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Courtroom Testimony Unveils Events Leading to Chinatown Murders

November 29, 1987|TRACY WOOD | Times Staff Writer

On the day of the Chinatown murders, Thong Nam Huynh said he sat behind the wheel of a getaway car, smoking cigarettes and sulking. The rain beating on the windshield and the fogged car windows made the street outside invisible.

Half a block away, in the narrow alley known as Bamboo Lane, his partners should have been completing a jewelry store robbery that would net them at least $100,000.

But when the car door opened and Sang Nam Chinh, Huynh's friend since high school, climbed inside, it was obvious that something had gone wrong.

Chinh was splattered with blood.

The story that Huynh has been unfolding in a Los Angeles courtroom in recent weeks is his account, as a reluctant accomplice, of the planning for the 1984 robbery of the Jin Hing jewelry store in Chinatown that ended in a wild shoot-out and the deaths of Officer Duane Johnson, 27, and two of the robbers.

Huynh has been granted immunity for his role in this and other crimes. In return, he is testifying against the two surviving suspects, Chinh, now 22, and Hau Cheong (Peter) Chan, 32.

If convicted, both Chinh and Chan could face the death penalty.

As pieced together by police and Deputy Dist. Atty. Lawrence Longo, five armed men were involved in the Chinatown robbery. In addition to Huynh, 24, and the two men standing trial, the others were Robert Woo, 26, and John Cheong, 33. All had a history of criminal activity, including armed robbery.

Woo and Cheong were neatly dressed in dark suits on Wednesday afternoon, Dec. 19, 1984. According to witnesses and officials, they approached the normally locked door of the Jin Hing jewelry store and asked to see gold coins, a ruse to get shop owners to open a safe.

Once the robbery was in progress, Woo and Cheong were joined by Chinh and Chan, according to officials.

Then the police showed up, secretly summoned by 73-year-old Leon Lee, the store's owner. Lee had set off a silent alarm.

Guns in Holsters

Dressed in yellow rain slickers, their guns still in their holsters, Officers Johnson and Archie Nagao were admitted to the store by one of the robbers, Cheong.

Unaware that a robbery was in progress, the officers entered the front of the tiny shop, walked around a little, asked if everything was all right and appeared about to leave.

Owner Leon Lee began to raise his arms as a signal that he was being held up. At that moment, Officer Nagao turned and saw Cheong moving toward him, pulling a gun from the waistband of his trousers.

The next instant was chaos. Nagao was wounded while still trying to draw his own gun. Chinh, according to police, shot Officer Johnson.

Although he was dying, Johnson kept firing at the bandits.

Cheong was the first bandit felled, killed by bullets from both officers.

Shot, Wounded

Robert Lee, son of the store owner, testified that he used a broom handle to battle both Chinh and Chan. That struggle ended when Robert Lee was shot and wounded by Chinh.

Chinh, shot in the back and face, escaped through a rear door. It was the elder Lee who grabbed a gun and killed Woo, according to later testimony.

Nagao, despite his wounds, also kept firing. He eventually escaped through the front door to summon help.

Chan escaped unharmed. According to his lawyer, Leslie Abramson, Chan was never even in the jewelry store. All that he did, Abramson said, was drive a second getaway car.

But Huynh has identified Chan as the mastermind of the robbery, and said it was Chan who brought him and Chinh into the plot.

Huynh and Chinh are Vietnamese-Chinese of limited education who, along with thousands of other refugees, escaped to the United States in the late 1970s after the North Vietnamese takeover of South Vietnam.

The two met in the United States as teen-agers. Both were unsuccessful in adapting to schooling here and dropped out.

The three others, Chan, Woo and Cheong, are Chinese who came to the United States from Hong Kong.

While each of the five had criminal records, Woo in particular had a history of violent encounters and exotic adventures.

According to a former San Francisco law enforcement official, Woo spent time in a Chinese prison as a teen-ager after being caught trying to escape to Hong Kong. He made it to the British colony on his second try, and once there joined the 14K triad, one of the ancient Chinese gangs.

Later, Woo emigrated to San Francisco, hooked up with another gang, and participated in several robberies and shootings, one of which left a bullet lodged in his chest.

As a government informant, he collected a $100,000 reward and testified against other gang members who were involved in the 1977 massacre of five customers and wounding of 11 others at the Golden Dragon restaurant in San Francisco's Chinatown.

Two Juries Impaneled

After his arrest in the Jin Hing robbery, Chan told police that he merely drove the second getaway car in the robbery organized by Woo.

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