Hmongs laud release of Vang Pao

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 13, 2007 

US NEWS LAOS-PLOT 1 SA

Gen. Vang Pao, the revered leader of Hmong Americans and a key suspect in the alleged plot to overthrow the government of Laos is released on bail from Sacramento County jail on Friday, July 13, 2007, in Sacramento, California. (Carl Costas/Sacramento Bee/MCT)

CARL COSTAS — MCT

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Gen. Vang Pao, the revered patriarch of Hmongs worldwide, walked out the front door of Sacramento's federal courthouse just after 5 p.m. Friday, a free man for the first time since his arrest June 4 on charges that he and others were plotting the overthrow of communist Laos.

At least 200 Hmong, cordoned off from the general's path by a red velvet rope, lined one side of the building's front courtyard kneeling on the pavement with their hands together as if praying.

They bowed their heads as Vang passed, some waved, others shouted, "We love you," while still others cried.

Some stood holding white banners saying "Welcome Home." Someone handed the general a bouquet.

A woman bellowed through a public address system, "This is the greatest day in Hmong history." The 77-year-old general, who has had triple bypass surgery and has experienced some heart problems since he was jailed almost six weeks ago, was surrounded by a knot of his own security people, two of whom had his elbows and assisted him.

It was not easy going through the courtyard to the west steps because a crowd of reporters and photographers were slowly backing up in front of Vang and his security detail.

A white van was waiting, and as the procession began to negotiate the steps and photographers began to jockey for position to get that last shot of Vang entering the van, shoving matches broke out and even a few punches were thrown.

The van shot away with a Federal Protective Service car behind it.

The throng of admirers and news people waited with great anticipation for more than two hours after word began to circulate in the courthouse and among the crowd outside that Vang would be coming out of the building instead of the jail.

It was an unusual procedure. He was processed out of the jail, then brought to the back loading dock of the courthouse by his security people. Vang came through the building in a wheelchair, but when the entourage arrived at the front door, the diminutive figure gingerly stood and made his triumphant walk, bowing his head, waving and smiling as he went.

He was wearing a dark suit with a black shirt adorned with colorful stitching.

Nearly a half century ago, Vang started leading a 15-year fight against the communists in Laos and North Vietnam. His jungle army was financed and otherwise supported by the CIA.

Since coming to the United States in 1975, he has led the Hmong people in assimilating into life in America.

After the van had whisked him away, shouts from the crowd could heard such as, "We will always be loyal to America." Vang and his 10 co-defendants are next due in court Jan. 25 for a status conference before U.S. District Judge Frank C. Damrell Jr.

They are charged with conspiring to violate the Neutrality Act by seeking to overthrow a government that has peaceful relations with the United States, conspiring to kill people in a foreign country, conspiring to acquire sophisticated firearms and explosives, conspiring to acquire Stinger missile systems designed to bring down aircraft, and conspiring to export munitions without a permit from the U.S. State Department.

Much of the case is built on the work of an undercover federal firearms agent who posed as an arms dealer in negotiations with a Hmong defendant and a retired U. S. Army officer from Woodland for the purchase of weapons.

When Assistant U. S. Attorney Robert Twiss argued against Vang's release, he said the general could put on a contract on the agent's life with one phone call.

John Keker, lead attorney for Vang, countered that it would be against his client's interest to harm the agent.

"He's the general best friend," Keker said. "When the jury hears from him, the government's case will go down the drain." Keker contends he will be able to show that much of the case is a product of the agent's imagination.

The fight over whether the defendants would be granted bail was a grueling one that has involved Damrell and three federal magistrate judges.

One magistrate judge denied bail to 10 of the defendants and another magistrate judge denied bail for Vang. The defense attorneys took their case to Damrell, who then turned the matter over to U.S. Magistrate Judge Dale A. Drozd.

Drozd presided over eight hours of hearings Thursday and another two hours Friday.

All defendants except one - Lo Cha Thao - were ordered released on bail by Drozd, but under very stringent conditions.

They will be on electronically monitored home detention and cannot leave unless it is to go to court or visit physicians or lawyers. They may otherwise communicate only with their family members and they must have no access to cellular phones and computers.

In addition, they must turn over to a court officer their monthly home phone bills so outgoing calls can be tracked.

The amounts of bail range from Vang's $1.5 million to Chue Lo's $205,000, depending on how much equity in real property each defendant was able to post as collateral.

Lo Cha Thao's attorney, Mark Reichel, proposes to post $2.3 million, but he has not yet assembled all the property and paperwork.

As the Hmong who primarily dealt with the undercover agent, the 34-year-old Thao is a key defendant.

His discussions with the agent were surreptitiously recorded.

Thao and the retired Army officer, 60-year-old Harrison Jack, are the only ones whose telephones were tapped.

McClatchy Newspapers 2007

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