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California and the West

Friends and Foes Offer Conflicting Pictures of Killer

Death penalty: As execution looms, widower of one victim is among those favoring clemency. Issue has divided Thai immigrant community.

November 15, 1998|RICHARD MAROSI and DANIEL YI | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Surachai Wattanaporn is convinced of this: Jaturun "Jay" Siripongs walked into a Garden Grove market 17 years ago, strangled his wife and stabbed to death the store clerk before stealing more than $25,000 in cash and jewelry.

For years, the 44-year-old Brea man thought the convicted killer deserved to die. But as the execution date looms early Tuesday morning, Wattanaporn has become an unlikely voice in the effort to spare Siripongs' life.

"If the power was in my hands, I would give him life in prison," he said. "As time goes by, you have to overcome the difficult times, get over those feelings."

His emotional struggle reflects a larger religious and cultural division within California's Thai community over the pending execution of one of their own.

Many older Thai Americans, such as Wattanaporn, find it difficult to reconcile executing Siripongs--a onetime Buddhist monk--with the tradition of compassion and nonviolence that is deeply embedded in Buddhist teachings.

But some younger members of the community are more comfortable with American notions of law and order and see no problem with executing a double murderer.

At the same time, people involved in the case are trying to reconcile the violence at the market with descriptions of Siripongs as a model prisoner who prays every morning and paints expressive portraits of horses, flowers, children and landscapes.

Siripongs' family and friends--along with the Thai government-- asked Gov. Pete Wilson to commute the death sentence to life in prison. Wilson on Friday refused to do so.

In addition, two jurors who voted to impose the death penalty recently sent their own letters to the governor saying the sentence should now be lifted, as did a death-row guard and former warden from San Quentin.

Daniel B. Vasquez, San Quentin's warden for 15 years, has overseen the execution of three prisoners. He said this is the first time he has asked a governor to commute a death sentence.

"Mr. Siripongs has proved himself to be a model prisoner," reads a letter Vasquez wrote to Wilson. "He has remained disciplinary-free, consistently followed the prison rules, posed no danger to the institutional staff or inmates and has been respectful and helpful to correctional officers."

Police and prosecutors who have handled the case for nearly two decades take a completely different view.

They describe Siripongs as a callous, greedy murderer who showed his gratitude to his former employer by brutally killing her, and then stabbing to death the clerk, Quach Nguyen. After a one-month trial in 1983, jurors agreed and sentenced Siripongs to death.

Every state and federal court has affirmed the sentence during the more than a decade of appeals.

"This type of murder embodies the type of evil which is intolerable to our community," Orange County Senior Deputy Dist. Atty. Jim Tanizaki wrote in court papers. "Siripongs must suffer the consequences of his choices."

Siripongs was 26 years old and had lived in the United States for about a year when he robbed the Pantai Market on the afternoon of Dec. 15, 1981. The Wattanaporns ran an import/export business, and jewelry was sold at the store.

Police allege that he strangled Packovan Wattanaporn, the store manager, using a nylon cord. He then stabbed the store's clerk, Nguyen, a Vietnamese immigrant and father of four, several times in the head and neck. Nguyen's body was found with the cord wrapped around his arm. The fact that cuts were also found on Siripongs' hands suggested to police that Nguyen mounted a fierce struggle.

Surachai Wattanaporn found the bodies a few hours later, lying face down in a puddle of blood in the store's storage closet.

Police arrested Siripongs two days later when he tried to purchase a television set with Packovan Wattanaporn's credit card. At trial, prosecutors submitted more than 100 items of evidence, much of it consisting of items recovered from a dumpster near the Cerritos home of Siripongs' girlfriend. They included Wattanaporn's wallet and purse, a pair of bloodstained shoes found to be Siripongs' size, and a bloody kitchen knife.

At Siripongs' home in Hawthorne, police found Packovan Wattanaporn's jewelry and several credit card receipts forged with her signature. From $20,000 to $50,000 in jewelry was eventually traced to Siripongs.

Siripongs' defense attorney at the time, James Spellman, a former Orange County public defender, did not present a defense for Siripongs, opting instead to cross-examine witnesses and then claim that the state had not proven its case.

The jury deliberated only one day before returning a guilty verdict on two counts of murder, robbery and burglary.

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