Asian Gang Linked To Killings Police Suspect Couple Tortured, Murdered For Wife’s Ring And Money Hidden In Home
Nothing moves Sunday morning at the small apartment building in north Spokane.
It’s warm enough to play outside, but there are no children laughing in the parking lot. The tenants don’t mingle.
There is only silence - an oppressive and sad silence that reminds tenants why the curtains are drawn at Apartment No. 6, why the door remains shut, and why, for the past several months, no one is talking about the couple who died there.
Before dawn on July 12, Johnny Hagan Jr., 26, and his wife, Hong Nga Thi Pham, 23, were shot to death in their apartment at 3203 N. Smith.
If neighbors - including three other Vietnamese families - heard anything, they aren’t saying. That’s the way the killers want it.
Gang experts believe a Southeast Asian gang from California is responsible for the killings. Police there arrested a gang member last summer on charges he killed a family of five and the man is a possible suspect in the Spokane murders.
Spokane police say the case is this city’s first reported home invasion robbery - a signature crime of Asian gangs.
Once limited to bigger areas, the gangs are a growing concern for Asian immigrants in Spokane.
The gang chose its victims well, perhaps lured by Pham’s flashing diamond ring, and thousands of dollars the couple reportedly stashed away.
Since the killings, many of the city’s 3,000 Vietnamese immigrants are fearful. An unwillingness to cooperate with investigators frustrates detectives.
Only recently have some people started talking about the couple.
They mourn for the young pair who befriended many Vietnamese refugees, and who left two small children behind. They talk about trying to heal.
“Here, it’s been so peaceful,” said Minh Tran, director of the Refugee and Immigrant Multi-Service Center, who helps resettle most Vietnamese refugees who come to the Spokane area. “Suddenly, murder. This is a shock.”
The killers blindfolded the couple, bound their hands, and shot them in the head.
The couple was tortured. Friends say the killers beat Hagan beyond recognition, and slashed his wife’s mouth. Friends believe gang members were looking for a $7,000 diamond ring she tried to hide there.
The victims’ son, Johnny Hagan III, saw it all. He’s 5, and because of his age is considered an unreliable witness. His sister, 2-year-old Diana, slept in the bedroom.
Spokane police won’t say if they are close to making an arrest. Part of the delay, they say, is caused by language and cultural barriers.
Many Vietnamese fear authority, said Toi Mulligan, who runs a private translation service. Many newcomers don’t volunteer information to police because of the corrupt law enforcement system they saw in their homeland.
Desperate for leads, police last fall mailed more than 300 fliers written in Vietnamese to residents and posted them at businesses. There was little response, but fragments of information about the couple slowly surfaced.
They ran an illegal video rental business from their apartment, enjoyed going to casinos and hosted card games.
They also cheated the welfare system, keeping about $1,000 in the bank, but stashing the rest at home and with relatives and friends. Since they moved to Spokane five years ago, they took a couple of expensive trips to Vietnam.
While the language hinders the investigation, there’s a bigger obstacle.
“You can sum it up really easily: fear,” said Detective Jim Peterson, lead investigator in the case. “If you don’t know why they were killed, all kinds of things rise in your mind.”
Mulligan said many Vietnamese here fear Asian gang members are on the prowl, waiting to attack anyone who speaks up.
However, revenge attacks against the Asian community are rare, said Detective Glenn Kerns, a Seattle Police Department expert.
In recent years, Seattle police haven’t had a case of retaliation against a victim who reported a crime and appeared in court as a witness, Kerns said.
Despite this, Vietnamese are skeptical.
“The victims know these guys will serve one or two years, and get out,” Kerns said. “And that’s what they’re really afraid of.”
A prospering pair
About a dozen relatives and friends of Johnny Hagan and Hong Nga Thi Pham paint a picture of a young, prospering couple, naive but full of compassion for fellow refugees.
They lived a double life: working by day, gambling by night and on weekends.
Hagan did odd jobs, including mowing lawns and buying used cars, fixing them up and selling them.
On weekends, the couple frequently visited Seattle, where Hagan got his Vietnamese videotapes. Occasionally they gambled at the Spokane Tribe’s Twin Rivers Casino 50 miles northwest of Spokane.
Relatives say Pham bought a diamond ring, estimated to be worth $2,000 to $7,000, just weeks before the murders. She reportedly flaunted it, and friends think the ring’s glitter attracted the criminals.
Friends believe Hagan and Pham may have had as much as $40,000 in cash stashed among people in the community - another reason some may be reluctant to talk.
Cum Tran, a distant cousin to Hagan, described him as being helpful to other Vietnamese, taking people to the grocery store or to work on short notice.
The couple also served as a community resource, helping arrivals settle in, and advising people on anything from where to get a driver’s license to how to sign up for English classes.
The Vietnamese community is concentrated in Hillyard where many attend the Vietnamese Buddhist Temple.
Many people who shop at the Phuoc Thanh Market on North Hamilton - Spokane’s only Vietnamese grocery store - knew the couple.
Their reputation among Vietnamese immigrants was golden. That’s why many Vietnamese knew about what happened within hours of the crime, and why the Hillyard temple was packed with mourners.
Nhieu Bui and his wife, Gai Thi Vu, good friends of Hagan and Pham, heard about the killings on the morning news.
“We look into the TV and we see the police, and they talk that Johnny and his wife died,” Vu said. “We didn’t believe they died because last night we still saw them.”
Hours before the killings, Bui and his wife had returned from the Twin Rivers Casino with Hagan and Pham.
“Why in America? Why people die? I don’t know why,” Vu said.
Bui, who proudly displays on his arms and legs the scars from hand grenades thrown at him by Communist soldiers during the Vietnam War, said the cruelty of the killings is beyond comprehension. “In Vietnam, we saw a lot of death, but nothing like this.”
Vu, who frequently visited the couple to chat and play cards, said she won’t forget how Hagan would return home from work, singing as he walked through the door.
“I felt sorry for them,” Vu said. “Life was so short for them.”
Short, but prosperous.
Cum Tran said Hagan and Pham were thrifty.
She said the pair often skimped on meals, eating rice with only soy sauce. They also fished, saving the small fish for themselves and selling the larger ones to Asian markets.
Sometimes as early as 3 a.m., the couple would be up and ready to take friends to jobs in cherry orchards, raspberry and corn fields, pumpkin patches, or to other odd jobs, Tran said. Friends often paid them gas money.
Death at the doorstep
The gangs started in California, robbing, killing and spreading terror to Asian families in urban areas. They’ve gradually pushed into other parts of the West Coast, through Oregon and into Washington.
Now, they eye Asian neighborhoods here. The Hagan and Pham case is a signature Asian gang crime: the often brutal and well-planned home invasion robbery.
Gangs usually prey on other Asian families, capitalizing on language and cultural barriers that stop victims from calling police.
The Spokane Vietnamese community believes members of the Tiny Rascals Gang - a California-based Vietnamese gang - are responsible for the Spokane killings. Several members live in Spokane, but are relatively inactive, according to Detective Peterson.
Police in Spokane and California agree that a gang member arrested in early September in San Bernardino can probably be tied to the Spokane killings. They cite the similarities to the killings and other home invasions he’s suspected of doing.
Samreth Pan, 18, was arrested on charges of first-degree murder in the shooting deaths of five members of a Vietnamese family Aug. 10 in a San Bernardino home invasion robbery. He is being held at the San Bernardino County Jail. He’s a suspect in connection with at least nine other home invasion crimes in California, Oregon and Washington.
The double homicide here has all the markings of a home invasion, said Detective Trang To, a Southeast Asian gang specialist with the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department. He said Pan is responsible for at least one home invasion robbery in his city.
Because Hagan and Pham were well-known among Spokane’s Vietnamese for their video rental business and gambling, experts say they were easy targets.
Gang members suspect that Asian families who run businesses from their homes do it illegally. The families keep their money at home rather than report their incomes, said Detective Mark Nye, a specialist on Asian gangs with the Westminster, Calif., Police Department.
“Your bankroll is going to be at home,” Nye said. “Who are they going to call to report a loss of $10,000 or $12,000 if they’re on welfare?”
Loss of security
People in Spokane’s Vietnamese community say the killers stole more than just money and jewelry.
They took a sense of security, leaving a hole deep in the hearts of those who knew the couple.
Like other immigrant families, the couple wanted their kids to learn English, grow up and find good jobs, family members said.
The children now live in central Washington with Johnny Hagan’s mother, who does not want to be identified. She fears gang members may go after her 5-year-old grandson because he may be the only one who can identify the killers.
According to friends, Hagan’s mother quit her job in Pasco to care for the children.
Sometimes, the kids wake up crying at night, wanting their mom and dad, Minh Tran said. “We don’t want people to forget this thing, this brutal thing.”
The healing has been slow.
Cum Tran still wonders “Why them? They were good people … (Hagan) worked the hardest.”
Tran will remember them as a couple who aspired to start their own video business outside of their home.
“They wanted to see their names on a sign for their store,” Tran said. “They wanted this store for anyone to come to rent videos, something not underground.”
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