Courtroom Testimony Unveils Events Leading to Chinatown Murders

Times Staff Writer

On the day of the Chinatown murders, Thong Nam Huynh said he sat behind the wheel of a getaway car, smoking cigarettes and sulking. The rain beating on the windshield and the fogged car windows made the street outside invisible.

Half a block away, in the narrow alley known as Bamboo Lane, his partners should have been completing a jewelry store robbery that would net them at least $100,000.

But when the car door opened and Sang Nam Chinh, Huynh's friend since high school, climbed inside, it was obvious that something had gone wrong.

Chinh was splattered with blood.

The story that Huynh has been unfolding in a Los Angeles courtroom in recent weeks is his account, as a reluctant accomplice, of the planning for the 1984 robbery of the Jin Hing jewelry store in Chinatown that ended in a wild shoot-out and the deaths of Officer Duane Johnson, 27, and two of the robbers.

Huynh has been granted immunity for his role in this and other crimes. In return, he is testifying against the two surviving suspects, Chinh, now 22, and Hau Cheong (Peter) Chan, 32.

If convicted, both Chinh and Chan could face the death penalty.

As pieced together by police and Deputy Dist. Atty. Lawrence Longo, five armed men were involved in the Chinatown robbery. In addition to Huynh, 24, and the two men standing trial, the others were Robert Woo, 26, and John Cheong, 33. All had a history of criminal activity, including armed robbery.

Woo and Cheong were neatly dressed in dark suits on Wednesday afternoon, Dec. 19, 1984. According to witnesses and officials, they approached the normally locked door of the Jin Hing jewelry store and asked to see gold coins, a ruse to get shop owners to open a safe.

Once the robbery was in progress, Woo and Cheong were joined by Chinh and Chan, according to officials.

Then the police showed up, secretly summoned by 73-year-old Leon Lee, the store's owner. Lee had set off a silent alarm.

Guns in Holsters

Dressed in yellow rain slickers, their guns still in their holsters, Officers Johnson and Archie Nagao were admitted to the store by one of the robbers, Cheong.

Unaware that a robbery was in progress, the officers entered the front of the tiny shop, walked around a little, asked if everything was all right and appeared about to leave.

Owner Leon Lee began to raise his arms as a signal that he was being held up. At that moment, Officer Nagao turned and saw Cheong moving toward him, pulling a gun from the waistband of his trousers.

The next instant was chaos. Nagao was wounded while still trying to draw his own gun. Chinh, according to police, shot Officer Johnson.

Although he was dying, Johnson kept firing at the bandits.

Cheong was the first bandit felled, killed by bullets from both officers.

Shot, Wounded

Robert Lee, son of the store owner, testified that he used a broom handle to battle both Chinh and Chan. That struggle ended when Robert Lee was shot and wounded by Chinh.

Chinh, shot in the back and face, escaped through a rear door. It was the elder Lee who grabbed a gun and killed Woo, according to later testimony.

Nagao, despite his wounds, also kept firing. He eventually escaped through the front door to summon help.

Chan escaped unharmed. According to his lawyer, Leslie Abramson, Chan was never even in the jewelry store. All that he did, Abramson said, was drive a second getaway car.

But Huynh has identified Chan as the mastermind of the robbery, and said it was Chan who brought him and Chinh into the plot.

Huynh and Chinh are Vietnamese-Chinese of limited education who, along with thousands of other refugees, escaped to the United States in the late 1970s after the North Vietnamese takeover of South Vietnam.

The two met in the United States as teen-agers. Both were unsuccessful in adapting to schooling here and dropped out.

The three others, Chan, Woo and Cheong, are Chinese who came to the United States from Hong Kong.

While each of the five had criminal records, Woo in particular had a history of violent encounters and exotic adventures.

According to a former San Francisco law enforcement official, Woo spent time in a Chinese prison as a teen-ager after being caught trying to escape to Hong Kong. He made it to the British colony on his second try, and once there joined the 14K triad, one of the ancient Chinese gangs.

Later, Woo emigrated to San Francisco, hooked up with another gang, and participated in several robberies and shootings, one of which left a bullet lodged in his chest.

As a government informant, he collected a $100,000 reward and testified against other gang members who were involved in the 1977 massacre of five customers and wounding of 11 others at the Golden Dragon restaurant in San Francisco's Chinatown.

Two Juries Impaneled

After his arrest in the Jin Hing robbery, Chan told police that he merely drove the second getaway car in the robbery organized by Woo.

Attorneys for Chan and Chinh are not expected to begin presenting their defense for many more weeks. In a somewhat unusual move, two juries have been impaneled to hear the case, which went to trial eight months ago.

Slouched in the witness chair, an interpreter by his side, Huynh testified that he joined the plot to rob the jewelry store about two weeks before the shoot-out when he talked with Chan and Cheong at a Huntington Park poker casino.

Huynh said he had known Chan for some time, had purchased guns from him and once, on Chan's instructions, had filed the serial number from a gun to prevent it being traced.

On the night that he ran into Chan and Cheong, he said, Chan complained of heavy gambling losses and proposed a robbery, although the precise location was undisclosed.

During a subsequent meeting at a Rosemead coffee shop, he testified, Chan gave detailed plans for the robbery. They called for Huynh to act as lookout and carry an Uzi submachine gun that he owned.

Huynh said Chan drew pictures on coffee shop napkins of the inside of the jewelry store and possible escape routes. Two rental cars would be used, one for the robbers and the other for the loot.

One of the many mistakes that Chan apparently made was in his surveillance of the jewelry store. Police would be no problem, he reportedly told Huynh, because the Los Angeles Police Department's Chinatown substation, half a block from the jewelry store, had been closed down. Actually, the substation is closed only two days a week. It was open the day of the robbery.

Huynh also testified that Chan told would-be lookouts on various previous occasions that they should "open fire" if police ever arrived during a robbery. Chan said "whether you're inside or outside, it's the same," Huynh said.

Time to Escape

Huynh also said that Chan predicted that if shots were fired, the police would duck for cover and call for backup, giving the robbers time to escape. If the robbery scene was crowded with bystanders, that was even better. The police would be reluctant to risk hitting anyone by shooting back.

Ultimately, Huynh testified, he told Chan he was backing out of the robbery because Woo was going along. Woo had cheated him on the proceeds of an earlier robbery, Huynh said.

On the day of the robbery, Huynh said Chan went to a house on La Presa Avenue in Rosemead where Huynh, Chinh and a number of other young Asians were living.

Several of the residents had been involved in criminal activities and gun dealing. Many, including Chinh and Huynh, were unemployed. They stayed up late and slept through the mornings on bare floors in rooms devoid of furniture, Huynh said in his testimony. There wasn't even a telephone.

Drugs were often available at the house. Huynh testified to using marijuana and cocaine on occasions before the robbery. He said he took cocaine hours after the shootings.

Guns were important at the La Presa Avenue house. Huynh owned at least five semiautomatic weapons, including the Uzi, which he kept at Chan's Hacienda Heights home.

When Huynh, Chan and Chinh left La Presa Avenue that rainy December morning, Chinh had a chrome .25-caliber pistol in the waistband of his jeans.

The three were headed for breakfast in Chinatown, about a half-hour drive away. Afterward, Huynh testified, he planned to return to La Presa Avenue while the others carried out the robbery.

But first there were errands to run. Huynh was driving a poorly running car that he had borrowed from a roommate. He parked the car on Bernard Street in Chinatown half a block from the Jin Hing jewelry store. Huynh said he thought he was reserving a parking space on the crowded streets for a rental car to arrive later for the robbery.

Operated a Brothel

The three men then drove in Chan's car to a rendezvous with Woo and Cheong. Those two were living in an apartment house on South Reno Street, a few miles west of Chinatown, where, among other things, they operated a brothel.

Woo and Cheong were so nattily dressed that Huynh said he teased them about wearing dark suits and ties to a holdup.

"If you dress nice, nobody would suspect you when you go in," Woo reportedly replied.

As Huynh watched, the two loaded their guns and then all five climbed into a red rental car parked in the apartment building garage. Chan drove.

By now it was nearly noon, but before breakfast there was one more stop. At a drugstore, Cheong and Woo got out to buy umbrellas and hair-styling foam. Cheong, according to Huynh, wanted his hair to have a wet look as a disguise during the robbery.

Back in Chinatown, the five finally had breakfast and last-minute plans were made for the robbery, the witness testified. Chan held a financial interest in a noodle company that had a supply of telephone paging beepers. Sometime earlier, Chan had given Huynh one of the beepers and Woo had another. Now, according to Huynh, Chan reminded his accomplices to leave behind all identifying papers, and Woo's beeper.

No one heeded the advice.

Drove Past Store

Once more in the red rental car, the five drove past the Jin Hing jewelry store to make sure it was open. On Broadway, not far from the entrance to Bamboo Lane, Woo and Cheong got out. A few minutes later Chinh left the car.

Chan drove Huynh around the corner, back to Bernard Street where Huynh had left his car.

It was then, Huynh testified, that Chan asked him to wait for Chinh and drive him back to La Presa Avenue. Huynh testified that Chan had trapped him into participating in the actual crime. If he left and something went wrong, Huynh said, the others would accuse him of betraying them.

"I was using swear words at that time," Huynh testified. "I was mad, fuming and also smoking (cigarettes)."

While Huynh sulked in his car, he said, Chan appeared at the window, worried that it was taking the others too long. Three or four minutes had been the maximum estimated time for the robbery.

Chan said he was going to check the area to see if anything was wrong, Huynh said. He never came back.

According to charges filed against him, Chan joined the robbers inside the jewelry store.

Minutes more dragged by as Huynh waited on the rain-soaked side street. Then the blood-spattered Chinh climbed into the car.

Documents and the beeper found on Woo's body led police to his home and ultimately to the others. The day after the robbery, Chan, Chinh and Huynh were arrested.

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