Federal prosecutors dropped charges Friday against Vang Pao, the exiled Hmong general accused two years ago of plotting with a band of aging Central Valley expatriates to overthrow the communist regime in their homeland of Laos.
Vang Pao, 79, had been singled out as the alleged ringleader of the bizarre scheme to launch a coup -- reputedly with mercenaries armed with AK-47 assault rifles and Stinger missiles -- in the summer of 2007.
Although prosecutors filed motions abandoning charges against the general, one of America's staunchest allies during the Vietnam War, they maintained the counts against a dozen of his alleged comrades and added new ones. U.S. Atty. Lawrence Brown of Sacramento offered no explanation for why the charges were dropped against Vang Pao but not the others, who face the possibility of life in prison. But he said federal prosecutors have discretion to consider a person's culpability and history as well as the consequences of a conviction.
At Vang Pao's Westminster home, the phone rang off the hook with calls from Hmong supporters.
"We've been getting so many calls we don't even have time to ask who they are," said Chi Vang, 24, the general's youngest son. "His supporters can't wait to see him to celebrate this momentous occasion."
Chi Vang said the news was a "huge sigh of relief" for the family. "We have been waiting for this moment for two years."
Vang Pao's arrest in June 2007 prompted outrage among Hmong who fled to the United States in the final days of the Vietnam War. With Vang Pao as their commander in chief, Hmong guerrillas trained by the CIA helped the United States battle the North Vietnamese for more than a dozen years before the war's end.
To many Hmong, the prosecution seemed yet another betrayal by America. Though more than 100,000 Hmong resettled in the United States, thousands remain trapped in refugee camps or highland jungles, still on the run from communist forces.
In Hmong enclaves from Fresno to St. Paul, Minn., the general's supporters expressed joy for a man many venerated.
At KBIF-AM (900), which markets itself to the sizable Hmong community in Fresno, dozens of callers were happy about the news, said Maya Xiong, Hmong news director of the small station. Some talked of performing traditional Hmong rituals to thank their ancestors for the dropped charges.
"Everyone sees him as a grandfather or father figure," Xiong said. "Whatever happens to him, we feel like it's happening to a member of our family. We feel we have to stick up for him."
Hmong and U.S. veterans who fought alongside Vang Pao also celebrated.
"We have been praying for this," said Col. Wangyee Vang, president of Hmong Veterans of America.
"It's great news," said Karl Polifka, a retired Air Force colonel who knew Vang Pao during the war. "It's just unfortunate they don't forget about the whole thing. The whole case is flaky."
Attorneys for several of the other defendants expressed hope that the government would eventually drop the remaining charges.
"This is like dismissing charges against George Washington, but the rest of his troops are told they still have to stand trial," said Mark Reichel, a Sacramento defense attorney.
Prosecutors said the ongoing investigation had unearthed new details with the translation of "voluminous" foreign language conversations from wiretaps and undercover recordings, as well as the review of 30,000 documents seized at the time of the arrests.
The government made its initial case against Vang Pao and 10 of his compatriots based mostly on the work of an undercover agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Harrison Jack, a Vietnam vet and former California National Guard officer who told friends he owed his life to the Hmong, had begun negotiating in January 2007 to purchase assault rifles from the federal agent, who posed as a black-market weapons broker. By the time of the arrests five months later, the discussions had turned to an outright coup d'etat and a $9.8-million weapons purchase.
An 18-page draft of the plot, dubbed Operation Popcorn, reads like the outline of an over-the-top spy novel: A group of aging Hmong seek to amass an arsenal of AK-47s, Stinger missiles and explosives, hire special-op mercenaries and reduce government buildings in the Laotian capital city, Vientiane, to rubble.
After the arrests, Vang Pao and the others were branded as terrorists and charged with violating the U.S. Neutrality Act.
Defense lawyers for the men contend that they believed the CIA was on their side. They say the ATF agent aggressively egged the men on, exerting pressure to buy more weapons.
Vang Pao met with the undercover agent just once, accompanying his wife and some former comrades to lunch at a Thai restaurant in Sacramento. After the meal, everyone marched to an RV parked nearby to examine weapons for sale. Inside, Vang Pao picked up a gun as a veteran ballplayer might a beloved Louisville Slugger.
But the general's attorney said the case against Vang Pao was as flimsy as rice paper.
"The sting operation was grotesquely unfair and at worst took advantage of some gullible people," said John Keker, the general's San Francisco-based attorney. "It was manufactured by that agent."
The government's decision to drop Vang Pao's prosecution marked another escape for a storied war hero who defied bullets and dodged artillery on the battlefield.
After the communists conquered his homeland in 1975, Vang Pao fled with six wives and more than 20 children to the United States, his old ally in the CIA-backed "secret war" in Laos. He became the most recognizable leader of the Hmong in America, courted by congressmen, venerated by fellow immigrants. Elementary schools were named after him.
Vang Pao also survived numerous controversies, including allegations that charities he ran were strong-arming Hmong to give money for the Laotian insurgency that was instead used to support the globe-trotting lifestyle of the former general and his coterie.
Now, supporters say, the general is more revered than ever.
"He's viewed as a quasi-martyr," said Phillip Smith, executive director at the Center for Public Policy Analysis in Washington and Vang Pao's friend. "If these charges had remained, the government would have been putting itself on trial for betraying the Hmong."