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Ex-South Vietnam Housing Director Shot in Westminster

March 20, 1986|NANCY WRIDE and ANDY ROSE | Times Staff Writers

A former South Vietnam housing official, denounced recently in Vietnamese newspapers in Orange County for "suggesting cooperation with the Marxist government," was shot twice near his Westminster real estate office, police said Wednesday.

Detectives said they have not determined a motive but have not ruled out the possibility that the wounding of Tran Khanh Van Tuesday night was politically motivated. They also have not ruled out extortion, robbery or a personal dispute as motives.

"Those are the . . . possibilities I'm looking at right now, but I have no evidence to support any of them," said Sgt. Bob Burnett, who investigates crime in the Westminster community known as Little Saigon. "The motive is rather nebulous right now."

Van was shot in the stomach and shoulder in a parking lot near Bolsa Avenue and Ward Street, Burnett said. He said Van, 40, of Santa Ana had returned to his car after a dinner meeting with clients at a restaurant across the street from his office on Bolsa. A young Asian man confronted Van at the car, they scuffled, Van was shot and the man fled.

No Witnesses

Burnett, who is investigating the matter, said there apparently were no witnesses to the 8:39 p.m. shooting. The attacker is described as being 19 to 25 years old; 5 feet, 5 inches tall; 125 pounds, and having dark hair. During the struggle, he fired four to six shots from a small-caliber handgun, Burnett said.

Van "should be able to recover pretty good," Burnett said. "But he was lucky."

Klaaske Cooperman, widow of a Cal State Fullerton physics professor who was slain in his office by a Vietnamese student, said Wednesday that her husband and Van met frequently to discuss their mutual interest in "stabilizing" relations between Vietnam and the United States.

Minh Van Lam was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the 1984 shooting of Edward Lee Cooperman. But Cooperman's family and friends still maintain he was assassinated in a plot by right-wing Vietnamese refugees fiercely opposed to any dealings with the Communist government.

Klaaske Cooperman said Wednesday that Van "approached my husband and told him he was willing to help Vietnam and how could he help (Ed)." She said they frequently met for lunch and that since her husband's death, she and Van have become friends.

She said mutual friends told her over the weekend that Van had been threatened and had been chased by Vietnamese men who "tried to beat him up."

Cooperman had launched an organization called the Scientific Committee for Vietnam through which he delivered computers and medical aid to the country to help with crop projections.

Van told a Times reporter earlier this year that he was a member of the Reconstruction Development Study Group, a group of engineers and scientists that had worked with Cooperman and his organization to help deliver technology to Vietnam.

"There is nothing that we have at this point that would lend credence to that possibility," Burnett said later of a connection between the two shootings. "I'm not saying it isn't there, but I don't have that information. We have a line of suspicion that I am working on that may have bearing on a disagreement between (Van) and another individual. "

In Stable Condition

Van was reported in stable condition at the Fountain Valley Regional Hospital late Wednesday, but he had been heavily sedated and police were waiting until today to question him at length, Burnett said. During a brief interview with investigators Tuesday night, Van "did not indicate" that he knew or recognized his assailant or that he felt the attack was politically motivated, Burnett said.

However, members of the Orange County Vietnamese community said they feel certain that Van, former director general of housing in Saigon, was shot by someone outraged by his comments in the Jan. 5 edition of Los Angeles Times Magazine.

"The only way to change Vietnam's repressive Marxism is to work with those who will become the next generation of leaders," Van is quoted as saying. The article also says that Van was a member of a group that helped helped write two computer programs for the Vietnamese government last year. One interprets weather changes and their effect on agriculture yields; the other tracks cash flow in the National Bank.

"It's illogical that Vietnamese should still want to kill each other," Van says in the article. "What's important is that 15% of the children in my country are retarded due to malnutrition. If we make small contributions now, perhaps larger ones could follow."

His involvement in the Reconstruction Development Study Group, an underground refugee organization whose members believe it is time to establish a working relationship with Hanoi, and his group's computer program contributions have outraged members of the anti-Communist refugee community here.

Threats Described

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