ON A BLEAK, rainy afternoon in December, 1984, Sang Nam Chinh, a 19-year-old refugee from Vietnam, stood nervously outside the Jin Hing jewelry store on Bamboo Lane in the heart of Chinatown. Tucked inside his jeans was a .25-caliber chrome automatic he had won in a gambling game. He had once used the weapon--a cheap peashooter that jammed without warning--to steal a $20 bill and a gold necklace from an elderly Chinese woman. It was small-time stuff like most of his crimes, certainly nothing as ambitious as the jewelry-store robbery that was unfolding before him.
Two accomplices--wearing business suits and posing as customers--had already coaxed their way past the front door, kept locked during business hours. At gunpoint, they forced the elderly shopkeeper, his son and an aunt into a cramped and cluttered back room. A third and fourth accomplice waited in cars a block away. Chinh, the youngest member of the team, had been told to wait outside until one of the gunmen let him in. He would then stand guard while they filled plastic shopping bags with gold. In and out, $100,000, was how Chinh understood it.
Gold was the one thing Chinh, a child of the Vietnam War and the refugee camps of Malaysia, understood. It was gold that his mother hid in the bedroom of her Saigon home, and it was gold that she handed over to Vietnamese authorities to secure her 12-year-old son a spot on a ramshackle wooden boat to freedom. Her last words to the small boy were "Make your family proud."
But even before Chinh entered the store that day, the shopkeeper's son had activated a portable silent alarm hidden in his shirt pocket. The call--a "211 silent at 412 Bamboo Lane"--was already being relayed from a private alarm company to a police communications center and out over radio to a police substation just 75 feet from where Chinh stood in the driving rain.
Officers Archie Nagao and Duane Johnson, who manned the substation above the Phoenix Bakery and across the alley from the Jin Hing, took the call at 1:57 p.m. Dec. 19. Nagao, 29, small, lean and unassuming, had been assigned to the substation since it opened in April, 1983. Johnson, 27, who was Nagao's physical and temperamental opposite, had been working in Chinatown only three months. He stood 6 feet, 4 inches and weighed 240 pounds, more soft than muscular. He had a warm personality, played the tuba and had volunteered for the beat because its bankers' hours gave him evenings home with his wife, Kathleen, who was six months pregnant with their first child.
Soon after taking the job, though, he had confided to her his second thoughts. There was a Chinatown he did not understand, he had said, a seemingly cabalistic world of gangs and silent merchants who endure extortions and shakedowns as a form of business tax. Late one night, after seeing two rival gang members shoot each other dead in broad daylight, he had talked to her about dying and made plans for his funeral.
But that day, as he walked into the jewelry store with Nagao close behind, Duane Johnson did not seem to sense the impending danger. He did not appear to read the frightened looks on the hostages gathered in the rear room or the silence that greeted his question, "Is everything all right?" He kept walking deeper and deeper into the narrow store until he was nearly face to face with a terrified Nam Chinh--never surmising that something was amiss until it was too late, until shots rang out in the front. When the furious gun battle was over, Johnson lay dead and Nagao seriously injured. The two lead robbers also had been shot dead. Nam Chinh, bleeding from bullet wounds to the face and back, had escaped into a back alley.
For the past five months, in a courtroom in downtown Los Angeles, the Chinatown robbery-murder has been recounted by a parade of eyewitnesses, coroners, ballistics experts and even one of the principals, a 24-year-old Vietnamese refugee who drove Chinh from the scene and has now turned state's witness.
The trial, entering its final weeks, is compelling not so much for its attempt to reconcile a mass of conflicting testimony over who actually shot Duane Johnson but for what it reveals about the lives of poor young Vietnamese refugees in America today. Many, like Chinh, are ethnic Chinese who bear the peculiar scars of war, racial persecution and forced resettlement, often without family. They talk of having been spirited away in the middle of the night and put on boats by parents who were seeking to spare them service in Vietnam's war against Cambodia.
From refugee camps, they arrive here in their early teens with little formal education and an idealized notion of the freedom enjoyed by American youth. They quickly become cynical about schools that take a sink-or-swim approach to their future, giving them only a short time to learn English and the nuances of a strange culture. They dress in a distinctive punk style, ditch classes or drop out and find expression in the streets and pool halls. Too old and too distrustful for American high schools to do them much good but still young enough to have barely dreamed, they are, in many ways, a lost generation.
"In Vietnam, parents have an attitude of rebellion. 'Cheat the Communist government. Defy authority,' " says Tung Minh Tran, a Virginia psychiatrist and former South Vietnamese minister of health. "While this may be a vital mind-set for survival in a country filled with contradictions, it creates kids who are rebellious, who laugh at authority, who are raised virtually free of supervision."
The guile necessary for survival is not easily relinquished. "They have survived where many have died. They are many years and many experiences out of touch with school. They come here and are overwhelmed by what people suddenly expect of them."
Social scientists, psychologists and school and law-enforcement authorities estimate that perhaps as many as 15% to 25% of the young refugees from Vietnam fit this profile--most of them coming from families that subsist on welfare or bottom-of-the-rung wages. Their pain and discontent are ignored by a public that regards refugee teen-agers as either high-school valedictorians or members of marauding gangs.
There are refugee valedictorians and winners of spelling bees and science awards, but these youths more often come from families who escaped in the first wave in 1975 and were part of Vietnam's Western-leaning elite. And there are gangs, their members drawn mostly from the families of poor farmers and fishermen who departed in a huge second wave beginning in 1978. Law-enforcement authorities, impeded by language and cultural barriers, debate the degree of sophistication and organization of Vietnamese criminals.
But the alienation of refugee youths extends far beyond the pathos of gangs. Only a small percentage of these disaffected teens--the most hard-core--ever become affiliated with a formal, structured gang. Many others are members of a far more open, loose and fluid confederation. Where there is no family, a broken family, or parents with their own scars and despair, these children have found each other. Vietnamese and Chinese-Vietnamese youths, males and females, are wandering from town to town, sometimes state to state, living 10 and 15 to a room in run-down motels. They pay for lodging and meals by robbing Chinese and Vietnamese homes and by stealing cars and selling the parts.
In many respects, these young people are responding to the same isolation long felt by black and Latino youths whose aspirations have been cut short by poverty, fragmented families and a broken work ethic. But the Vietnamese refugee experience is also profoundly different, never far removed from the disintegration of Vietnam as a society. For many of these kids, America is not so much a new start as it is a continuation of their rootlessness. What ultimately emerges from the Chinh trial and a growing number of criminal cases against young refugees nationwide is that this country's least understood legacy of Vietnam may not be the damaged veterans or the Agent Orange cases or even the wounds on the American psyche but the kids who come here seeking and never finding a home.
CHINH'S 31-year-old sister, Mui, who cared for him in place of his mother, blames the freedom. She says she watched her younger brother become twisted and contorted in an attempt to be two people, never quite reconciling his experiences as a Vietnamese farm boy with his new life in Los Angeles. "I told him to keep trying. If you keep trying, one day you will make it," says the small, delicate woman, mixing Cantonese, Vietnamese and broken English. "But there was too much freedom. In America anything you want you can get. It's too easy--buy guns, cocaine, drop out of school. He thinks about the future now, but what good is it? It's too late for him."
The state is seeking the death penalty against Nam Chinh, now 21, and Peter Chan, 31, a native of Hong Kong, who is alleged to have masterminded the robbery as a way of recouping thousands of dollars in gambling losses. Defense attorneys contend that Peter Chan wasn't even in the jewelry store the day of the robbery. Chinh's attorneys, however, concede that he was a part of the robbery team and, as such, is guilty of first-degree murder.
But they say Chinh, who dropped out of high school at 16 and left home two years later, was led astray by the people he turned to for survival. They argue that the Johnson murder weapon--a .38 caliber stainless-steel revolver--was not used by Chinh. They hope to raise enough doubt in jurors' minds to block a sentence of death or life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Much of the testimony has had to be translated into English from Cantonese, the native language of Chinh and several of the eyewitnesses. After seven years in America, Chinh still speaks poor English. And throughout the lengthy proceedings, a court-appointed interpreter has sat beside the frail young man and whispered into his right ear a Cantonese version of the English testimony.
Pallid and slightly disheveled in a wrinkled sweater and flared polyester slacks, Chinh sits facing the jury with a bewildered, frozen look. There is something not quite formed about him, something still early and budding that gives him the look of a baby bird. If he understands the import of the case against him, he seems to lack the necessary context.
Almost three years to the day after the crime, Chinh has refused to betray his partners even as they have betrayed him. It was the co-defendant who led police to Chinh on Dec. 20. And it was Chinh's best friend, the state's witness, who shored up any holes in the prosecution's case. Yet Chinh has refused to provide information that could damage them and possibly help his case. It's as if through some unspoken fealty he can regain his honor.
"Nam looked upon these guys as older brothers. They took him under their wings. He was beholden to them," Charles Gessler, Chinh's lead attorney, says. "Sure he had free will and could have said no when they asked to be a part of the team. But that wasn't the reality."
Prosecutors have a different view. "These weren't reflex actions. It's not the profile of a sweet soul," says Terry Adamson, one of the two deputy district attorneys trying the case. "He's a coldblooded murderer who has shown no remorse."
NAM CHINH was 9 years old when the Communist forces of North Vietnam captured his hometown of Cho Lon, a suburb of Saigon. His father, a soldier in the South Vietnamese army, had died of a kidney ailment when Chinh was 6. His mother, Mui Vong, supported the family of eight children--five girls and three boys, Nam being the third youngest--on a small military pension and what she could scrape together by selling fruit and cigarettes on the street. But the pension checks stopped coming once the Communists took over, and Nam and his siblings had to drop out of school and find work. He never finished the third grade.
He and a brother, Bao, five years older, moved to a rural farming area 30 miles outside Saigon where they lived by themselves, growing beans, rice, corn and peanuts. What the family couldn't eat was sold for a small profit at city markets. In Saigon, the sisters rolled cigarettes and wrapped candy in makeshift factories.
For the ethnic Chinese, who composed a merchant class that was anathema to communism, life was particularly hard. In 1978, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam undertook a campaign of persecution and expulsion against its Chinese population. The final straw for many parents was seeing their sons sent to the front lines in yet another war, this time in Cambodia.
With a gold wafer representing a month of wages, Mui Vong bought her eldest son, Bao, 17, a spot on a small sail-boat. After a 26-day journey in which the boat was blown off course three times, Bao reached Hong Kong. Three months later--at the inflated price of 14 gold wafers--Nam, 12, and his sister, Mui, 23, crowded onto a 66-foot-long wooden boat with 350 other refugees. Three days later, they reached Malaysia. The country, overwhelmed by boat people, had to build another camp to accommodate the newcomers.
After a year in Malaysia, their home a 12-by-20-foot tarpaulin-enclosed room shared with two dozen other refugees, Nam and his sister were resettled in the San Gabriel Valley. They moved into a small apartment with an older sister and her husband, who had come to the Los Angeles area the year before. Since 1975, nearly 850,000 refugees from Southeast Asia, the majority from Vietnam, have been resettled in the United States. An estimated 100,000--the nation's largest concentration--live in Los Angeles County alone.
The alienation of these immigrant youths is perhaps nowhere more sharply etched than in the western San Gabriel Valley, 10 miles east of downtown Los Angeles, where a community of 30,000 Chinese-Vietnamese has taken root over the past decade. Their arrival resounds in a collection of new cafes, restaurants, bakeries and grocery stores that line Valley Boulevard from Alhambra to Rosemead. There is no better place to meet and measure the young generation than here at night.
For the past two years, sometimes as often as twice a week, I have visited the coffeehouses and restaurants and the pool halls and motels where young Chinese and Vietnamese refugees hang out. Many react with surprise that an American reporter would be interested in them. They are either greatly flattered and touched or they are deeply suspicious. Even today, after months of familiarity, my entrance into the Saigon Center pool hall on Valley Boulevard is met with the whispers "FBI, FBI." Much of the reticence grows out of a fear that I will not honor a pledge to keep off-the-record any talk of crime. "If you burn me, that's it. I will kill you," one 17-year-old said almost warmly after detailing his criminal past. "You will not be able to show your face in this pool hall again."
There is plenty of tough talk and embellishment. Some utter what they think you want to hear, flattering the inquisitive stranger. But over a period of weeks and months, it's possible to break through the bravado. Most of my time was spent with a group of eight young refugees, six males and two females. Two were runaways, and the others spent at least part of their day on the streets. We would drive all over town at all hours of the night searching for a hot bowl of the Vietnamese soup, Pho. I mediated disputes between boyfriends and girlfriends, helped sneak six-packs of beer into cafes that served only coffee and tea, met their families and attended the wedding of one young boy's sister. I watched one of them grow from a child on the fringes of crime into a hardened street hood. Through it all, they never stopped questioning my motives, never stopped reminding me that I was an outsider. "Honky, why are you so interested in us?" Tai, my interpreter, asked. "You know the story already. Just make up the rest."
Several wanted only their first names used, others a middle name or alias. Even the most forthcoming felt the need to hold back. Quan, 19, was having a hard time coping with his mother's death from cancer, something I found out only through friends. He was here alone and never knew she was sick. Quan's sister had sent a letter and photographs informing him of the death, but the photos arrived a day before the letter. He opened the packet expecting to see happy pictures of family life. What he found instead were the black-and-white images of his mother's funeral, her emaciated body laid out on a burial cloth, garlands of flowers surrounding her. They said he burst out crying and spent the next three days drunk in a corner booth of the Midnight Cafe, telling anyone who would listen stories of his family and Vietnam.
ON SATURDAY nights, the Saigon Center pool hall cracks with activity from 7 p.m. until well past midnight. Except for a few leather-clad females, the smoky hall is the place of men. They gather around 11 billiard tables, under low-hanging fluorescent lights, to watch and play a popular French three-ball billiard game on pocketless tables. Everyone seems to be smoking. Everyone seems to be gambling. Everyone, it seems, owes everyone else money.
Qui, 18, comes to the Saigon Center daily, plays a little pool, smokes a pack of Marlboros and sips on a glass of French iced coffee sweetened with condensed milk. His face is pocked by acne, and he wears his hair slicked back on the sides, high on top. He is bright and inquisitive and speaks good English despite having been here only three years. Yet he will be the first to tell you that he has squandered his natural abilities. Last year, his attendance became so spotty that he was kicked out of San Gabriel High School. This year, when school officials informed him that he lacked credits and would have to repeat the 10th grade, he dropped out. His father, frustrated over his poor showing, has threatened to kick him out of the house. It helps little that his younger brother brings home A's and B's.
"My brother came here when he was just a child. His mind is more open than mine. My mind is part closed. But I had a chance, too. It's my fault."
Qui says the large concentration of refugees in the region has held him back, making it possible to live comfortably without venturing outside the Vietnamese community. So far, he has resisted joining a formal gang although he has occasionally accompanied gang members for crimes. "When you join a gang and they go out for a crime, you have no choice but to go along," he explains. "The difference is that I can join them or not join them when I like."
On weekends, he sometimes stays out all night, choosing to sleep in $25-a-night motel rooms with a dozen other teen-agers, many of whom have run away from home for several months. He describes one big slumber party. "There are girls from Pomona, Santa Ana and San Diego. Bunch of people sleeping on the floor, couches and chairs. There is one head here and one head there. One even sleeps in the bathroom." The girls and boys usually sleep apart, Qui says, the boys watching X-rated movies well into the night while the girls doze off. There is some use of marijuana and cocaine but little sex.
These teens also survive by stealing car stereos and robbing homes. Qui says they can net an average of 10 stereos a night and sell them for $50 apiece. "Then we go out, eat a big dinner and gamble. We can spend it all that night." He says most of the kids who sleep in motels are here without parents. Aunts and uncles or older siblings simply can't control them.
The pain of exile can crush some adults, creating even more uncertainty for the children. Kiet, 17, saw his uncle go crazy shortly after they were resettled in Southern California in 1982. After drinking binges, the former South Vietnamese soldier would disappear for several days, leaving his 9-year-old son and 12-year-old Kiet to fend for themselves. One day, Kiet walked into the living room of their Van Nuys apartment and found his uncle staring at a blank television screen. "He looked at me like I was a stranger. His eyes got real big and I ran." Kiet says that when he returned home, his uncle was picking dirt off the floor and eating it. "He started burning his books and things in the oven. The fire department came and they took him to a mental hospital. He missed Vietnam. His wife and seven children were left back there. He didn't have enough money to bring them."
Kiet, whose parents also remain in Vietnam, now lives in a foster home in San Gabriel. He is 4 feet, 10 inches and weighs less than 90 pounds, a diminutive figure in black leather jacket and fedora. He makes up for his small size with a quick temper and even quicker fists. He was kicked out of high school last year for hitting a classmate over the neck with a metal bar. As part of his one-year probation, he attends a continuation school where group discussions have forced him to confront fears and the separation from his family. He is afraid that one day he might go crazy, too.
"Right now, I see myself on the border floating," he wrote in a school paper. "The one thing that made me feel bad is the language. Sometimes I want to say something but I don't know how to say. I don't know if I'm going to make it or not."
Kiet admits that his biggest problem is controlling his anger. He talks incessantly of shooting anyone who crosses him. He grabs a screwdriver from under his bed, unscrews the stereo speaker and reaches past the insulation for a box of .357 magnum and .45 special bullets. Then he sits back on his bed and fires a BB gun at the door. The noise alarms his foster father, who barges into the room and stands over Kiet, yelling in Vietnamese. "Who gives a damn about my life?" Kiet yells back, refusing to look the foster father in the eye. "I don't know the rules! My life has no rules!"
Living with parents is no guarantee of stability and success, either. Khanh, 17, was resettled in San Gabriel in 1983 with both parents and five siblings. The family survives on welfare but has been able to live comfortably by pooling unreported income from restaurant and sewing jobs. Mai, the mother, explains that Khanh came to America at an awkward age: He was too young to settle for a trade and too old to learn adequate English in the few years he was given to graduate.
Khanh, a handsome sweet-talker popular with women, was a video-game junkie, jamming pennies into machines in such a way that he could win free games all day. He dropped out of school last year at 16 and ran away from home. For months, his mother drove up and down Valley Boulevard searching for him. When Khanh finally came home this past summer, his mother sent him off to Philadelphia to assemble computer circuits in a firm where his older brother worked. But unknown to her, Khanh left Philadelphia after only a few weeks and joined up with friends in New York, then crisscrossed the country committing crimes in several big cities. He returned home in September with wads of fresh $100 bills. He bragged to friends how easy it was.
Tension between immigrant teen-agers and their parents is certainly not unique to the Chinese or Vietnamese. Children want to stretch out, to taste life in America, and this collides with the traditional values of their parents. Refugee teen-agers talk convincingly of an overreaction on the part of parents or guardians who don't seem to know when to give them the slightest inch. Parents talk movingly of confusion and embarrassment over sons and daughters who suddenly become defiant and change their hair and style of dress.
Teachers and school administrators point out that young refugees, like their counterparts in the ghetto and barrio, fill the voids in their life by adopting a common badge. Even A students go to school wearing the baggy all-white or all-black outfits, the shirts and blouses buttoned to the top, the oversized costume jewelry and the hair standing straight up on end. They call themselves "New Wave" or "Punk" but the music that binds them doesn't find its roots in the Sex Pistols or the Clash or even the Talking Heads. They prefer the light, synthesizer-dominated pop of groups such as Modern Talking and Joy.
As they walk down the street, refugee teens often pause to wow every passing Toyota Supra and Celica. A photo of the Italian sports car Lamborghini hangs in many of their bedrooms. Vietnamese social workers say that the children find little comfort in the realization that they've gone from turmoil and extreme poverty in Vietnam to a more stable life here. Unlike their American-born schoolmates, they lack the understanding to laugh off the exaggerated notions of wealth and power glorified in television and popular culture. The images become real for them, heightening expectations. As a result, some regard the $6-, $7- or even $10-an-hour job as holding little promise. Believing they have few choices, some take their chances with crime.
No one knows what percentage of crime in the Vietnamese community is committed by organized gangs and what percentage is perpetrated by informal bands of alienated youths. But there is broad consensus on the severity of the problem. Last July, in a report to the California Legislature, Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp warned against ignoring Vietnamese criminals simply because they prey on their own communities. Police departments in several California cities, Houston, New Orleans and Virginia report that Vietnamese teen-agers have become master car thieves, employing picks and filed-down ignition keys. In Monterey Park, which has a majority Asian population, detectives specializing in Asian crime estimate that 70% of their day is taken up with household robberies, burglaries and assaults committed by Vietnamese youths wandering from town to town in Los Angeles and Orange counties.
MUI CHINH sits inside the cramped two-bedroom Rosemead apartment she shares with two brothers and two sisters and wonders what drove Nam away. She tried to make it like home: Pickled eggs ferment in a jar outside and tufted white chickens roam past a small vegetable garden. But he never felt comfortable in school, she says. Officials at Mark Keppel High School in Alhambra placed him in the ninth grade. Even though he was 14 years old, he hadn't been in a classroom for six years. And he always was a slow learner, illiterate in his own language. "He really tried that first year but he would come home and tell me that his classes were too hard. He said he needed help, but none of us knew English."
Nam eventually dropped out of the 11th grade. He worked for a short time as a busboy and then a delivery man, but was spending most of his time in the streets with a group of Chinese-Vietnamese youths known by the name, "Hac Qui Boys."
Hac Qui or "black ghost," the central figure of the group, was Thong Huynh, a dark-skinned, flinty street hood who spoke passable English and once spent $2,000 in a single day buying an Uzi and several lightweight submachine guns. Nam looked up to Huynh and had a tattoo of an eagle--a Vietnamese street-gang emblem--inked on his right shoulder. In September, he packed a single suitcase and told his family he had found a real job in Chinatown and would be living with his new boss.
Nam moved a few blocks away into a nice, two-story house that Huynh and his followers rented with money from stealing stereos and cars and robbing families. The Hac Qui Boys lacked the sophistication and the tight structure typically associated with an organized gang. They were more a corrupted version of a kibbutz , an ever-changing mix of a dozen or so teen-agers living under one roof. "Once Nam moved there, he changed the way he dressed, the way he spoke and his whole outlook on things," Larry Longo, chief prosecutor in the death-penalty case, said. "He learned the way of crime there. He became a good little soldier."
ON THE MORNING of Dec. 19, Nam Chinh was awakened by an impatient Thong Huynh. "Hurry up. Peter (Chan) is waiting downstairs." He put on a pair of faded blue jeans, a purple gauze T-shirt and an olive-drab Calvin Klein waist-length jacket. He reached into the hallway closet for his .25-caliber automatic, shoved in a clip of bullets and tucked the weapon under his waistband. Then they drove off to meet the others.
Kathleen Johnson was hugging Duane goodby that morning, trying to avoid getting her face mashed into his bulletproof vest. "It was six days before Christmas and the tree was up and there were presents all around. But after he left, I had this uneasy feeling, and I just didn't want to stay home alone. So I called up my mom and said, 'I'm coming over.' I got there but something still wasn't right. Then the phone rang.
"It was a police officer asking for an Officer Rodriguez. My mother turned around and said, 'Kathleen, do you know an Officer Rodriguez?' The police officer on the other end quickly said, 'Never mind. I must have the wrong number.' I knew something was wrong. Why would my mom get a phone call from a Los Angeles police officer? Why would he hang up after finding out I was there? When my mom got off the phone, I just blurted out, 'Mom, brace yourself. Duane is dead.' I called the Chinatown substation. I said, 'This is Kathleen Johnson. Could I speak to my husband please?' I really did a number on several people there. I'm really sorry about that. The last person they expected to have on the phone was Mrs. Johnson asking to speak to her
husband. He said 'No, I'm sorry. He's not here right now.' I said,'Okay. Fine. Is Archie (Nagao) there?' He said, 'No, I'm sorry. He's not here right now either.' Then I said, 'Is there something wrong with my husband? Did something happen to my husband?' He said, 'Could you hold on.' Then he put down the phone and I heard him cry and I knew."
Duane and Kathleen Johnson's baby girl, Rachel Clare, was born three months after his death. "She's the spitting image of Duane. She has his eyebrows, his nose, his mannerisms. He used to do this funny thing with his eyebrows, scrunch them up. I can't even do it. . . . Well, my daughter does that. She'll walk in the room and do just that."
Johnson has attended the preliminary hearings, thumbed through the photo exhibits of the bloody crime scene and stood inside the Jin Hing jewelry store at the exact spot where her husband died. Throughout much of the long trial, she has sat beside her father a few feet behind the two defendants. She anticipates the day when her daughter will come to her and want to know all about Duane, how he lived and died and what became of his killers.
"This is the crime that took my husband's life," she explains. "I had to know if he had been in pain or suffered. It's not an obsession. I'm not basing my life on the outcome of this trial. But it's my responsibility to be there for Duane and Rachel."
Johnson has little patience with attempts to explain away, to somehow rationalize, the actions of her husband's killers. But she wants it known that she disapproves of the death penalty. "The district attorney assumed that's what I wanted. Like I was the big bad witch who wanted death for these guys no matter what. I never felt that way and I was angry they assumed that. I would never hurt anybody. Murder disgusts me. I really don't need the death penalty for my own personal satisfaction, for any sense of justice for myself. The death penalty would not bring Duane back. And that's the only justice I could ever hope for."
During weeks of testimony in October and November, the state's witness, Thong Huynh, reiterated his story that Peter Chan masterminded the Jin Hing robbery and cased the jewelry store the day before the crime. Chan, the co-owner of a successful Chinatown noodle factory, allegedly was motivated by greed and desperation. A few months earlier, he had lost thousands of dollars gambling at the Huntington Park Casino. Chan, who has confessed to a minor role in helping plan the robbery, contends he wasn't even inside the jewelry store that day and fired no shots--points left unclear by conflicting eyewitness accounts.
The eyewitnesses have been more certain on the role of Nam Chinh. Several put the Johnson murder weapon in the hands of a hostage holder who was wearing blue jeans and an olive-drab jacket. The jacket was found in Chinh's bedroom with a bullet hole and his blood splattered all over it. Defense attorneys Gessler and Jill Lansing concede that Chinh was the hostage holder. But they don't believe that he fired the shots that killed Johnson. They argue that the Johnson murder weapon, a .38 stainless steel revolver, belonged to one of the lead robbers and that Chinh entered the store that day carrying his .25-caliber automatic. Why would the lead robber exchange a trusted gun for a small Saturday Night Special that jammed? When would an exchange have taken place and why didn't any of the eyewitnesses see it?
The two sides agree that the five robbers were not operating as part of a larger criminal syndicate and that Chinh was less hardened than the others. The two dead robbers, Robert Woo and John Cheong, were older and former members of powerful Chinese gangs in San Francisco and New York. Both carried bullet fragments in their bodies from previous shoot-outs. Nam Chinh knew both only a short time.
DURING A break in the trial in September, Nam Chinh agreed to an interview inside Central Jail, with the questions limited to his life before the robbery-murder. Dressed in prison blues, his hair matted and his face slightly puffy from a nap, Chinh is escorted by a guard from his cell to a glass-enclosed visitor's cubicle. A Cantonese interpreter is present, and Chinh listens intently to the questions in English. His reading has improved to the sixth-grade level with the help of a county program and the detective novels loaned to him by attorney Jill Lansing. But Chinh still has trouble answering questions that seek more than a yes-or-no response. He pauses awkwardly for several seconds and then shrugs his shoulders in silence.
A few minutes into the interview, he is asked if he has given any advice to his 15-year-old brother, Sing Su, an A student who is experiencing adjustment problems of his own. "I don't think I'm qualified to be his big brother," he says, staring at the floor. "But I did, I did tell him not to follow my way." Then Chinh breaks down sobbing, unable to continue.
His sister Mui has made sure that Sing Su will grow up differently. He is forbidden to go to the movies or parties. On the weekends, he must attend Chinese school in Chinatown. "We don't allow him to dress or wear his hair like Nam's anymore. One is enough--for my whole life."
Mui and the sisters do piecework in garment sweatshops. Bao is a cook in a Chinese restaurant. Mui yearns for something better for the family, but Chinh's problems have put their lives on hold. For that, she blames Chinh and herself. "I don't hate him . . . I am just mad at him," she says, her eyes filling with tears. "He made us lose face. If my mother was here, none of this would have happened. She is the mother. I am only the sister."
Mui has hidden Chinh's troubles from the family in Vietnam. As far as they know, their son has brought them honor. "I tell them that life is OK here. I tell them not to worry. I never tell them that every time I think about Nam I feel sorry."