One to the Wolves: On the Trail of a Killer, p.5Lois Duncan
“What do you think will happen when we die?” Kait once asked me as she lay with her head on my shoulder, staring up into the depths of those enchanted purple skies. Not yet a prickly teenager, she was still ripe for cuddling. “Does our thinking part really go on in some other place?”
“Of course,” I responded quickly. I wasn’t all that sure about that, but I didn’t want her to be afraid.
“I don’t want my body to go to waste,” Kait said. “I’m going to leave parts of it to people who aren’t perfect like I am. Kerry can have my teeth. I bet she’ll be happy to have a bunch of teeth with no fillings.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard of transplanting teeth,” I told her, “but they do have a lot of success with things like kidneys. When the time comes for you to get your driver’s license you can have them print on the back of it that you want to be an organ donor.”
“I’ll do that,” Kait said solemnly. And then, with a shriek of excitement— “There’s a falling star! Mother, quick, make a wish!”
What did I wish for on that long ago night of innocence and dreaming? I couldn’t begin to remember. I wondered what Kait had wished for. I hoped it had not been a long term wish, but one that might actually have had a chance to come true in the limited time that was left to her before her heart and lungs went into the chest of a young optician from Santa Fe and her kidneys and liver were distributed to unidentified recipients.
Her set of perfect white teeth went into the grave with her.
So the long strange summer drifted past while Don and I remained cocooned in our artificial world of self-imposed tranquility, leaving camp only for occasional trips into town to buy groceries, pick up a newspaper, or check our voice mail.
On one such trip we opened the paper to learn that, two weeks earlier, Marty Martinez, the third of the men who were arrested, had phoned 911 to confess that he and his friends had been hired by the Vietnamese. He said that he personally had been paid one hundred dollars. Police had declined to interview him, and Marty’s confession might have remained buried indefinitely if a reporter hadn’t stumbled upon the 911 report. APD Lieutenant Chris Padilla then explained to reporters that police hadn’t taken a statement because Marty had been drinking, and besides, they couldn’t be sure that he really was one of the suspects who were arrested in 1990. He assured reporters that Marty would now be interviewed. Instead, the case was marked “Closed, Investigation Complete.”
One newspaper article noted that “a connection to Asian crime gangs was a key element of Duncan’s book, Who Killed My Daughter?, but investigators, including DA Bob Schwartz, have discounted it.” That same night, the CBS Evening News ran a story about a crackdown on California car wreck scams. The California Insurance Commissioner told news anchor Connie Chung, “We have pierced the top echelon of a staged auto accident ring that has cost insurance companies tens of millions of dollars.” A field reporter then stated, “Two books, including a best seller, have recently been written on the subject.”
The camera panned to the jackets of H Is for Homicide and of my own book, holding steady on a close-up of Kait’s smiling face.
We purchased a video of the show and sent it to Bob Schwartz. We also sent copies to the FBI in both Albuquerque and Los Angeles and to the producers of Unsolved Mysteries.
When Schwartz received his tape, he left a message on our voice mail.
“I’ve assigned an investigator to take another look at your daughter’s case,” he told me when I returned his call. “My problem is that I have limited resources. I have only four investigators and their primary responsibility is to work on cases after the police have dropped them. It’s very difficult to get a police officer to go back to a case after he’s lost interest in it.”
“I don’t understand,” I said. “I thought the DA had jurisdiction over the police.”
“Only in the most theoretical of senses,” Schwartz said. “According to the state constitution, the DA is the chief law enforcement officer for the district. I guarantee to you, however, that the day I start telling the police how to do things there are contracts that come in — the union comes in — the practical effect is they do not agree that I can do that.”
“Kait’s boyfriend told me he knew who killed Kait,” I said. “As far as I know, no one has ever given him a high pressure interrogation.”
“I agree with you, I think he should be interviewed hard,” Schwartz said.
“Detective Gallegos could do it!” I suggested eagerly. “Dung seems to relate to him. Couldn’t you use the good-cop-bad-cop thing they do on television and have Gallegos play the part of the good cop?”
“In order to do that you have to have a bad cop,” Schwartz said. “That’s where California comes into this. They do seem to have information about Dung’s involvement in one car wreck—”
“In two car wrecks.”
“All right, two car wrecks. But if the people in California choose not to prosecute, then he’s not in trouble because it’s a California crime. On the subject of Gallegos, I’ve asked him about the items you say were in Kait’s desk.”
“Why is APD keeping them?” I asked. “They’ve had them marked as evidence for over two years. How can they consider Kait’s correspondence evidence of a ‘random drive-by shooting’?”
“Gallegos says he doesn’t have a record of those things,” Schwartz said.
“He’s told you he no longer has them?”
“No, he’s not saying that exactly. He says he has no record of having seized them.”
“There were a lot of snapshots in the sack we gave him!” I insisted. “Kait shot up two rolls of film on people in California.”
“Gallegos says he doesn’t have a record of any snapshots,” Schwartz said. “I’m having difficulty being in the middle on this. You’re indicating you gave APD certain items, and they’re saying, ‘We don’t have them.’”
“Bob, why are they behaving like this?” I asked helplessly. “Why are they covering up for the Vietnamese?”
“I have absolutely no idea,” Schwartz said. “I don’t know. I mean, I don’t think they are. The worst case scenario in my mind would be sloppy — unskilled — but certainly nothing intentional in covering for something else. Going beyond the point of negligence for me is— well, it’s sort of my worst nightmare.”
“You don’t still think Kait’s death was a random shooting, do you?” I asked him.
“That is still the scenario that has the most basis,” Schwartz said. “A prosecutor’s reality is defined not by truth but by evidence. Look, I’m sorry, but I’ve got a call on my other line.”
Concerned that my grief-besotted memory might be playing tricks on me, I phoned Robin, who had helped me clear out Kait’s apartment.
“Do you remember a bunch of photographs?” I asked her.
“Of course,” Robin said immediately. “There were dozens of snapshots. A lot of them were of Kait and Dung, but others were of Dung’s friends out in California.”
“The insurance investigators need to have those pictures!” I exclaimed.
I wrote Bob Schwartz, telling him about the photographs and urging him to continue to try to get Steve Gallegos to release them. I also suggested that the DA’s office seize Kait’s apartment file.
“That file contains entries about Kait running to the manager in the night, asking for protection from the Vietnamese,” I told him. “Wouldn’t it be a good idea to confiscate that file before something happens to it?”
Schwartz didn’t respond to my letter, but we later found out that he did belatedly have the police seize the apartment file and place it in evidence.
Soon after that we received letters from FBI agents in both Los Angeles and Albuquerque, politely acknowledging receipt of the information we had sent them. They said they had discussed our allegations with the Albuquerque Police Department, who did not feel that they warranted following up on.
The Sightings episode aired on the first of September
Although we didn’t know it at the time, those photographs would turn out to be extremely meaningful.
When the cottonwoods along the banks of the Rio Grande burst into gold, and patches of shimmering aspen dotted the mountains we realized that if we wanted to settle someplace before winter arrived we needed to get a move on.
Our younger son, Donnie, was the only one of our four surviving children still in Albuquerque. We tried to persuade him to come with us, but he refused to evacuate.
“This is my home,” he said with characteristic stubbornness. “I’m not about to be forced out of it because my mom wrote a book that’s got people pissed off.”
The day before Don and I left we received a call from Unsolved Mysteries saying they were interested in doing a segment on Kait’s murder but APD was not cooperating.
“We’ve tried everybody from the case detective to the chief of police,” the researcher told me. “Nobody’s willing to talk to us. We don’t understand it. Police departments are usually eager to get their cases on our show because so many get solved that way. We need their assistance in getting background information and lining up people to interview.”
I gave her contact information for Miguel Garcia’s defense attorneys; for Mike Gallagher, the investigative reporter who had covered the case for the Albuquerque Journal; and for a number of Kait’s co-workers at the import store where Kait had been manager of imported clothing. I also suggested that, since Bob Schwartz had enjoyed his appearance on Larry King Live, he might be equally pleased to be on Unsolved Mysteries.
Our exodus from Albuquerque was stressful because we had no set destination. As we drove across beautiful countryside at the height of its autumn glory, one of us would occasionally comment, “This seems like a nice town. Do you want to live here?” and the other would say, “Let’s keep going and see what’s ahead.” We continued to drive until the road ran out on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The smell of salt air brought back memories of my childhood in Florida, and my heart lifted. Don, too, was caught by the magic of windswept beaches and endless stretches of ocean, so different from his own background as a Michigan farm boy. With little discussion we rented a house in the dunes.
Meanwhile the Unsolved Mysteries show was solidifying even without the help of law enforcement. The producer requested pictures of our family to aid them in selecting actors for the reenactment. With the thought that a video would be more helpful to them than still pictures, Don unpacked the box of home videos that we had carted with us across the country. We were stunned to discover that all the tapes with Kait on them were missing. The commercial videos were there, and the tapes of our grandchildren, but every one of our family videos of Christmases, birthdays, campouts and ski vacations had vanished.
We phoned our children to see if one of them might have borrowed them, perhaps when they were home for the funeral. All said they hadn’t.
“They were there that first Christmas after the shooting,” Robin told us. “I know because I started to watch one. It was the one with Kait at the lake showing off her new swimsuit, and Dung and his friends were cavorting on an inflatable raft. I looked at Kait, so young and dumb and unsuspecting, and I wanted to scream at her, ‘Run! Get away from those people!’ I couldn’t stand to watch it all the way through. I rewound it and put it back on the shelf with the others.”
“Then they must have disappeared at some point between Christmas of 1989 and March 1990,” Don said. “March is when we boxed up our stuff and put the house up for sale.”
“But that’s not when we moved out,” I reminded him. “The Hispanics were arrested in January. That’s when we got death threats and I panicked. We lived in a studio apartment for a month before we rented the town house and put our things in storage. So there was a period of time when our house was unoccupied with all our possessions still in it.”
“There weren’t any signs of a break-in.”
“If somebody had a key—”
“Nobody had a key to our home except our kids.”
We finally decided that some of the videos must have been packed in a box that was lost during our move. How ironic and heartbreaking that those were the videos that showed Kait!
We provided Unsolved Mysteries with snapshots from our photo albums, and I made a trip back to Albuquerque to be interviewed for the show along with reporter, Mike Gallagher, and case detective, Steve Gallegos. The producer told me Bob Schwartz and the APD captain who had appeared on Good Morning, America initially had agreed to be interviewed, but both canceled out at the last minute, and Detective Gallegos was reluctantly thrust into that slot.
Casting the part of Dung had turned out to be a problem. There had been no difficulty finding Albuquerque actors to portray members of our family but no one wanted to play the part of Kait’s boyfriend.
“It’s crazy,” the producer told me. “There are lots of Vietnamese registered with Albuquerque talent agencies and when we posted an announcement that we needed Asian actors they were beating down the doors to get parts. That was before word got out that it was the Kait Arquette story. After that, not one Vietnamese actor would audition.”
They ended up importing an actor from Hollywood.
Donnie went with me to watch the filming of the death scene. In a bizarre trip back through time, actors and actresses who bore an eerie resemblance to our family gathered around a hospital bed where a young actress who looked a lot like Kait lay with her head encased in bandages. The line on the monitor blipped up and down erratically as it had on the night when the girl on the bed had been our own.
Donnie’s hand tightened around mine until I thought my fingers would snap.
“It wasn’t the car-wrecks,” he muttered. “It was something much bigger.”
“I think so too,” I responded.
When I got back to North Carolina, Don told me we’d had a phone call from an insurance claims investigator in California named Jim Ellis.
“He asked that you call him as soon as you got back,” Don said.
Jim came onto the line with a burst of such high level energy that the receiver seemed to vibrate in my hand.
“When I saw you on Sightings, I rushed out to buy your book,” he said. “Then I went straight to my computer and started pulling up the claims that have come out of Albuquerque involving accidents in Southern California. The number was staggering, and the same addresses and phone numbers kept coming up over and over. A couple of the addresses are on a bunch of different policies — one on Texas Street and the other on Kathryn Street.” He told me the street numbers. “Does either of those sound familiar?”
“Both Dung Nguyen and An Quoc Le once lived at the Kathryn Street address,” I said.
“Well, it looks like they’ve got a bunch of friends living there too, who are playing the same game they are,” Jim said. “And that Texas Street address appears on even more claims. The most recent loss from that address occurred in July of this year. A guy named Vu Nguyen was killed.”
“Have you found any cases involving Dung and his friends?” I asked him.
“Possibly,” Jim said. “That dead guy’s roommate, Ngoc Nguyen, was involved in a wreck in Santa Ana on March 24, 1989. That’s the same week Dung and Kait were out there. In Ngoc’s wreck, an auto body shop with a questionable reputation declared his car a total loss. All occupants of the other car were represented by the law firm of Minh Nguyen Duy, the attorney whose law firm’s name was on Bao Tran’s business card.”
“Dung had a friend named Ngoc Nguyen,” I said. “His name was on Kait’s speed dial. Is there any way to determine if he was that person?”
“Only by Social Security number,” Jim said. “These people often have identical names, and the crooks mix and match their addresses. Today, for example, I brou
“Why haven’t those people been arrested?” I asked.
“Insurance companies aren’t interested in the little fish,” Jim said. “They want the people at the top. Very soon now there’s going to be a bust that will bring down a bunch of attorneys and clinics and doctors. In the process maybe somebody will know something about this New Mexico ring and we can work off of that. Where’s Bao Tran right now?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I have his address in Santa Ana, but it’s possible he’s moved, because his phone and beeper numbers have been disconnected.”
“I’ll keep on pulling up cases and maybe Tran’s name will pop out,” Jim said. “For whatever reason, APD seems to have stonewalled this whole thing. The good news is that the DA in Albuquerque has reopened the investigation.”
“We’re afraid that may be a token gesture,” I said.
“I’m not going to allow that,” Jim assured me. “That’s why I’m trying to get together as much evidence as I can. I want to get the National Insurance Crime Bureau, the Fraud Division of the California State Insurance Agencies, and representatives from all the insurance carriers all working together so the list we compile will be so overwhelming that DA Schwartz will be forced to take it seriously.”
The kindness in his voice was almost more than I could handle.
“Thank you,” I said, fighting back tears of gratitude.
“I know this is hard for you to believe, Lois, but in the long run the Universe is perfect,” Jim said gently. “It was no accident that I happened to see that Sightings show. You and I are both part of a plan that’s unfolding as it’s meant to. We’re going to put a bunch of crooks behind bars, and we’re going to find out what happened to your daughter.”
One to the Wolves: On the Trail of a Killer by Lois Duncan / Mystery & Detective have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes