A second federal agent died Saturday as a result of bloody shoot-outs in Pasadena and San Marino Friday involving investigators who tried to ensnare drug suspects believed to be part of the "Golden Triangle" heroin pipeline from Southeast Asia, officials said.
Drug Enforcement Administration Agent Paul S. Seema died at 2:31 p.m. at Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena after being shot in an undercover drug sting that went awry.
Margaret McPhillips, a spokeswoman for the hospital, said Seema's fellow agents were by his bedside when he died of gunshot wounds to the head. He had been on life-support systems for a day.
Wen Huei Kow, the man believed to have shot Seema at point-blank range, was one of two suspects killed by agents, said Roger Guevara, a spokesman for the DEA.
"We're all very upset," said Guevara, his voice quavering. "We try to look out for these things, to avoid them, and still it just happens all too often."
Another agency spokesman, Robert Feldkamp, said in an interview from Washington that six Thai suspects involved in Friday's incident may be part of the Golden Triangle connection, a heroin trafficking network that exports the drug from Thailand, Burma and Laos to the United States.
Feldkamp said Seema and numerous other agents had been involved in a lengthy investigation of suspected Thai nationals, some of whom are based in the Monterey Park area.
"The suspects were Thai nationals living in Southern California," Feldkamp said. "We had been investigating these organized heroin traffickers for some time."
No Drugs Found
However, Guevara said that while Seema and other agents believed they were dealing with heroin traffickers, investigators are still not certain if the gunmen were actually dealers, because no drugs were found Friday.
"Our investigation of the Thai dealers will continue and now, with this, I'd say it would have to intensify," he said.
Officials said Seema, 52, moved to Los Angeles from the DEA's Bangkok, Thailand, bureau last July. They would not disclose whether his previous work in Thailand was connected to the current case.
Feldkamp said that about two tons of heroin a year is imported into the United States from Thailand alone, most of which is sold in California.
He said Golden Triangle heroin represents only about 20% of the total amount consumed in the United States. The remainder comes from Southwest Asia--including Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran--and from Mexico.
DEA officials in Los Angeles spent most of Saturday piecing together the events that led to the shooting, which also took the life of Agent George M. Montoya, 34.
Montoya, Seema's partner, died Friday afternoon at the hospital. He had joined the agency only last September after serving with the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
Guevara said undercover DEA agents met the suspects in Pasadena in the belief that they were buying two pounds of heroin worth $90,000. More than a dozen officers, including Monterey Park police, were stationed in the quiet neighborhood on South Marengo Avenue where the buy was set to take place, waiting to move in on the dealers, officials said.
But one of the suspects turned on Seema and two other undercover agents, opening fire on them at close range in an apparent attempt to rob them of their cash. No drugs were found at the scene.
"It's terrible. The suspects simply grabbed the money and then assassinated our agents" said Guevara. "All three of our men were armed but only one agent had time to draw his gun."
Officials gave this expanded account:
The incident began about noon Friday when Kow, who authorities said lived in the area, met Seema and two other agents at a Tiny Naylor's restaurant on Atlantic Boulevard in Monterey Park, Guevara said. Kow accompanied the agents to the residential area in Pasadena where the drug transaction was supposed to occur, he said.
Guevara said Kow, who was sitting in the agents' car, began demanding the money from Seema as a red Nissan containing two other suspects drove up.
"Agent Seema gave him the money just as a red sports car screeched up," Guevara said. "Kow shot Seema in the head, and a man who jumped out of the sports car opened a door on the DEA car and shot Montoya in the head," he said.
"He (Kow) didn't have any heroin. It was a setup and a rip-off and it turned into an assassination," Guevara said.
A third agent in the car, Jose Martinez, 25, returned the suspects' fire but was shot in the leg. He was in stable condition Saturday at Huntington Memorial.
Guevara said the suspects fled in the Nissan and were chased by three carloads of backup agents along Old Mill Road, reaching speeds up to 90 m.p.h.
Car Out of Control