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A Journey From Glory to the Grave : Prominent Vietnamese Family's Saga Began in Palace, May End in Court in the Wake of a Double Death

November 05, 1987|SAUNDRA SAPERSTEIN and ELSA WALSH | The Washington Post

"He was just a guy living off his connections," foreign correspondent Karnow recalled. "He is a very minor figure in the whole cast of characters."

Regardless of his political importance, Khiem lived an extremely comfortable life during his sister's reign in Saigon. Servants, a Mercedes and driver, tiger shoots, women--all were at his disposal.

The good life for Khiem suddenly shattered, though, in 1963 when he was imprisoned for three years after the coup. In 1968, Khiem moved to Washington to live with his parents.

Women and Parties

Then in his 40s, he enrolled in law classes at George Washington University and completed a translator's course at Georgetown University, but family members and friends say Chuong and his wife became disgruntled. Once again, their son was focusing his energies on women and parties; they were supporting him, and academics and finding a job took a poor second place.

"It was a matter of him not settling down," said Conrad Philos, a longtime family friend and Khiem's former lawyer. "He liked to be a bon vivant."

On April 6, 1972, the Washington Post published a letter from Khiem criticizing the sending of American troops to Vietnam. The letter devastated his father.

"It was a terrible embarrassment to (Chuong) in the diplomatic community," Philos said. "To embarrass your parents in the Oriental tradition is an unforgivable sin."

Chuong ordered his son to leave, and Khiem, who missed his old life in Paris, returned willingly. "I was fed up with the U.S.," Khiem said.

In Paris, he said, he had a child with Mireille Sautereau, a Sorbonne professor with whom he lived, and he worked part time for a French company. His parents continued to aid him, sending him $300 a month.

In 1977, Chuong and his wife wrote new wills, replacing 1969 wills that bequeathed a house in Vietnam to Khiem. In the new wills, Lechi Oggeri got the entire $650,000 estate.

Khiem said in the interview that his parents told him during a 1977 visit to Paris that Oggeri's family had forced them to write new wills, disinheriting him. They planned to rewrite him into their wills when they returned home, he said.

The telephone call came on Christmas Eve, 1985. Khiem had been living in Paris for nearly 13 years.

Madame Chuong was calling from Washington, asking Khiem to return to care for them. They were old and sick and needed him. He flew over in March, 1986, with his 12-year-old son, Pierre. They were joined later by Sautereau, the boy's mother.

The choice of Khiem to aid his parents seemed odd to people who knew how deeply the family was fractured. But according to Philos, the parents seemed to be making peace with their children.

Philos, who dined with the family and watched the scene in which Madame Chuong kissed her son's hand and showed him the burial plots, said her affection for Khiem was evident. Yes, there were political arguments, Philos said, but they were the polite debates of "intellectual people differing on a wide panoply of subjects."

"At the beginning it was all right," Etienne Oggeri, Lechi Oggeri's husband, said of Khiem's arrival at the family home. "He had respect for his mother and father. Then Khiem started to talk politics, try to impress (his father). . . . Khiem said Diem was right. The father said the regime was rotten, a dictatorship. They were fighting, fighting, fighting."

Khiem has his own recollections of those months. They "adored me," he said of his parents. And the family never debated politics. "I am from a very aristocratic class of Vietnamese, and these things are not proper in conversation. Only rude people speak of these matters," Khiem said.

Three Phone Calls

On July 23, the night before the ambassador and his wife were found dead of asphyxiation, Madame Chuong made three quick calls to her daughter Lechi Oggeri in North Carolina, according to court records. In the first, she mentioned "a strong argument" at dinner, then abruptly hung up, saying she believed that someone was listening on the line. One minute later she called again, the documents state, telling her daughter that life in the house with Khiem "was unbearable. Your brother is very disrespectful. Very violent. And we cannot stand it." The final call came at 9:56 p.m. This time she sounded "less frightened, more in control," the documents state, explaining that she had told Khiem to go back to France.

Khiem disagrees with this version. The telephone calls, he said, were routine. As she often did, his mother called Lechi Oggeri to talk about her health, Khiem said.

The next day at noon, Khiem called family members to say he had found his parents' bodies.

The prosecution's theory of the deaths rests on one simple notion: greed.

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