Slightly more than a month after the baffling execution-style slayings of nine people at a Buddhist temple west of Phoenix, authorities said Friday that they had arrested five Tucson men for the crime and were seeking three other suspects.
Maricopa County Sheriff Tom Agnos said that up to eight men had gone to the temple, mistakenly expecting to find a great deal of valuables and money. But they found little, he said.
He said that they then systematically executed their victims--six monks, a 71-year-old nun, a temple helper and a 16-year-old trainee.
"We are convinced that we have the suspects that committed this crime in custody," Agnos said at a press conference. He said the arrests resulted from an anonymous telephone call to the Tucson Police Department Tuesday.
Investigators obtained search warrants and raided four homes, recovering a firearm that Agnos said would be tested to determine if it was the murder weapon.
The sheriff said that only one man had been booked on charges thus far. Victor P. Zarate, 28, faces nine counts of first-degree murder and was ordered held without bond at a court appearance Friday morning.
Charges will be filed against the remaining suspects later, Agnos said.
The discovery of the bodies Aug. 10 at the isolated Wat Promkunaram temple about 20 miles west of Phoenix sent shock waves through Thai and Buddhist communities in Arizona and elsewhere.
The crime--the largest mass murder in Arizona history--sparked an investigation by a 66-member multiagency task force, and rewards totaling $50,000 were offered.
Agnos said authorities invested 15,000 hours and checked out more than 500 leads before they got the break in the case.
"Lead No. 511 turned out to be a pretty good lead," he said.
Acting on the tip, sheriff's investigators searched four homes in Tucson and brought six people to Phoenix for questioning. One of those people was released. In addition to Zarate, the others arrested are Mike Lawrence McGraw, 24; Mark Felix Nunez, 19; Dante Parker, 20; and Leo Valdez Bruce, 28.
During the investigation, authorities considered a variety of motives--including robbery, racial hatred, drug involvement and gang-related activities. Agnos said statements from the suspects indicated the crime was not related to race or gangs.
Although the search warrants sought items linking suspects to the Crips--a Los Angeles-based gang that has branched out into Arizona--Agnos said some of the men in custody had no gang involvement.
He said the five men and up to three others are alleged to have met at a park in Tucson on the evening of Aug. 9 and planned their trip to the temple, about 2 1/2 hours away. The suspects allegedly came to Phoenix in two stolen vehicles, stopped to buy and smoke some marijuana and crack cocaine, then proceeded to the temple, the sheriff said.
There, according to Agnos, the men allegedly rounded up the temple's occupants and ransacked the living quarters.
"When they found that the valuables that they thought were there were not there, they systematically killed the nine people," he said.
Agnos said it is possible the victims were killed one by one after each was asked to produce some goods. Their bodies were found lying face down in a circle on the floor of the living room at the temple.
He refused to specify what type of gun was recovered, but authorities had previously said the victims were sprayed with buckshot, then shot in the back of the head with a small-caliber rifle or pistol.
The sheriff said the suspects then drove back to Tucson after allegedly taking a few items, including money, electronic equipment and a camera.
The Phoenix temple has about 400 members, most of them Thai. Choosin Savee, president of the temple board of directors, said he and others in the community were happy to learn of the arrests and the nature of the evidence against the suspects. He said Thais and other Buddhists may feel relieved to hear that the motive was not thought to be related to race or religion.
Thai Ambassador M. L. Birabhongse Kasemsri, who coincidentally was in Phoenix on the day the arrests were announced, predicted Thais around the world would be "relieved and encouraged" by the arrests.
County Atty. Richard Romley, who has appointed a team of three lawyers to prosecute the case, has said he plans to seek the death penalty for those who committed the murders.