Tacoma area man sentenced for murder plot claims it was just ‘a joke’

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Long Van Nguyen was photographed by Homeland Security agents outside a Tukwila Starbucks, where he unknowingly met with undercover agents. (Photo from the Dept. of Homeland Security)

By Jason Cruz
Northwest Asian Weekly

A University Place man, who pleaded guilty last September to federal conspiracy and solicitation charges for attempting to hire assassins to kill his own relatives in Vietnam, will serve 14 years in jail for his crime. Long Van Nguyen, 45, was sentenced on March 13 before the Honorable Robert Lasnik in the U.S. District Court of Western Washington. While federal prosecutors contend that Nguyen was serious about carrying out the plan, Nguyen contends that all of the talk of killing was “a joke.”

A tip led to the discovery of Nguyen’s plan to kill relatives for mismanaging money he asked them to watch over in Vietnam while he was jailed on a previous drug conviction. Nguyen, a naturalized citizen, had led a “prolific marijuana trafficking organization” in Western Washington, according to court documents.

Nguyen’s organization was one of the largest in Washington, importing marijuana — also known as “BC Bud”— from Canada to the United States. In 2004, Nguyen began serving a prison sentence for his illegal operation. It was during this time that he learned his relatives had spent the money they were supposed to hold for him.

“A good family man”

Nguyen was born in Vietnam, the youngest in a family of 10. He grew up squalor, and was the only member of his family to attend school. In 1990 he immigrated to the United States, where he eventually earned citizenship.  He met his common-law wife while finishing high school. According to court documents, Nguyen is the father of four children. He earned an associate degree from Shoreline Community College and attended the University of Washington and Seattle Pacific University, but did not earn a college degree.

Phuong “Tina” Pham, the mother of Nguyen’s four children, wrote a letter to the court prior to the sentencing, requesting the court take into consideration their family. She described the man that the U.S. Attorney characterized as an “angry and violent man, with a long history of committing very serious crimes,” as “a good family man.” Pham said Nguyen always woke up first to make breakfast for their children and drive them to school, so that she could sleep in.

Nguyen’s Criminal History

Nguyen’s criminal history revealed a different person. Court documents show Nguyen turned to selling marijuana after working several jobs that did not produce much in earnings. Nguyen and his business partner, Nghia “Neal” Pham, employed Vietnamese and East Indian associates to help him launder money and traffic marijuana from Canada to the United States.

When law enforcement sentenced Nguyen in December 2004 and shut down his drug business, the government seized more than 3,000 pounds of marijuana and nearly $1.8 million dollars in drug proceeds, according to court records.

“Sleep with the fish”

While in prison, Nguyen left some of his properties in care of members of his wife’s family in Vietnam. This included $100,000 he left with a nephew known as “Bon” to look after while he was in prison. After Nguyen instructed Bon that he could spend “only the interest earned on the money,” he discovered that Bon had almost spent the whole amount. When Nguyen was released from prison in 2011, and still under federal supervision for his prior offenses, he inquired about carrying out the murders of Bon and others  he believed had squandered his money. After an informant’s tip, an undercover agent from Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) was introduced to Nguyen. After many phone calls and communications, it became clear to HSI that Nguyen wanted to make a plan to kill Bon and others. Nguyen’s initial idea was to have Bon work with the hired assassins in Vietnam to show them where the people were located, and then have the assassins turn on Bon and kill him as well. Nguyen indicated that he would pay $5,000 per murder, and then pay $6,000 for the killing of Bon.

According to court documents, Nguyen went to a Starbucks in Tukwila to meet with an undercover FBI agent whom he believed to be one of the assassins. They went over the plan to murder the individuals. As a sign of good faith, Nguyen gave the agent $200 as “coffee money” to reflect his intent on using them as assassins.

Nguyen made it clear that he wanted the people he identified to “sleep with the fish,” according to Homeland Security Assistant Special Agent in Charge Aaron Wilson. He had the locations of the individuals he wanted killed, photos, and potential escape routes for  the killers.

“He was detail-oriented,” Wilson said of Nguyen’s meticulous plans. “He was laser-focused and unmistakably driven…to have these people killed.”

Nguyen proposed a variety of methods to murder the targets, said Wilson, including shooting and firebombing. He wanted to be sure the bodies were “not disposed in a hidden way,” meaning Nguyen wanted relatives to find the bodies. He wanted the murders to be in the news, said Wilson, so the killings would serve as a warning to others.

Throughout the sting operation, Nguyen was “surveillance conscious” and wary of being followed in public by authorities, said Wilson. Nguyen used pre-paid cell phones and switched sim cards in phones to ensure that there could be little chance that his conversations or locations could be traced.

It was through coordinated efforts with the HSI special agents in Vietnam and the Vietnam Ministry of Public Security that the plot to kill several people was eventually thwarted. Nguyen was arrested in July 2012.

Threats “Lost in Translation”

Attorneys for Nguyen paint a different picture of Nguyen’s threats, claiming they were “lost in translation.”

Through his counsel, Nguyen wanted to be clear that he was “simply venting and ‘talking big’ to some fellow Vietnamese friends.” He said this kind of talk was customary in Vietnamese culture. In a letter to the court, Nguyen claimed that he was just running his mouth.

Defense attorneys submitted letters, including some from family members who were targets of Nguyen’s plot. Even though the relatives cooperated with depositions and discussed openly about Nguyen’s tendencies toward violent and angry behavior, they did not condemn him. Wilson believes that the relatives still depend on Nguyen for their own financial stability.

“Long Van Nguyen was the goose that laid the golden egg,” said Judge Lasnik at the sentencing hearing. Lasnik believed that Nguyen sent millions of dollars back to Vietnam, which is why the relatives, whom Nguyen wanted to make “sleep with the fish,” want him to continue sending them money.

“Nguyen’s actions cannot be dismissed as puffery or culturally acceptable behavior,” said Wilson. “If the persons that Nguyen was speaking to were not agents investigating the case, then those persons would have followed through and carried out the killings.”

In addition to the 14 years in prison, federal authorities seized $10,000 from Nguyen’s garage, which he was going to use in part to pay for the hits on his relatives.

Nguyen’s lawyers did not respond to a request for comment on this story. (end)

Jason Cruz can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

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