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Vietnamese Group Says It Set Fire Fatal to Publisher

August 14, 1987|DAVID REYES and STEVE EMMONS | Times Staff Writers

A Vietnamese immigrant group calling itself the Vietnamese Party to Exterminate the Communists and Restore the Nation said it set the arson fire that killed an Orange County magazine publisher over the weekend.

Copies of a letter, dated Aug. 9 and postmarked San Jose, were received this week in the offices of two Vietnamese-language newspapers in Garden Grove, Nguoi Viet and Tay Phai. The letter, typewritten in Vietnamese, says an "order to destroy" the offices of the weekly magazine, Mai, was issued because it was publishing ads for three Canadian companies that the group opposes. The fire Sunday killed editor and publisher Tap Van Pham.

The letter makes no mention of any intent to kill Pham. Police said Thursday, however, that the fire is definitely a case of arson and that they are treating the death as a murder.

Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents are also investigating.

Taken Seriously

Garden Grove Police Sgt. Phil Mason said investigators are taking the letter seriously but are still weighing the truth of its claims. He added that police have not ruled out the possibility that the sender is just "one guy sitting in his front room at his typewriter causing all types of confusion."

"Due to this intransigent attitude of receiving money from the enemy by those at the Mai weekly, and in order to have carried out (a previous warning), the Vietnamese Party to Exterminate the Communists and Restore the Nation decided to destroy the editorial offices of the Mai weekly," the letter says.

The letter specifically criticizes three Canadian companies that advertised in Pham's magazine, Vinamedic Inc., Laser Express and QTK Express, all based in Montreal. It accuses them of being linked with the Communist government of Vietnam.

Also included in the letter is a stern warning: "The party will continue to punish the Vietnamese Communist cadres and their lackeys. In addition, those individuals and their establishments who work for the benefits of Hanoi, directly or indirectly, specifically those magazines and newspapers that carry advertisements promoting the financial plans of Vietnam."

Pham, 45, died when the 2 a.m. fire swept through his small, one-story office in Garden Grove. Pham, who was also known by the pen name Hoai Diep Tu, died of smoke inhalation, according to preliminary autopsy results.

Garden Grove police say the ads, which had also appeared in other Vietnamese publications in the county, may have been a factor but add that they also are considering the possibility that the fire was the work of extortionists or the result of a personal grudge.

Douglas Zwemke, a San Jose Police Department intelligence officer specializing in the Vietnamese community, said Wednesday that he had been familiar with the Vietnamese Party to Exterminate the Communists and Restore the Nation before the arson.

He said he had first heard of the group last year when it claimed responsibility for the shooting of Tran Khanh Van of Santa Ana. Khanh Van, once a top housing official of the South Vietnamese government, was shot twice in Westminster on March 20, 1986, after an assailant made an extortion demand for $10,000 to help pay for anti-communist efforts.

Survived Shooting

Khanh Van, who survived, believed that he was targeted because he had been portrayed as favoring normalization of relations between the United States and Vietnam.

"This (latest) letter has tragic implications for the Vietnamese community," said Do Ngoc Yen, editor of Nguoi Viet, the largest Vietnamese-language newspaper in Orange County's Little Saigon. "Many businessmen also received it, and they and others are very, very frightened.

"If the group actually did kill Mr. Pham, this is tragic news. But if they didn't, then I think the author of the letter also wants to exploit the situation by trying to spread fear in the community."

When Pham was found dead in his office after the fire Sunday, friends searching for an explanation seized quickly on the theory that he was the victim of an arsonist angered by ads in his Vietnamese-language magazine.

The ads were placed by Vinamedic, Laser Express and QTK Express, all of which provide similar services. In return for U.S. dollars from Vietnamese immigrants here, they ship goods to relatives in Vietnam. According to the ad placed by Vinamedic, which deals in medical supplies, those goods can be sold by the relatives at the delivery point for guaranteed amounts in Vietnamese money.

Some Vietnamese immigrants believe that these companies are closely linked to the Communist government in Hanoi, which desperately needs Western currency and medical supplies, and they deeply resent the indirect benefits derived by the government from these transactions.

In the letter received Wednesday, the anti-communist group also took credit for a Nov. 23, 1985, fire at the Montreal offices of Vinamedic and Laser Express, as well as the killings of two alleged pro-communists in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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