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Rescued Sailor Has Arrest Record, but Says He Can't Recall the Incidents

Saga: Vietnamese immigrant was not charged, and a Navy spokesman says he has no reason to doubt the story of survival at sea.

September 28, 2002|PATRICK McDONNELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was an irresistible story: A hearty Vietnamese immigrant is cast adrift on his tiny sailboat in the Pacific on what was supposed to be a short trip to Catalina. Scrounging for sea turtles and rain water, the bedraggled mariner and his craft float for months before being rescued by the U.S. Navy--300 miles off Costa Rica.

Since his return this week, Richard Van Pham has become an international sensation, celebrated in print and on television. Supporters have offered cash to rebuild his life and sailboats to replace his lost craft, the Sea Breeze.

But the many questions surrounding Pham's past and his improbable voyage have left some law enforcement authorities skeptical. Late Friday afternoon--after completing another round of media interviews--the celebrity castaway faced more than just questions about the taste of seagull meat or how to navigate on the high seas.

That's because law enforcement records show the 62-year-old Vietnamese refugee has been arrested three times over the last 17 years on suspicion of various felonies, including aggravated battery, as he drifted about the country. Pham was never charged.

Confronted about his past by a reporter Friday, Pham reiterated what he had been saying since the commotion erupted upon his return Monday: He has amnesia from an accident suffered a decade ago and cannot recall much of his past.

"I don't remember," he repeated again and again, as he sat in a downtown hotel room, paid for by one of the television programs that plans to feature his tale. "The doctor say I lose my memory."

Finally, a clearly flummoxed Pham rose from his chair and retreated to the hotel bathroom, declaring, "I'm very busy."

It was a contrast to the beaming Pham who had relished his sudden fame.

He had been whisked to New York to be interviewed by Diane Sawyer on Thursday morning, and his tale has also been featured on the other major networks.

"And now, when I come ... back to Los Angeles, everybody treat me like family," a delighted Pham told Sawyer on ABC's "Good Morning America." "I love it."

Joe Walker, a Navy spokesman in San Diego, said he hadn't heard of Pham's arrest history.

"People have asked me, 'Do you believe his story?' " Walker said Friday. "And I tell them, 'He's given us no reason not to believe it.' We went on board, and there weren't any guns, there wasn't any contraband, there wasn't anything to make us suspicious of any activity."

The Navy's guided-missile frigate McClusky had picked Pham up Sept. 17, his 26-foot sailboat disabled and the radio dead.

The Navy housed and fed Pham for six days at sea, before turning him over to U.S. State Department personnel in Guatemala, who helped arrange for his return to Los Angeles, the Navy spokesman said.

He paid for the flight with $800 donated by crew members of the McClusky, who adopted him and were charmed by his tale of life adrift.

Suspicious Immigration and Naturalization Service officers at Los Angeles International Airport held Pham overnight to check his status and be sure there were no pending warrants against him or convictions that might subject him to deportation.

An INS official confirmed Friday that when Pham arrived at LAX he was carrying $4,000 in cash. He was released at the airport Tuesday afternoon, after the INS could find no reason to hold him.

Pham has told authorities that he has no relatives and has moved frequently in recent years. No one reported him missing during the months he says he was at sea.

It was unclear late Friday whether the new information, obtained by The Times from law enforcement sources, would give pause to the dozens of good Samaritans who have been lining up to give aid and comfort to the apparently impoverished Pham.

"No, it would not affect me," said Erwin Freund, a scientist in Camarillo who wants to donate a sailboat to Pham. "If he is somehow suspected of being a member of Al Qaeda, that's different."

But Dana Emberson, a Los Angeles actor who had approached fellow actors and others about raising funds for Pham, voiced reservations.

"This turns from being a no-brainer into something I have to think about," said Emberson.

Pham's arrest record dates from 1985 and includes cases in Texas, California and Florida. In each case, the records indicate that Pham was not charged with a crime. Details of the cases were not available.

Pham's most recent arrest, according to the records, occurred in May 1998 in Tampa, where he was picked up on suspicion of aggravated battery with a deadly weapon--a felony--and stalking, a misdemeanor. Prosecutors dropped the case.

Previously, Pham was arrested in Los Angeles in March 1993 on charges of assault with a firearm. The district attorney declined to file charges.

And, records show that in 1985, Pham--under the name Rich Pham Van--was arrested in Brownsville, Texas, on a felony charge of marijuana possession. Again, there were no charges, records indicate.

At least the most recent allegation, in 1998, comes after the time when Pham has told reporters he was in a car accident that left him in a coma and severely damaged his memory.

Pham acknowledged Friday that he had once lived in Florida and Texas, although he declined to provide details. When asked about the arrests, he told a reporter, "Are you with the FBI? ... You sound like the FBI."

A television producer said that Pham's downtown hotel room has been paid for through early next week--in anticipation of yet another television appearance.

*

Times staff writer Stephanie Chavez contributed to this story.

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