SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Seven defendants in the case charging 11 men with plotting to overthrow communist Laos - including the two main ones - were ordered released on bail Thursday by a federal magistrate judge in Sacramento.
Over the strong objections of the prosecutors, Gen. Vang Pao, alleged to be the plot's leader, was ordered released on a $1.5 million bond secured by property owned by members of his family.
Harrison Jack, a retired Army officer, was ordered released on a $1 million bond secured by a Woodland apartment complex that is an asset of a trust set up for the benefit of Jack's wife and her brother and sister.
In ordering the releases, U.S. Magistrate Judge Dale A. Drozd noted, "These are not insignificant charges and they are not taken lightly by me.
"It is impossible to predict how someone may act in the future, but I believe conditions can be fashioned which will reasonably assure that the defendants will make their court appearances and that their release will not pose a danger."
The decision by the judge to allow the defendants out on bail - especially Vang, a revered leader in the Hmong American community - led to rejoicing among hundreds of protestors who had gathered outside the courthouse Wednesday and Thursday to support the men.
Then there was celebration. Water in bottles was flung in the air and protestors waved large flags of Laos, South Vietnam and the United States. People cried, shook hands and embraced.
"This is the happiest day ever for the Hmong people," said Paula Yang, who leads the Hmong American Ad Hoc Committee in Fresno, the group that organized the rally. "Look at all these people that have come together. We welcome Gen. Vang Pao home."
The judge directed that both the 77-year-old Vang, who lives in Orange County, Calif., and Jack, 60, of Woodland, Calif., be on electronically-monitored home detention, not have access to cellular telephones and computers and communicate only with family members, their physicians and lawyers.
They also must make their monthly telephone bills available to a court officer to keep track of their outgoing calls.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Twiss argued that Vang is "the most dangerous" of the defendants.
He said that, with one call, Vang could set in motion an anti-government military operation in Laos or place a contract on the life of an undercover federal firearms agent and his family.
The agent posed as an arms dealer in alleged negotiations - primarily with Jack and defendant Lo Cha Thao - for the sale of sophisticated weapons to Hmong leaders in the United States. The weapons were allegedly to be used by Hmong in the Laotian jungles who are hunted and killed by communist troops.
Vang, who came to the United States in 1975 after the fall of South Vietnam and Laos to communist forces, led a CIA-sponsored jungle army against the communists for 15 years.
"There is no way to prevent someone from driving up to (Vang's) home, giving him a cell phone and leaving five minutes later," Twiss told Drozd.
The judge said he understands Twiss' concern, but found that the stringent conditions imposed on Vang's release satisfy the requirement of the federal Bail Reform Act.
Jack's attorney, Clyde Blackmon, argued it is "absurd to think that (Jack) would represent any danger to the undercover agent or his family."
But Twiss said the recording of a May 23 conversation involving the agent, Jack, Thao and two other Hmong men is "chilling."
The prosecutor cited that part of the discussion when Jack tells Thao he has to have troops in place outside government buildings ready to "do what they need to do. That is how you cut the head off the snake."
In an affidavit filed in federal court, the agent said it was clear Jack "was talking about assassinating the government officials at the time of attack."
Jack "was talking in a very cold, calm voice, like he was delivering pizza," Twiss said. "The level of (Jack's) moral depravity, as demonstrated by these tapes, is shocking."
Compared to what they were planning, "killing a family of five is a small deal," Twiss said in reference to the agent and his family.
Drozd ordered the release of Youa True Vang on $650,000 bail. It is uncertain, however, whether the 70-year-old Vang, who served as a colonel under Vang Pao in Laos, can come up with enough collateral.
Also ordered released on bail secured by relatives' equity in property were Lo Cha Thao, $2.3 million; Dang Vang, $865,000; Lo Thao, $400,000, and Seng Vue, $470,000.
The hearing will resume Friday on the issue of bail for the remaining defendants.
Thursday's marathon hearing started before U.S. District Judge Frank C. Damrell Jr., who told the attorneys he wanted Drozd to handle the matter and, if one or more of them didn't like the outcome, it could be brought to him for review.
Seven of the defendants were earlier ordered held without bail by other magistrate judges after a hearing. The other four were ordered held without bail by a magistrate judge after their attorneys submitted the question without argument.
The hearing Thursday was only 10 minutes old when Seng Vue collapsed out of his chair onto the floor of the jury box. He was taken away by paramedics. He never lost consciousness, but he was pale and his head was back on his shoulders and wobbling from side to side.
Vue, 68, suffered a stroke in the Sacramento County jail a month ago and has been in and out of the hospital since.
Another defendant, Chong Yang Thao, 54, was taken from the jail to the hospital earlier this week with "stroke-like symptoms," according to his attorney, Dina Santos.
Vang Pao has been in and out of the hospital with heart problems since being jailed, and he is still being brought to court in a wheelchair.
Damrell noted the Seng Vue incident in court "underscores there are issues here other than danger."
John Keker, lead attorney for Vang Pao, kicked off the hearing before Drozd with a presentation designed to show "enormous differences" between the surreptitious recordings and the description of the conversations by the undercover agent in his affidavit.
Keker also cited parts of the discussions that left the Hmong and Jack with the impression that, in dealing with the agent, they were dealing with the U.S. government.
For example, Keker said the agent told Jack he was going to be flying the arms purchased by the Hmong out of Beale Air Force Base to Thailand.
But Twiss countered that the agent said he would have to bribe some people to get AK-47 assault rifles ordered by the Hmong on flights out of Beale bound for that part of the world on legitimate business.
Twiss also disputed the defense contention that the Hmong leaders believed they had the support of the CIA in their effort to arm the Hmong people in the Laos jungles who are systematically being exterminated by the Lao military.
He said a member of the prosecution team met with the general counsel of the CIA and was assured that was not the case.
"This is a complete fabrication," Twiss said.
But Keker said he learned from his time as special prosecutor investigating the Iran-Contra affair that "the general counsel has no idea what's going on at the CIA."
In addressing the defense contention that the Hmong leaders would not have tried to arm their people in Laos if some U.S. government official had told them to "cease and desist," Twiss said, "That's a bald face lie." He said the former U.S. ambassador to Laos told Vang Pao some years ago not to attempt an insurrection in Laos.
The defense says that, at a June 2 meeting in Fresno, Vang Pao "harangued people present that they should not go forward with any plan for military action against Laos."
But Twiss said the evidence shows that Vang Pao warned it would make him very unhappy if the undercover agent couldn't produce weapons in Thailand.