5 Arrested in Slayings of 9 at Arizona Buddhist Temple

From Associated Press

Five people were taken into custody Friday in the slayings of nine people at a Buddhist temple, and authorities said the killings were systematically carried out by a gang of robbers who had smoked crack.

Three others were being sought in the slayings, which occurred in August at the temple near Phoenix and raised fears among Asians nationwide.

The killings were carried out by a group of robbers from a gang-ridden neighborhood of Tucson, said Maricopa County Sheriff Tom Agnos. He said the group had smoked marijuana and crack cocaine before killing six monks, two young male disciples and an elderly nun when they didn’t find the valuables they had sought at the Wat Promkunaram temple.


Agnos said Tucson police received an anonymous tip on Tuesday about the case, which had been under investigation by a local and federal task force of 66 members.

The bodies were found Aug. 10.

The monks were Thai and the temple served mostly immigrants from Thailand and Southeast Asia.

Some Thai community leaders feared the slayings were hate crimes and the killers would strike again.

“There’s no indication it was racially motivated,” Agnos said. “The pure motive was robbery.”

Thailand’s ambassador to the United States, Birabhongse Kasemsri, was in Phoenix to meet with Gov. Fife Symington and members of the Thai community. He said he felt relieved by the arrest.

Agnos said Victor P. Zarate, 28, was booked for investigation of nine counts of murder. He was being held without bond.


Four other men--Mike Lawrence McGraw, 24; Mark Felix Nunez, 19; Dante Parker, 20, and Leo Valdez Bruce, 28--were in custody and would be booked “at the appropriate time,” Agnos said. He would not elaborate about their legal status but said the five “have made statements regarding their involvement in this crime that place them at the temple.”

The three others being sought were not identified, but live in the same neighborhood as the five in custody, Agnos said.

Authorities on Wednesday and Thursday raided Mirasol Park on Tucson’s south side, where the Bloods and Crips gangs are known to operate.

A gun was recovered from the home of one of the five men arrested and Agnos said ballistics tests would be done to determine whether it was the murder weapon.

Agnos said the five men met during the evening of Aug. 9 at a park.

“Their plan was to rob the Buddhist temple in Phoenix,” he said.

“They drove to Phoenix in two vehicles believed to be stolen. They stopped in Phoenix, purchased some marijuana at an unknown location and then smoked some marijuana and crack,” Agnos said. “They proceeded to the temple, entered the temple, rounded up the people inside into the living room.

“Each individual living quarter was ransacked,” the sheriff said. When the suspects did not find the valauables they had expected, he said, “They systematically killed the nine people. They then left the temple and returned to Tucson.”


The task force spent about 15,000 hours of investigation on the case before getting the tip--”lead No. 511,” Agnos said.

“It turned out to be a pretty good lead.”