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California and the West

Slaying Suspect Is Accused of Gun Trafficking

Crime: Authorities say alleged killer of CHP officer ran ring from Orange County Jail. He also is charged with plotting murder of witnesses.

July 29, 1998|GREG HERNANDEZ and TAO HUA and NANCY WRIDE | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The man accused in the 1996 slaying of a California Highway Patrol officer in Fullerton has been charged with plotting the murder for hire of witnesses in his and other murder trials and with trafficking in high-powered guns from his Orange County Jail cell, officials announced Tuesday.

One of the man's alleged accomplices is a veteran private investigator working on his defense; he is charged with conspiring to commit murder for hire.

Five others also were arrested in Orange and Los Angeles counties Monday as part of a wide-ranging investigation by several agencies into an alleged gun trafficking ring reportedly run by Hung "Henry" Thanh Mai.

During the probe, Mai allegedly solicited an undercover Santa Ana police officer to kill a witness, law enforcement officials said at a joint news conference.

In January, when the same undercover officer took a gun he had allegedly bought through Mai for inspection at the Santa Ana police shooting range, it misfired, killing range master Joseph Samuel Boyd, one police source said.

"My hope [is] that the result of this investigation will provide some measure of solace to the families of California Highway Patrol Officer Donald Burt and Santa Ana range officer Joseph Boyd," Richard Curd, special agent in charge of the Los Angeles office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, said at the news conference.

A federal affidavit released Tuesday outlined an array of allegations against Mai, 27, a reported gang member charged with shooting rookie officer Burt seven times during a traffic stop in Fullerton on July 13, 1996. Mai was later arrested in Houston with the help of a tip. Authorities say it came from the man that Mai is now accused of plotting to have killed.

Arrested for the federal violation of conspiracy to commit murder for hire were Mai's girlfriend, Vicky Pham, 24, of Fountain Valley; Huy Ngoc Ha, 20, of Santa Ana; and investigator Daniel Bruce Watkins of Fullerton, who has worked on a number of high-profile murder defenses in Orange County.

Arrested for unlawful possession and transfer of firearms were Dempsey Blue Richmond, 25, of Covina and Ivan Keith Alcala, 29, of Diamond Bar.

All suspects appeared in federal court in Santa Ana on Tuesday and were later transferred to the federal detention center in Los Angeles.

The investigation began last year as a gun probe by Santa Ana police and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. The FBI became involved in January when Mai allegedly solicited the undercover officer, who was not named, to kill a witness in his murder case.

Watkins allegedly gave the undercover officer the business address of Alex Nguyen, a key witness in Mai's trial. The undercover officer had by then agreed to carry out the killing of Nguyen.

Mai's defense attorney, Dennis O'Connell, said Tuesday that he could not believe that Watkins, who he said was a Vietnam veteran and Purple Heart recipient, would do such a thing.

"As far as Dan Watkins is concerned, I've known him 15 years and I've never had any problems with him on a case," O'Connell said. "It just goes against all that I know of him."

The undercover officer later provided a photo of Nguyen in which he appeared to have been shot in the head.

Timothy P. McNalley, assistant director in charge of the FBI's Los Angeles bureau, said Mai plotted to eliminate not only a witness in his own trial but also those in others.

"This investigation also uncovered other plots directed by Mai to interfere with the judicial process regarding other criminal defendants pending trial in the Orange County area. This case also demonstrated that there was an effort undertaken to solidify and bring together different Asian criminal enterprise groups in the area under the direction of Mai," McNalley said.

Besides the potential danger to witnesses in other trials, the alleged gun trafficking threatened the safety of the public, authorities said Tuesday.

"ATF's concern in this investigation was the destructive power of the firearms involved," Curd said. "These are machine guns that fire at a rate of some 1,100 rounds per minute and they also involve silencers and ammunition and magazines that were illegal to possess. There's no legitimate sporting or recreation purpose for these kinds of weapons. We're talking about firepower that is similar to that faced by the LAPD officers in the North Hollywood shootout. . . . These guns would have undoubtedly made their way out there on the streets."

Orange County Sheriff Brad Gates did not attend the news conference and did not return a call for comment on how such a gun business could allegedly have been conducted inside the jail.

But McNalley said: "It's not unique to this particular case that we've seen different crime groups exercise threats and intimidation or violence while incarcerated. In this instance, were talking about pay phones. We're not talking about any unusual or irregular privileges whatsoever. Once he would make contact with his girlfriend, they were able to patch those other individuals. Much of this was on a call-forwarding basis. So there was no lack of attention within the jail system. This is not uncommon in terms of criminal transactions."

The investigation is ongoing and other charges may be filed, officials said.

Times librarian Lois Hooker contributed to this report.

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