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25 Vietnamese Journalists in County Denounce Killing of Columnist, Wife

September 25, 1990|SONNI EFRON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WESTMINSTER — The slaying of a controversial Vietnamese-American magazine columnist and his wife in Virginia prompted Vietnamese-language newspaper publishers in Little Saigon on Monday to denounce what one editor called "terrorism against newsmen."

Triet Le, 61, is the ninth Vietnamese emigre journalist to be attacked or killed since 1980. The victims include a Garden Grove publisher who died in an arson fire in 1987.

Le and his wife, Tuyet Thi Dang-Tran, 52, were found dead of gunshot wounds in the driveway of their home in Baileys Crossroads, Va., about 11:30 p.m. Saturday, a Fairfax County police spokesman said.

Police would not comment on a possible motive Monday, and had made no arrests.

"The people in the Vietnamese news media have been killed, and . . . the government didn't find out who did it," said Dinh D. Nguyen, editor-in-chief of the Westminster-based weekly magazine Dieu Hau, or The Eagle . About 25 Vietnamese publishers, editors and other journalists signed a statement Monday night denouncing terrorism, threats and killing of writers regardless of the motivation. They called on U.S. authorities to investigate assassinations of four newsmen and to take steps to protect writers in the future.

"We call for more attention (by U.S. authorities) to this kind of terrorism against Vietnamese newsmen," Nguyen said.

Two of Le's children by a previous marriage live in Orange County and were headed back to Virginia for their father's funeral, which is scheduled Thursday, said Len Phuong, who worked with Le at Van Nghe Tien Phong magazine in Arlington, Va. The bimonthly magazine has a staff of five and an international circulation of 14,000, Phuong said.

Although Le enjoyed a wide following, he had been criticized for sensationalism and for personal attacks on a number of Vietnamese political figures, community leaders and other prominent exiles. He was also the subject of a libel suit, Phuong confirmed.

"He had a critical mind, so there is some group of people that do not like him," Phuong said. "But what he wrote was the truth."

Others who knew Le described him Monday as a fiercely anti-communist muckraker who reported--some say fabricated--everything from political intrigue to corruption to adultery. Though he wrote under the pen name Tu Rua, his real name was well known and he had accumulated a long list of personal and political enemies, they said.

"He is one of the most controversial Vietnamese journalists and one of the most famous," said Yen Ngoc Do, editor of the Nguoi Viet Daily News in Westminster, who said he himself was once tongue-lashed in print by Le. "He had so many, many, many enemies."

"He has very bitterly attacked almost everyone in the Vietnamese community," said another prominent emigre whom Le had accused in print of pro-communist leanings. "It could be a lot of people, but I would lean toward a political motive (for the Le killing) rather than a personal one."

Ten years ago, the magazine's publisher, Nguyen Thanh Hoang, was the target of an arson attack that damaged his home and car. Two years later, Hoang's name appeared with several others on the "hit list" of a Vietnamese extremist organization. Last November, a page designer for the magazine, Nhan Trong Do, was found shot to death outside his home. Police have not made an arrest.

Vietnamese extremist groups have claimed responsibility for a number of previous attacks on newspaper editors and publishers whom they accused of communist leanings, including the 1987 arson death of Garden Grove publisher Tap Van Pham. The Vietnamese Party to Exterminate the Communists and Restore the Nation claimed responsibility for the attack, which investigators believe was motivated by Pham's acceptance of advertisements that were perceived by some as pro-communist.

In 1988, the FBI announced an investigation into political violence in the Vietnamese exile community after reports of political motives in attacks around the nation.

Officer Bill Coulter, spokesman for Fairfax County police, would not comment Monday on whether any group had claimed responsibility for the Le killings, nor would he say whether the FBI had been asked to investigate.

An FBI spokesman in Santa Ana, Jim Neilson, declined to say whether the 1988 FBI investigation is still active. No indictments have been made, and the majority of the attacks have gone unsolved.

Phuong said Le had received numerous death threats during his 13-year career, as have many other Vietnamese-American writers, editors and publishers.

"It does sound like a campaign to stifle dissent or eliminate rival or discordant voices within an exile community," said Bruce Hoffman, a domestic terrorism expert with the Rand Corp. in Santa Monica.

As in the Cuban, Armenian, Filipino and Taiwanese exile communities, Hoffman said, the attackers could be motivated by politics or by a personal vendetta, or could use one to mask the other.

"Often it can be a mixture of things, but if you claim it as a political attack, the perpetrators gain legitimacy and notoriety that they wouldn't otherwise have," Hoffman said.

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