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Suspect Told of Killing Officer, Informant Says

Courts: Man who turned Hung Thanh Mai in testifies that accused told him of killing Don Burt after lawman found incriminating papers during traffic stop.

March 29, 1997|LISA RICHARDSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FULLERTON — When CHP Officer Don Burt stopped Hung Thanh "Henry" Mai for a routine traffic violation last summer, Mai killed him because the officer stumbled onto proof of Mai's ties to organized crime, the man who turned Mai in to the FBI said Friday.

Testifying at Mai's preliminary hearing in Municipal Court in Fullerton, Khang "Alex" Nguyen said Mai told him that initially he was prepared to cooperate with Burt if the officer just had his car towed. But when Burt searched the trunk and found a set of forged payroll checks, Mai knew he would shoot the officer, Nguyen said.

"As soon as Burt held up the bag, turned around and said, 'You're under arrest,' Henry said, 'I shot him three times. Then I see he's still twitching and I didn't want any witnesses. Also I can see he's in pain, and I didn't want him to be in pain, so I shot him four more times.' "

Burt's parents, widow Kristin and other family members shook their heads as Nguyen testified.

Nguyen, who had purchased the phony checks from Mai for months, said Mai called him after the shooting and asked to stay with him. Nguyen said he made a flight reservation in a phony name for Mai and then picked him up in Dallas.

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Mai's timing, however, could not have been worse. Five days before the shooting, Nguyen, who had been earning about $30,000 a month from the counterfeit checks, had revealed all of his criminal doings, including his business with Mai, to the FBI. He had told his lawyer he was tired of crime and afraid he might be killed or arrested. His lawyer, Nguyen said, had arranged the meeting with the FBI.

"With everyone getting busted left and right, I didn't want to go down too," Nguyen said.

But he also feared for his life, Nguyen said. Mai, he said, is a violent man with a short fuse. Once Mai confessed to him that he and some others had killed a man they thought was a snitch, only to find out three days later that they were wrong.

"I didn't want to be a statistic," Nguyen said.

So when Mai called, Nguyen said, he instantly began his efforts to turn him over to the FBI. The FBI put a 24-hour surveillance on the two, and told Nguyen to sit tight until they had an arrest warrant for Mai, he said. In the meantime, Nguyen testified, he drove Mai to the Houston Galleria mall to buy new shoes, because Mai's sneakers were stained with Burt's blood.

Nguyen, who said he was immersed in various illegal ventures, including bookmaking, credit card fraud and computer theft, became a paid informant for the FBI shortly after Mai's arrest. He is now in the Witness Protection Program and sets up deals with his former business acquaintances to turn them over to the FBI. In return for his cooperation, Nguyen was moved out of Houston and receives about $5,000 each month.

Nguyen has not been prosecuted for any crimes he admitted to the FBI and no charges are pending against him for helping Mai.

Mai's attorney, Dennis O'Connell, spent much of the day trying to demonstrate that Nguyen's testimony could not be trusted. Nguyen's participation in Mai's flight from California, Nguyen's criminal activities and now his position as a paid informant show he has reason to turn on Mai, O'Connell said.

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Suggesting that Nguyen only became an FBI informant after Mai appeared at his doorstep and to save his own neck, O'Connell repeatedly sought details from the witness about FBI cases unconnected to Mai. Judge Daniel T. Brice refused to allow him to pursue his questioning.

O'Connell argued that if Nguyen could not answer all of his questions, then all of his testimony should be stricken. So throughout the day, O'Connell periodically made motions to strike all of Nguyen's testimony, and Brice denied all the motions.

The preliminary hearing continues Monday morning.

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