Letters Warn of Retaliation for Gunman’s 7-Year Term
At least two Orange County Vietnamese newspapers received letters from a shadowy anti-communist group threatening unspecified retaliation for the recent prison sentencing of a Vietnamese-American for a 1986 political assassination attempt in Garden Grove.
The open letter, signed by the group Task Force U7 called the seven-year prison term for confessed gunman Be Tu Van Tran “a grave offense to anti-communist fighters.”
Though the letter specifically criticized the sentence imposed by Orange County Superior Court Judge Robert R. Fitzgerald, it did not say how or against whom any retaliation would be carried out.
“The sentence imposed on Be Tu Van Tran by Superior Court Judge Fitzgerald is particularly discriminatory and constitutes a grave offense to all anti-communist fighters. Therefore, we, of Task Force U7, will resolutely take revenge for Be Tu and all other comrades in arms,” the letter said.
Be Tu or Little Tu, is the alias for Tran, a 33-year-old Santa Ana deliveryman who confessed to the March 18, 1986, attack against Tran Khanh Van, a Westminster businessman and former Saigon housing minister. The letter also called Tran “a model Vietnamese.”
Tran became a hero among strident anti-communist factions in the local Vietnamese community after he claimed credit for stalking Van and shooting him twice, critically wounding him.
Van has been living in hiding since the attack, which took place a few weeks after he was quoted in a Los Angeles Times Magazine story as saying that “the only way to change Vietnam’s repressive Marxism is to work with those who will become the next generation of leaders.”
“The act against Van was just an ordinary punishment aimed at cleansing the community of a crook masquerading as a politician,” the letter said. “But the man, an opportunist and a loudmouth, has used ill-gotten money to turn the incident into an important political case.”
Lt. Mike Ratliff of the Westminster police said detectives took the threats seriously and that an investigation is under way. Garden Grove police also are looking into the letters.
“There has always been a constant background of ultraconservative thought in Little Saigon,” Ratliff said. “The people are very astute politically.”
“This type of thing happens a lot,” added Westminster Detective Marcus Frank, “and we have to take it seriously. But we really can’t trace a letter like that because we are dealing with copies of the letter and a disguised writing style.”
The letter was typewritten in Vietnamese, postmarked Santa Ana, and signed by Task Force U7 of the Vietnamese Party for Restoration and Communist Eradication.
Yen Do, publisher of the Vietnamese newspaper Nguoi Viet in Garden Grove, which received a copy of the letter and published a story about it Friday, said the extremist group has been sending similar communiques to the 40-odd Vietnamese newspapers in and around Little Saigon since 1981. But the group’s membership and whereabouts are still unknown.
Do said he interpreted the letter to mean that the group’s intended target was Van--not Judge Fitzgerald.
The Vietnamese Tu Do newspaper in Westminster also received a copy of the letter but did not intend to print it, said an editor who asked not to be identified.
After Tran’s arrest, his lawyer had predicted that his client would spend only a few months in jail for the attack.
But on Sept. 15, swayed by a psychiatric report warning that Tran was a possible manic-depressive who had expressed only “superficial remorse” for the shooting, Fitzgerald imposed a seven-year sentence.
Fitzgerald said Tran made a “slow plea,” which means he waived his right to a jury trial, leaving Fitzgerald to decide Tran’s sentence based on records from his preliminary hearing.
Tran was sent to the Chino Institution for Men for a mental diagnostic study, Fitzgerald said, and when Tran returned he still believed that all people in the community with any communist ties should be killed.
“I couldn’t let him go,” Fitzgerald said, “or he would have gone out and killed someone else.”
Even though the letter did not specifically threaten Fitzgerald, he was mentioned prominently. “You have to take these kind of threats seriously,” Fitzgerald said. “They sound like a volatile, dedicated group.”
Fitzgerald said that if he was being threatened, it would not be the first time.
“My life has probably been threatened more than any other judge (in Orange County),” he said. “I guess I’m the meanest mother on the mountain. I get a lot of serious, dangerous cases.”
“I look in the rear-view mirror a lot,” he added. "(But) If you have to alter your life style, then the crooks have won.”
In the Little Saigon area of Westminster and Garden Grove, the letter was roundly condemned by civic leaders.
“We do not condone threats, whether clear or hidden, and wherever they come from,” said Mai Cong, president of the Vietnamese Community of Orange County Inc. “All of us have lived through so many years of war and we have come here to live in peace and under the rule of the law.”
Giang Thanh Le, a local developer, noted that while Fitzgerald was not specifically threatened, the letter could “be easily understood (as a) hidden threat against him. As such, this could have an extremely negative effect on the community as a whole, unless the voice of the community is also heard, and I am sure as law-abiding citizens, we all condemn any threat of violence.”
Staff Writer Sonni Efron contributed to this report.