man in Vietnam to have earned a doctor of law degree.
“We were a great family of Vietnam, very rich and very powerful,” Khiem recalled. “In the house at Hanoi, we had . . . 20 servants.”
One of the Ruling Families
The family of Tran Van Chuong was one of the 50 ruling families of Vietnam in those days, said Stanley Karnow, former Washington Post foreign correspondent and author of “Vietnam, a History.”
Chuong and his wife were near the center of a movement to create a new Vietnam, free of French rule. Their lives and the lives of their children were always part of the roiling pot that was the politics of Vietnam, forever filled with intrigue.
In 1945, when many believed that the way to independence was through Japanese support, Chuong was vice premier in a short-lived Japanese puppet government. Later that year, when the communist Viet Minh took control of the government, Chuong was arrested. His wife, whom the Viet Minh were willing to leave behind, insisted on going with her husband.
The couple escaped, taking refuge in the south, and in 1947 they went to Paris. When Diem became prime minister in 1954 and then the nation’s president, Chuong was named Vietnam’s ambassador to the United States. His wife became Vietnam’s permanent observer at the United Nations.
In Washington, Tran Van Chuong and his wife cut a glittering swath in the capital’s social circles. Diplomats crowded their parties.
But outside the ornate walls of the embassy, a family feud was about to erupt.
Their daughter was married to Diem’s brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, who many believed was the power behind the president. She had styled herself as the first lady to the bachelor president, but her saber-tongued comments won her another name: the “Dragon Lady.”
Chuong and his wife were deeply concerned about growing reports that their dream of a free South Vietnam was disappearing under the oppressive hand of Diem and their daughter, who were cracking down on their opponents and restricting individual freedoms.
Seven years after arriving in Washington, Tran Van Chuong and his wife secretly began to implore the two in 1962 to make a “sincere total change” of what they called “this bad regime.”
“He spoke with his daughter several times, but to no effect,” said Chuong’s brother, Tran Van Do, who resigned as foreign minister in 1955. ". . . He said: ‘Let them stew in their own juice.’ ”
In August, 1963, the family rift exploded on the front page of newspapers around the world.
Chuong and his wife, in protest of the Catholic Diem’s brutal clashes with Buddhists, resigned. Madame Nhu, in a countercharge, claimed that her parents were fired for conspiring to overthrow the Diem regime. She publicly called her father a coward.
“It had tremendous political overtones,” said Malcolm Browne, then an Associated Press correspondent based in Vietnam. “It was one of those stupendous family quarrels.”
Chuong began traveling the United States, lecturing as a one-man truth squad against the Diem regime. When Madame Nhu visited the United States several months later, he refused to see her in what were several well-publicized rebuffs.
Along with the huge political chasm dividing the members, there were several intrafamily feuds, one of which centered on Khiem’s sister Lechi.
Many in Vietnam believed that legislation banning divorce, introduced by Madame Nhu, was aimed directly at Lechi, who wanted to obtain a Vietnamese divorce and marry a Frenchman, according to Karnow. When Lechi refused to be deterred, the Frenchman was arrested and expelled. Lechi then slit her wrists and drove to the palace complex. She says she never intended to commit suicide; it was an attempt, she says, to impress her sister with her plight.
Appealing for Pity
“My wife thought Madame Nhu might have some pity,” said Etienne Oggeri, the Frenchman who married Lechi and now lives with her in North Carolina.
Lechi was hospitalized. What happened next is a matter of dispute among the family and is the key, Khiem says, to the current family schism.
“It shows why she hates me and Madame Nhu,” Khiem said.
Etienne Oggeri says that he was wrongly arrested and expelled and that his wife was virtually imprisoned in the hospital before being smuggled out of the hospital by Madame Chuong, who flew in from Washington. Oggeri says it was a conspiracy by Khiem, who wanted to control Lechi Oggeri’s fortune.
Khiem tells a different story, saying that Lechi’s behavior was scandalizing the family. He said he was only trying only to help when he visited her at the hospital and told her he had arranged for their mother to bring her back to Washington. He said he also told her her lover could not return to Vietnam because he had violated the law.
One year later, on Nov. 2, 1963, while Madame Nhu was traveling in the United States, her husband Nhu and President Diem were assassinated. Nhu left the United States to live in exile in Rome.
Khiem played only a minor role on the public stage occupied by the rest of the Tran Van Chuong family. The men of the family were leaders, and Khiem, the only son, was groomed in schools in Algiers and France to carry on the legacy. But until his arrest, history had allotted him a role he never would have chosen: the part of the prodigal son.
“My brother was not satisfied,” said Tran Van Do, Chuong’s brother, who now lives in Paris. Chuong, he said, was upset with his son’s apparent lack of success, his failure to get a regular job, his two divorces. “In a Vietnamese family, in an honorable family, we don’t like that.”
That early disappointment is evident in a series of letters seized by police shortly after Khiem’s arrest. According to law enforcement sources who have read them, Chuong repeatedly pleaded with his heir in the early 1950s to give up his bohemian life style and concentrate on his legal studies. Khiem, then in his late 20s, had moved to Algiers from Paris to live in a beachside villa with his new German wife. His legal studies were relegated to a correspondence course with his Paris university.
“I had such a life then. Le tout Paris . . .,” he said wistfully from St. Elizabeths.
‘An Important Man’
Khiem was briefly a palace spokesman in 1954, at Madame Nhu’s request. Then he worked as a lawyer and served in quasi-government positions for the next several years. He said he was appointed to the national legislature and assumed a position on the board of directors of the strategic hamlet program, a plan to isolate peasants from the communist Viet Cong.
In telephone conversations and letters, Khiem repeatedly described these roles as pivotal. “I was an important man,” he said.
“He was just a guy living off his connections,” foreign correspondent Karnow recalled. “He is a very minor figure in the whole cast of characters.”
Regardless of his political importance, Khiem lived an extremely comfortable life during his sister’s reign in Saigon. Servants, a Mercedes and driver, tiger shoots, women--all were at his disposal.
The good life for Khiem suddenly shattered, though, in 1963 when he was imprisoned for three years after the coup. In 1968, Khiem moved to Washington to live with his parents.
Women and Parties
Then in his 40s, he enrolled in law classes at George Washington University and completed a translator’s course at Georgetown University, but family members and friends say Chuong and his wife became disgruntled. Once again, their son was focusing his energies on women and parties; they were supporting him, and academics and finding a job took a poor second place.
“It was a matter of him not settling down,” said Conrad Philos, a longtime family friend and Khiem’s former lawyer. “He liked to be a bon vivant.”
On April 6, 1972, the Washington Post published a letter from Khiem criticizing the sending of American troops to Vietnam. The letter devastated his father.
“It was a terrible embarrassment to (Chuong) in the diplomatic community,” Philos said. “To embarrass your parents in the Oriental tradition is an unforgivable sin.”
Chuong ordered his son to leave, and Khiem, who missed his old life in Paris, returned willingly. “I was fed up with the U.S.,” Khiem said.
In Paris, he said, he had a child with Mireille Sautereau, a Sorbonne professor with whom he lived, and he worked part time for a French company. His parents continued to aid him, sending him $300 a month.
In 1977, Chuong and his wife wrote new wills, replacing 1969 wills that bequeathed a house in Vietnam to Khiem. In the new wills, Lechi Oggeri got the entire $650,000 estate.
Khiem said in the interview that his parents told him during a 1977 visit to Paris that Oggeri’s family had forced them to write new wills, disinheriting him. They planned to rewrite him into their wills when they returned home, he said.
The telephone call came on Christmas Eve, 1985. Khiem had been living in Paris for nearly 13 years.
Madame Chuong was calling from Washington, asking Khiem to return to care for them. They were old and sick and needed him. He flew over in March, 1986, with his 12-year-old son, Pierre. They were joined later by Sautereau, the boy’s mother.
The choice of Khiem to aid his parents seemed odd to people who knew how deeply the family was fractured. But according to Philos, the parents seemed to be making peace with their children.
Philos, who dined with the family and watched the scene in which Madame Chuong kissed her son’s hand and showed him the burial plots, said her affection for Khiem was evident. Yes, there were political arguments, Philos said, but they were the polite debates of “intellectual people differing on a wide panoply of subjects.”
“At the beginning it was all right,” Etienne Oggeri, Lechi Oggeri’s husband, said of Khiem’s arrival at the family home. “He had respect for his mother and father. Then Khiem started to talk politics, try to impress (his father). . . . Khiem said Diem was right. The father said the regime was rotten, a dictatorship. They were fighting, fighting, fighting.”
Khiem has his own recollections of those months. They “adored me,” he said of his parents. And the family never debated politics. “I am from a very aristocratic class of Vietnamese, and these things are not proper in conversation. Only rude people speak of these matters,” Khiem said.
Three Phone Calls
On July 23, the night before the ambassador and his wife were found dead of asphyxiation, Madame Chuong made three quick calls to her daughter Lechi Oggeri in North Carolina, according to court records. In the first, she mentioned “a strong argument” at dinner, then abruptly hung up, saying she believed that someone was listening on the line. One minute later she called again, the documents state, telling her daughter that life in the house with Khiem “was unbearable. Your brother is very disrespectful. Very violent. And we cannot stand it.” The final call came at 9:56 p.m. This time she sounded “less frightened, more in control,” the documents state, explaining that she had told Khiem to go back to France.
Khiem disagrees with this version. The telephone calls, he said, were routine. As she often did, his mother called Lechi Oggeri to talk about her health, Khiem said.
The next day at noon, Khiem called family members to say he had found his parents’ bodies.
The prosecution’s theory of the deaths rests on one simple notion: greed.
Shortly before Khiem killed his parents, former prosecutor William Pease told a D.C. Superior Court hearing commissioner, he discovered that he had been disinherited in the 1977 wills. Faced with no job and little money, Khiem destroyed the originals, prosecutors believe; an empty manila folder marked “wills” was allegedly found by police in the parents’ home. Unknown to Khiem, though, a copy was kept in another locked file cabinet, according to Pease.
However, prosecutor Paul Howse, who replaced Pease, may never try out this theory in court. Along with the wills, police say, they found a wealth of other letters and writings that show that separate from his workaday chores in the house on Western Avenue, Khiem may have created his own private world in which he is a powerful and potent figure at the center of a global conspiracy.
Since his arrest, Khiem has written letters to newspapers and an 800-page manuscript titled “The Israeli Plot Against Ngo Dinh Diem, Ngo Dinh Nhu, John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Me.” A daily diary he kept for 15 years has been seized by investigators.
The documents prompted prosecutors to seek mental examinations for Khiem after he rejected an insanity defense, and psychiatrists at St. Elizabeths in September told Chief Judge Fred Ugast that Khiem was not competent to stand trial. Khiem’s lawyers, Michele Roberts and Mark Rochon, have disputed the competency finding and told the judge two weeks ago that Khiem wants to stand trial.
It is not clear when Khiem’s ideas about a conspiracy began to develop, but in one 1983 letter from Paris, written on the anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination, Khiem accused the Soviets and Israelis of killing Kennedy “to prevent (Kennedy) from getting me out of jail.”
On the morning his parents were found dead, according to documents filed in court, he warned of an assassination plot in a letter to President Reagan.
Khiem stridently denies that he is insane and has claimed repeatedly in court and in interviews that his hospitalization is further proof that conspirators want to silence him. He places his sister Oggeri’s two sons-in-law at the center of the conspiracy.
Madame Nhu agrees with her brother’s contention that someone is trying to quiet him. She, however, says she believes that her parents died of natural causes.
“This is a family affair,” she said.