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Lost in L.A. : Some Vietnamese Teen-agers From the Second Immigrant Wave Have Been Alienated by American Life and Taken Refuge in Crime

December 13, 1987|MARK ARAX | Mark Arax is a Times staff writer.

ON A BLEAK, rainy afternoon in December, 1984, Sang Nam Chinh, a 19-year-old refugee from Vietnam, stood nervously outside the Jin Hing jewelry store on Bamboo Lane in the heart of Chinatown. Tucked inside his jeans was a .25-caliber chrome automatic he had won in a gambling game. He had once used the weapon--a cheap peashooter that jammed without warning--to steal a $20 bill and a gold necklace from an elderly Chinese woman. It was small-time stuff like most of his crimes, certainly nothing as ambitious as the jewelry-store robbery that was unfolding before him.

Two accomplices--wearing business suits and posing as customers--had already coaxed their way past the front door, kept locked during business hours. At gunpoint, they forced the elderly shopkeeper, his son and an aunt into a cramped and cluttered back room. A third and fourth accomplice waited in cars a block away. Chinh, the youngest member of the team, had been told to wait outside until one of the gunmen let him in. He would then stand guard while they filled plastic shopping bags with gold. In and out, $100,000, was how Chinh understood it.

Gold was the one thing Chinh, a child of the Vietnam War and the refugee camps of Malaysia, understood. It was gold that his mother hid in the bedroom of her Saigon home, and it was gold that she handed over to Vietnamese authorities to secure her 12-year-old son a spot on a ramshackle wooden boat to freedom. Her last words to the small boy were "Make your family proud."

But even before Chinh entered the store that day, the shopkeeper's son had activated a portable silent alarm hidden in his shirt pocket. The call--a "211 silent at 412 Bamboo Lane"--was already being relayed from a private alarm company to a police communications center and out over radio to a police substation just 75 feet from where Chinh stood in the driving rain.

Officers Archie Nagao and Duane Johnson, who manned the substation above the Phoenix Bakery and across the alley from the Jin Hing, took the call at 1:57 p.m. Dec. 19. Nagao, 29, small, lean and unassuming, had been assigned to the substation since it opened in April, 1983. Johnson, 27, who was Nagao's physical and temperamental opposite, had been working in Chinatown only three months. He stood 6 feet, 4 inches and weighed 240 pounds, more soft than muscular. He had a warm personality, played the tuba and had volunteered for the beat because its bankers' hours gave him evenings home with his wife, Kathleen, who was six months pregnant with their first child.

Soon after taking the job, though, he had confided to her his second thoughts. There was a Chinatown he did not understand, he had said, a seemingly cabalistic world of gangs and silent merchants who endure extortions and shakedowns as a form of business tax. Late one night, after seeing two rival gang members shoot each other dead in broad daylight, he had talked to her about dying and made plans for his funeral.

But that day, as he walked into the jewelry store with Nagao close behind, Duane Johnson did not seem to sense the impending danger. He did not appear to read the frightened looks on the hostages gathered in the rear room or the silence that greeted his question, "Is everything all right?" He kept walking deeper and deeper into the narrow store until he was nearly face to face with a terrified Nam Chinh--never surmising that something was amiss until it was too late, until shots rang out in the front. When the furious gun battle was over, Johnson lay dead and Nagao seriously injured. The two lead robbers also had been shot dead. Nam Chinh, bleeding from bullet wounds to the face and back, had escaped into a back alley.

For the past five months, in a courtroom in downtown Los Angeles, the Chinatown robbery-murder has been recounted by a parade of eyewitnesses, coroners, ballistics experts and even one of the principals, a 24-year-old Vietnamese refugee who drove Chinh from the scene and has now turned state's witness.

The trial, entering its final weeks, is compelling not so much for its attempt to reconcile a mass of conflicting testimony over who actually shot Duane Johnson but for what it reveals about the lives of poor young Vietnamese refugees in America today. Many, like Chinh, are ethnic Chinese who bear the peculiar scars of war, racial persecution and forced resettlement, often without family. They talk of having been spirited away in the middle of the night and put on boats by parents who were seeking to spare them service in Vietnam's war against Cambodia.

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