U.S. accuses 10 of plotting coup in Laos
A retired California National Guard lieutenant colonel and a prominent Hmong leader were charged with eight others Monday in an alleged plot to buy missiles, mines, assault rifles and other arms to topple the communist government of Laos.
Among those arrested was Gen. Vang Pao of Westminster, a CIA-backed ally of the United States during the Vietnam War and a leader among Hmong refugees who settled in the state 30 years ago.
Also named in a federal complaint was former Lt. Col. Harrison Ulrich Jack, of Woodland, Calif., who allegedly met with an undercover agent of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to discuss air-dropping arms into Laos.
Jack acted as a go-between in arranging the arms deals, officials alleged.
Search and arrest warrants also were served in Chico, Calif.; Sacramento and Stockton, as well as in Fresno, where the state’s Hmong are concentrated, federal officials said.
During the Vietnam War, Laos was a secret battleground for the United States, which recruited tens of thousands of Hmong to disrupt North Vietnamese supply lines along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. After the war, many refugees migrated to California’s Central Valley and Minnesota.
The group charged Monday allegedly wanted a total of $9.8 million in arms and had agreed to an initial payment of $150,000, according to the federal complaint filed in Sacramento.
The arms were allegedly to be delivered to a remote location in Thailand and smuggled into Laos later this month. Couriers carrying $10,000 each reportedly had begun moving money to Thailand, where the payments were to be delivered. Though no weapons were delivered, the group allegedly was on the verge of launching a sophisticated plan to overthrow Laos’ communist regime.
Among the weapons sought, according to prosecutors, were Stinger missiles, machine guns, anti-tank rockets, claymore mines and rocket-propelled grenades.
Federal agents, who launched the investigation after receiving a tip, had to move quickly because the first arms transaction allegedly was to have been completed next week. During Monday’s raids, agents seized $170,000 in cash, as well as financial records and 10 opium plants.
Steve Martin, special agent in charge of the ATF’s San Francisco field office, said more arrests could be made.
“We’ve got to sift through the evidence and see where it takes us,” he said. “There’s still a lot more to go.”
Pao, 77, is revered by many in the Hmong community and has been credited with helping bring thousands of his homeland’s refugees to the United States. The Hmong community in the United States is estimated at 275,000, the largest outside Asia.
Two weeks ago, a Wisconsin public elementary school was named for Pao. But the honor triggered controversy because of his violent past.
Chi Vang, Pao’s 22-year-old son, said his father’s arrest shocked their family and members of the Hmong community, who had been calling the Westminster home all day.
“The community already knows the truth about him -- this is just an accusation,” said Chi Vang, who was trying to find a lawyer for his father.
Orange County, with a large Southeast Asian community, is home to a number of anti-communist sympathizers. Over the last several years, authorities have foiled a number of plots involving expatriates who were attempting to destabilize governments in their homelands.
Early Monday morning, federal agents banged on the door of Pao’s two-story white-and-brown house. Authorities showed the family a search warrant and scoured the house but didn’t take anything, Vang said.
Hueson Yang, 43, of Covington, Ga., who described himself as a member of Pao’s extended family, recalled Pao’s distaste for the Laotian government.
“He tells all the people all the time he’s going to take Laos back,” Yang said.
Yang said that although some elderly Hmong cling to Vang Pao’s ideas, younger, more educated Hmong dismiss his views.
“He talks about overthrowing Laos,” Yang said. “He’s trying to make the Hmong people think he’s still their leader.”
For at least the last six months, officials said, Pao and several other defendants worked as a committee to launch the coup. Working inside Laos with the group were operatives who conducted surveillance, including one man who posed as a tourist and snapped photos of government buildings, prosecutors alleged. Among the targets was the Lao Royal Palace and buildings in downtown Vientiane, the Laotian capital.
Pao and the others had issued orders “to destroy these government facilities ... and make them look like the results of the attack upon the World Trade Center,” the complaint alleges.
Arrangements to inspect and purchase the weapons allegedly were made in a series of meetings in Sacramento-area restaurants and hotels with the ATF undercover agent.
As part of the plan, committee members tried to hire former U.S. Army Special Forces members and Navy SEALs, officials alleged.
Jack graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1968, as well as airborne and ranger schools, federal officials said. He served in the Army until 1977 and retired from the California National Guard as a lieutenant colonel.
He recently was hired by Yolo County near Sacramento as an ombudsman to work with employees. A spokeswoman said officials were stunned after hearing that he had been indicted.
“We’re completely dumbfounded,” Beth Gabor said. “We did a background check but obviously it wouldn’t show an ongoing investigation.”
A woman who answered the phone at Jack’s Woodland home Monday evening said the family had no comment.
Others charged Monday included Lo Thao, a Sacramento County resident and president of United Hmong International, a council of Hmong clans. Also named were Youa True Vang, of Fresno, a founder of that city’s Hmong International New Year; Hue Vang, a former Clovis, Calif., police officer and director of United Lao Council for Peace, Freedom and Reconstruction; Chong Yang Thao and Seng Vue of Fresno, Lo Chao Thao of Clovis and Chue Lo of Stockton, who are clan representatives in United Hmong International; and Nhia Kao Vang of Rancho Cordova, Calif.
All 10 remained in custody Monday evening.
Times staff writers Tony Barboza and Ashley Powers contributed to this report.
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Laos is a landlocked country in the Southeast Asian peninsula, south of China. The modern-day nation has its roots in the ancient Lao kingdom of Lan Xang, which was established in the 14th century. In 1975, the Communist Pathet Lao seized control of the government, ending a six-century-long monarchy and instituting a socialist regime aligned with Vietnam. After the revolution, about 350,000 people, including many ethnic Hmong who opposed the communists, fled Laos, some eventually arriving in the United States.
It is one of the few remaining official communist states. The Lao People’s Democratic Republic, which was established in 1975, has been effectively controlled by the communist Lao People’s Revolutionary Party.
* Lao Americans
A 2005 U.S. Census report put the population of Laotian Americans at 193,247, up from 168,707 in 2000. About 63,000 live in California, though the census report found that populations were rising in the Midwest and South.
Sources: Encyclopaedia Britannica; Library of Congress Country Studies; The World Factbook.