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A Story of Refugee Success Ended Tragically in Riots : Violence: Thanh Lam was slain at a stoplight. As his family grieves, many are trying to find his killers.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Thanh Lam lived through war, survived a perilous sea journey to freedom and endured a year’s stay in a Malaysian refugee camp before coming to America.

And then, 3 1/2 months ago, the 25-year-old man was shot dead, sitting in his pickup truck waiting for a traffic light to change at a corner in Compton.

Lam, born in Vietnam of Chinese parents, loved automobiles and basketball. He wore T-shirts, jeans and caps touting such favorite teams as the Georgetown Hoyas and the Lakers. “Tony,” as friends called him, had gone to college and planned to start his own business. His was a story of refugee success.

But in the first night of violence after the not guilty verdicts in the Rodney G. King beating case, his family’s market in Compton was looted and burned.

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The next day, a distraught Lam helped his family sweep up the damage before heading home to Monterey Park in a two-car caravan. As he drove up to the corner of Willowbrook Avenue and Alondra Boulevard, the family van in front of him was easing through the intersection.

But the traffic signal turned yellow, and Lam slowed to a stop.

Suddenly, a car bumped him from the rear and pulled up in the next lane. At least two gunmen leaned out with handguns and began firing. One bullet shattered the truck’s window; a volley of shots ripped into the cab.

Four bullets hit Lam. Within minutes, he was dead.

By the coroner’s latest count, 52 people died in the Los Angeles riots, including an unidentified man whose body was found in wreckage just last week. Most of the dead were murder victims, many of them shot by strangers.

But Lam’s case is particularly haunting.

His death marked the only instance in which a family lost its business and a loved one. A law enforcement task force singled out the case for special investigation as a racial hate crime. County supervisors have posted a $10,000 reward in the hunt for the killers. Asian-American merchants have hailed Lam as a martyr.

And sympathetic gang members, whose Compton neighborhood was dependent on the Lam family’s market, have taken to the street to make their own inquiries.

“We’d like to find his killers,” said one gang member who asked not to be identified. “Make no mistake about that.”

As the search continues, Lam’s family--his parents, eight brothers and a sister--have quietly tried to rebuild their lives and resurrect their business.

They are awaiting approval of a federal loan that would enable them to reopen their Compton store and perhaps salvage another family market torched that same night in South-Central Los Angeles.

But Lam’s death has eclipsed all else.

Although the months have softened their anguish, the family struggles with aching memories and lingering frustrations.

They cannot understand why it took authorities 24 hours to notify them of the shooting, a delay that forced family members and their friends to scour the area amid hostile crowds.

Lam’s parents are pained that police refused to let them keep a snapshot of their slain son after the family was prevented from seeing him at the hospital.

They fear that the police investigation was botched; detectives overlooked two bullets in Lam’s truck that later were discovered by his brothers.

And family members, anguished, wonder why Lam did not drive through that red light on Alondra.

“I think about that sometimes. If he had run the red light, would my brother be alive today?” asked David Lam, who was driving the lead van. “But that’s not like him. He was a stickler for laws. He was that type of person.”

THE VICTIM

Thanh Lam was born in 1967 in Soc Trang, a city south of Saigon. The third of 10 children, he was barely 12 when his family fled Vietnam as part of a flotilla of boat people in 1979, four years after South Vietnam had fallen.

After spending a year in a refugee camp, the Lams arrived in California. And like other displaced refugees, they struggled to adjust to American life. For Lam’s parents--who maintained a mixture of Chinese and Vietnamese traditions while wrestling with the customs and language of their adopted country--the transition was especially difficult.

“They come to this country, work hard with 10 children. They don’t have opportunity like us to go to school and learn English and go to college,” said Thanh’s oldest brother, Binh. “So we try to help them.”

While Binh and his wife began searching out business opportunities, Thanh went to school--graduating from Alhambra High School and studying at Pasadena City College--and took on more family responsibility.

He had studied auto mechanics in college and worked with computers, looking forward to opening his own business some day. But he remained at home, living with his parents and working in family ventures--first a sewing shop and later a mini-market.

“He was always thinking of his parents,” said Kevin Le, a close friend. “They depended on him a lot. He was like a perfect son anyone could have, like a perfect brother that anyone could have.”

Thanh was quiet, introspective, quick to laugh--and passionate about basketball. Nearly 5-foot-11 with a husky build, he would spend hours on the neighborhood basketball court, perfecting his jump shot or his drive to the basket. Off the court, most of his time was spent at the family market in Compton, where he often would work 12-hour days and six-day weeks.

The Lams had purchased the P & G Market in 1988 from an Asian-American family that had served the northwest Compton community for decades.

The market was in a residential neighborhood known as Fruittown--the streets have names such as Peach, Cherry and Plum--that is home to some of the city’s most notorious gangs. And the family encountered many of the predictable troubles. Thanh’s car stereo was stolen twice. There was the occasional shoplifter. One time, a neighbor helped the family track down a person who had bounced a sizable check.

But the Lams got along peacefully with the residents, most of them African-Americans and Latino.

“They had no problems because they were easy-going,” said Wilma Williams, who has lived in the neighborhood for nearly 20 years. “Even the gangbangers were coming in getting stuff. The Lams didn’t have no problems. Everybody respected them.”

Regular customers such as Williams took to calling Thanh’s parents Poppa and Momma, and persuaded the family to stock delicacies--ham hocks, ribs and soul food--favored by black customers. A young man who lived across from the store said the Lams did the same for their Latino clientele.

Then came the night of April 29.

Thanh was working at the store when his friend Le called to tell him about the not guilty verdicts in the case of the four Los Angeles police officers. Le was worried because the verdicts had spawned some violence. But Thanh, who had paid little attention to the King case, told his friend not to worry.

Still, he closed the store early and headed home.

Hours later, Thanh called Le seeking his help. Friends in Compton had called the family to alert them that vandals were looting the market. By the time Le arrived at Thanh’s home, the Lams were loading plywood, hammers and nails into their cars to take to Compton. They grabbed flashlights--and then, searching for weapons, armed themselves with hockey sticks.

The reports of escalating violence, however, persuaded them that the trip was too dangerous to undertake. The family decided to wait until morning to assess their losses.

As a relieved Le backed out of the Lams’ driveway, he said goodby to his friend. Thanh smiled and waved. It was the last time Le would see his friend alive.

THE SHOOTING

When the Lams arrived at the store the morning of April 30, they were devastated.

Someone had rammed a car through the iron security gates, ripping a hole through the metal sheet that protected the front of the building. Through the gaping opening, looters had cleaned out most of the merchandise. What was not looted was ransacked, and what was left had been torched. There was little to salvage.

Thanh Lam was inconsolable. For the first time in his mother’s memory, her son wept openly. Pounding his fists, he kept wailing: “Why would anyone do this to us? What is going on?”

“Nobody could comfort him,” said Bobbie Cox, a neighborhood resident who accompanied the family to the store. “He was just beating himself, hitting his hands. I hugged him and he hugged me back, and then he pushed me away.”

Sympathetic customers joined the family in sweeping up the damage and securing the store. Hours later, the Lams prepared to return to Monterey Park.

It was shortly before 3 p.m. With the unrest continuing, the decision was made to leave Thanh’s mother, Minh Thi Quach, with a neighbor. The others would drive out in a caravan. As his father, Ha Lam, and brother, David, climbed into the van, Thanh eased into his gray truck and insisted that they take the lead. He would follow and protect them, Thanh said.

Driving toward the Long Beach Freeway, the Lams could see smoke billowing from burning buildings. Sirens raged and menacing crowds jeered at motorists. As they approached Alondra and Willowbrook, the traffic was growing heavier.

David Lam drove the van through the intersection as the light changed, glancing at his rear-view mirror to see if his brother had followed. “The signal just turned yellow, so he stopped there. We cannot stop because of the car behind us,” David said. “We expected him to catch up.”

He never did.

According to police investigators, several black men in a “white or gray, early model, large-sized American car” hit the rear of Thanh’s truck and then pulled beside him, opening fire and quickly speeding down Willowbrook.

As the gunshots rang out, frightened pedestrians hit the ground and motorists dove underneath their dashboards.

“This guy here was an innocent,” said Jim Evans, a deliveryman who watched the shooting from less than 50 feet away. “These guys were coldblooded. They weren’t after money. They didn’t want to loot. They didn’t want anything. They just wanted to kill.”

Ralph Cerda, owner of a nearby liquor store, said there were a number of bystanders--including children--only a short distance from the shooting. “I heard the first shot and just dropped down and told everybody to get the hell out of the way,” he said.

Compton police were at the scene within minutes, but Thanh Lam was already dead--shot four times. His body was taken to a nearby hospital, where it would stay for another 24 hours while his family searched frantically for him.

Back in Monterey Park, the Lams called police, area hospitals and the coroner’s office, but no one knew of the young man’s whereabouts. Then--with worsening violence on the streets--they drove back to Compton in several cars, retracing their route. Someone hurled a rock through one car window while they searched.

In desperation, the family turned to their friends in Fruittown for help.

A Latino nurse who works at Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center volunteered to scan the names of patients admitted to the hospital. An ex-gang member cruised the darkened streets after curfew--skirting rival gangs and police--to search for Thanh. A neighborhood woman, packing a revolver, drove her car around.

The hunt stretched into Friday, May 1.

Bobbie Cox, an African-American woman, tossed a blanket over Ha Lam and Thanh’s brother Binh to hide them from angry black crowds and drove them to the hospital to survey the riot John Does. Wilma Williams drove Thanh’s mother and brother David to the Compton police station and other hospitals seeking information.

Ultimately, the searchers found Thanh’s body at Charter Suburban Hospital in Paramount, where he had been taken shortly after the shooting.

Why had no one let the family know? Detective Gilbert Cross of the Compton Police Department blamed the delay on chaotic conditions during the rioting; the resources of police, hospital and coroner’s office, he said, had been stretched thin.

“It was just bad timing,” Cross said later.

At the hospital, the family asked to see Thanh’s body, but Cross objected. Instead, he took a Polaroid picture of Thanh’s face to show the family.

When his parents asked if they could keep the photo, Cross refused. He wanted to keep the Polaroid for evidence, the detective later said. But more important, he felt uneasy with what he saw as a “different tradition” in dealing with the dead.

“I’ve been to Korean funerals before because I deal with Koreans a lot and I noticed that they take pictures at funerals,” Cross said. “I had never been to funerals where they had taken pictures. . . . Although (Thanh’s) Chinese, maybe it’s their tradition to have a picture of the body. I just decided not to do it that way.”

Long after that Friday, Minh Thi Quach offered a simple explanation of her request for the photo. If she was not going to be allowed to see Thanh, his mother said, she needed something to hold close.

“He looked as if he was sleeping,” she said softly. “I could not believe he was gone. I missed him very much.”

THE AFTERMATH

As FBI agents and police investigators pursue Lam’s killers, they remain optimistic that the case can be solved--though there is scant physical evidence. They are waiting for witnesses to step forward with information that could identify the killers.

“We think we have some good information and some leads,” said Hourie Taylor, acting Compton police chief.

Neither Taylor nor the FBI will say why they consider the murder a hate crime. Some witnesses, however, have said they heard a gunman shout a racial epithet before opening fire. One bystander said he heard a gunman curse Thanh for being white. Other witnesses and police investigators believe that he may have been mistaken for a Korean-American. FBI officials said they have not discounted either possibility.

For the Lams, the confusion over ethnic identities is not uncommon.

“We are Chinese, but some people yell at us because they think we are Korean,” said David Lam. “It shouldn’t be a problem. We are all Asians, but we are also Americans.”

Although the Lams remain hopeful about the outcome of the investigation, they are also disturbed by what they believe are lapses--including the discovery of two bullet slugs in the truck that Compton investigators apparently overlooked.

Thanh’s brothers found the slugs behind a door panel on the driver’s side shortly after police had released the truck to the family. Detective Cross acknowledged that police may have missed the bullets but said they are not critical to the investigation because investigators recovered two other slugs.

“We have been working hard on this case,” he said, “and I believe it will be solved. It may take months. But it will be solved.”

Few outsiders attended Thanh Lam’s funeral, a Buddhist ceremony where his brothers and sister donned the traditional black clothing and white headbands of a family in mourning.

In his open casket, Thanh was wearing a Georgetown Hoyas cap. His family had carefully nestled beside him his favorite car magazines and the paper money that his religion says he will need in the next life.

Most of the mourners were stoic, but Ha Lam’s grief was visible. He nearly collapsed at one point, and he wept at the reminder that his son had died on April 30, the anniversary of the fall of Saigon.

Turning to a friend, he said: “The first time, I lost my home. And now I lost my son.”

Weeks later, Ha Lam was composed as he sat on the gentle hillside where his son is buried. Below him, his wife and children were burning incense at the grave site and watering some flowers they had brought along.

Looking to the horizon, he smiled and summoned someone who could translate his words to a stranger.

Ha said his family blamed no one for the tragedy and only wanted to know who killed Thanh.

“We want people to know that it’s painful to have a son die,” he added, the smile fading. “It’s painful, too, to have whole family come here almost 13 years ago, and everybody is safe and sound. We worked hard and didn’t ask for any help. We didn’t do anything wrong, and now something like this happens.

“Why?”


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