One to the Wolves: On the Trail of a Killer, p.6Lois Duncan
Jim’s first move was to start weaving together an extensive network of interrelated car wrecks stemming from names in my book. When I mailed him a copy of the accident report on Dung’s wreck in August 1988, he discovered that the second vehicle in the wreck was registered to Bao Tran’s girlfriend. He then ran the names of the claimants through his computer and discovered that one of them, a man from Garden Grove, had been a driver in a similar wreck in October 1991.
“This looks like a hit!” he announced with satisfaction. “I’ve had my eye on this guy. I already had him under investigation by a private investigator.”
A second party who claimed injuries in Dung’s 1988 wreck was convicted arsonist, Hong Phuc Duy Van, in whose name Bao Tran’s home phone had been registered.
Jim sent me manila envelopes crammed with reports of suspicious accidents, and I entered the names and addresses into my own database. Eventually I reached a point where certain addresses and phone numbers became red flags that allowed me to pinpoint possible fraudulent claims before even reading the reports.
The Unsolved Mysteries segment on Kait’s case aired early in 1993. In light of our strained relationship with APD, the producer sent us our own copies of the tips that were called in to their 800 number. Most were about insurance scams in California, and those I forwarded to Jim.
But one that Unsolved Mysteries classified as a “Hot Tip” was from Susan Smith, who told the hot line operator that she wanted to correct an inaccuracy in my book.
She said she was living in fear and wanted her phone number given only to me.
When I dialed the number a woman’s voice answered.
“Hello, Susan?” I said.
There was no response, so after a moment I tried again.
“Am I talking to Susan? This is Lois Arquette, Kait’s mother.”
“Oh, it’s you!” the woman said shakily. “You took me by surprise. I don’t go by Susan anymore.”
“The people at Unsolved Mysteries said you wanted me to call you.”
“Yes, that’s right,” Susan said. “I wanted to correct something. In your book you said Kait got to my house at nine-thirty. That’s not right. She got there much earlier than that.”
“The police report quotes you as saying she got there at nine-thirty.”
“She got there at seven,” Susan said. “I’d invited her for seven-thirty but she got there early. She came straight from seeing Working Girl. That movie let out at seven, and since the theater was right near my house, she thought it didn’t make sense for her to go home and come all the way back, so she just came on over.”
“Kait wasn’t at a movie!” I said.
“Working Girl. She said it was really good.”
“Susan, she couldn’t have gone to a movie,” I said. “She left our house at six-fifteen, saying she was going to your house for six-thirty dinner. There’s no way she could have seen a movie between six-fifteen and seven o’clock.”
“All I know is that’s what she told me,” Susan insisted. “She told me she came straight from the movie Working Girl, and she saw it at the Lobo Theater, and it was a dollar movie, and she was telling me about how good it was. And the reason I know she got there not late in the evening is that it was still light out.”
“This is very confusing,” I said.
“She was acting flaky,” Susan said. “She wasn’t like herself at all. She’d be crying, and then she’d be laughing, and then she’d start crying again, and then she’d have me on a mission calling Dung over and over to see if he was home. And then she started telling me about the insurance scams. That really surprised me because I didn’t think Kait would be involved in anything like that. I guess in my own mind I had her like a Goody Two Shoes. So, then, you know, I’ve kept thinking, why did she tell me that night, when she’d certainly had other opportunities?”
“Why do you think?” I asked.
“I think the chips were down, personally,” Susan said. “I think that she knew something was about to happen and—”
“Think really hard,” I broke in. “What might she have said that makes you think she knew something was going to happen? The car wreck she witnessed occurred four months earlier. Why do you think that night she was spilling this out and frightened?”
“I don’t know,” Susan said. “She was just so anxious that night. Like I said, she had me dialing Dung over and over. I was just sitting there hitting redial.”
“You don’t feel she was calling to patch things up?”
“No way!” Susan said adamantly. “She didn’t want to talk to him; she just wanted to know where he was. She said if he answered I should hang up like it was a wrong number. And when it got to be ten forty-five and he still didn’t answer, she suddenly said, ‘I’m really sorry, but we’ll do this another night, because I just remembered that I have a test I have to take in the morning. I’ve got to go home and study.’”
“But you told the police Kait spent the afternoon studying at the library!”
“I never said that,” Susan said.
“It’s in the police report.”
“Detective Gallegos wrote down everything wrong. Kait never said anything about studying at the library. And she didn’t get to my house at nine-thirty, it was seven. And there’s another thing that’s been getting under my skin. When Kait was in a coma and I came to the hospital, Dung told me, ‘This is all my fault.’ I have a very strong feeling Kait’s shooting was not a random drive-by. I think it had something to do with Dung and his friends and the stuff they were into.”
“Have you ever been threatened?” I asked her.
There was a long pause.
Then she said, “No.”
“Then why did you leave Albuquerque?”
“I’m nervous when I’m in Albuquerque,” Susan said. “I didn’t tell anyone but one friend where I moved to, and she was sworn to ultimate secrecy. I had to send away for my income tax statements, and I had them sent to her address. I was motivated to call Unsolved Mysteries because I could tell that different things had gotten lost in the cracks, but I was really scared. When I answered the phone and you said ‘Susan,’ my blood ran cold. My mom still calls me Susan, of course, but she’s the only one.”
By the end of that conversation, I was so confused that I felt I had entered the Twilight Zone. Was it possible that Detective Gallegos had misquoted almost everything Susan said? If ever there was one interview that he should have recorded correctly you would have expected it to have been that one. Susan was the first person he interviewed and the last person to talk to Kait before she was shot.
An alternate possibility was that Gallegos’s report was accurate and it was Susan who was lying. Might she initially have told him the truth and now be attempting to replace that with a fabrication? Why had Susan invented the scenario about a movie? And why had she considered it so imperative to convince us that there were no missing hours in Kait’s final evening that she’d had a man – who, Don suspected, might have been a cop – track Don down at a secluded campground to deliver that message? And now, over a year later, she had contacted me through a TV hot line to reiterate the same story, this time adding the embellishment of a movie. What had happened to Kait during the early part of that evening that Susan might not have wanted known?
With my mind too filled with Kait’s case to be able to focus on writing books, my main activity during our first winter in North Carolina was responding to reader mail. Those letters gave me a disconcerting sense of deja vu. Back in 1984, I had written a novel called The Third Eye, in which I described how a teenage psychic was bombarded with letters from parents of murdered and missing children:
“Each afternoon when Karen arrived home from school she was greeted by a mailbox filled with desperation,” I had written. “She could almost feel the agony of the contents burning her hands when she handled the unopened envelopes.”
Now it was my own mailbox that erupted with such agony:
“We too lost our daughter. A neighbor said he heard a woman screaming ‘Mom!’ in the orchard behind our home … There lay my beautiful girl with a gunshot wound to the head. I began running right through a barbed wire fence ... We were told she committed suicide, but things look awfully suspicious. We’ve found out she had just turned in her first husband for drug trafficking. There are three different detectives that wrote three conflicting reports on her death. They didn’t even have the right day.”
“My husband and I lost our daughter in Massachusetts. The police closed the case as a suicide by hanging, but a forensic expert told us he thinks Valarie was strangled and then strung up. She had just put out a restraining order against her boyfriend, saying, ‘He took his gun out and threatened to shoot me ... He’s also threatened to cut up my face, set me on fire, kill me while I sleep, and chop up my dog. I am in fear of my life. He has threatened to use all his police powers to destroy me if I ever try to leave him.’ Her boyfriend was a member of the police department. Valarie was found strung up in his cellar.”
I responded to every letter but could offer no comfort or solutions, for these parents were asking the same questions we were: What had gone wrong with the System?
The Los Angeles Times, January 14, 1993
DOZENS HELD IN MASSIVE INSURANCE SCAM
Ending an 18-month investigation targeted at attorneys and doctors charged with cheating insurance companies out of millions of dollars, authorities have arrested at least 35 people in Orange and San Diego counties suspected of running one of the biggest auto insurance fraud schemes in state history.
More than 150 federal, state and local law enforcement officers swarmed the two counties, arresting suspects indicted for their roles in four loosely connected fraud rings that bilked insurance companies with phony auto accident claims.
Investigators say unscrupulous lawyers operate offices in Little Saigon staffed by Vietnamese legal assistants who are actually “cappers,” people who sell accident cases to lawyers in violation of state law. The “cappers,” some of whom are gang members, receive as much as $1,500 a head and can earn more than $150,000 a year by soliciting two or three cases a week.
The record setting crackdown that Jim Ellis had predicted led to over forty arrests with an additional seventy suspects still under investigation. Most of those arrested were doctors and lawyers in Orange County, and several of the Vietnamese car wreck “victims” were from Albuquerque.
Jim continued to phone almost daily to fill us in on what was happening.
“We’ve latched onto a huge network,” he reported. “There’s one guy who gave a Westminster address on a police report, but I recognized the phone number, and further research showed that he had the same address as Bao Tran. There’s another guy, Suu Dinh, that we also know lived there. I recognize him from a loss back in 1990 in which there was a connection with a guy named Duc Dat Tran. Duc Dat Tran was using Bao Tran’s address in June 1991, when he was hit by a stolen vehicle.”
“You’ve turned up so much!” I exclaimed.
“It doesn’t stop with me, Lois,” Jim said. “Whenever I’m helping another carrier, I just casually mention your case and — boom! — they’re caught up in it too. Last week, I was contacted by an attorney named Michael Bush who has a case going that coincides with a case of mine. He bought thirty copies of your book and has been distributing them everywhere. He even gave one to the Orange County District Attorney.”
“Do you think these fraud cases are the reason for Kait’s murder?” I asked him. “Psychics say Kait found out about a drug operation.”
“I don’t doubt that at all,” Jim said. “Such crooks aren’t one dimensional. Many of those same people import drugs from the Orient. High purity white heroin from Asia is worth much more than black tar heroin from Mexico. The thing is, we have the equipment to track down the car scams, but not the drug smuggling. So this is the path we have to follow.”
Soon after that Jim phoned to tell me that they’d found Bao Tran.
“You’re not going to believe this,” he said. “On a whim, Michael Bush decided to dial one of the numbers you found on Kait’s final phone bill. It was good! Bao Tran called him back!”
“Tran reinstated his phone numbers?”
“I guess he must have,” Jim said. “Anyway, not knowing who’d called him or what they wanted, he returned Michael’s call. Tran said all the things you accused him of are lies.”
“I only reported what Dung told the police,” I said.
“Dung is Tran’s least favorite person in the world, next to you,” Jim said. “He said the calls from Kait’s apartment couldn’t have been made to him because he was in Vietnam.”
“Can he prove that by showing his passport?”
“He says Dung’s alibi witness, An Quoc Le, has forbidden that. An Le is back in Albuquerque at that communal address on Kathryn Street they all keep using and seems to be controlling things from there.”
“Did Tran say where Dung is?”
“Tran said the last he’d heard of him he was in the Pacific Northwest with some Caucasian girl. That’s where they seem to be going now. A lot of the guys who were staging accidents in California are now in Portland.”
“Is there any way to force Bao Tran to give a statement?”
“If we can get the DA in Albuquerque to cooperate with the DA in Orange County we might be able to,” Jim said. “According to protocol, the Orange DA has to receive a request from the DA in Albuquerque before he can do anything.”
“So all it will take to get Bao Tran deposed is a request from Bob Schwartz?”
“That’s right,” Jim said. “And it’s the only way to make Tran talk. Michael’s volunteered to take on the job of convincing Schwartz since I’ve become unpopular at the DA’s office. The last time I talked to their investigator I lost my temper and told her I think it’s criminal the way this case has been mishandled. That didn’t go down well, since her husband is a captain with APD. I’ve sent them boxes of information about this fraud ring and there’s no indication that anyone has followed up on any of it.”
On the heels of Jim’s call, I received a call from Michael Bush.
“This case draws me like a magnet,” he told me. “When I read your book I recognized the lawyer Minh Nguyen Duy. He and I were currently involved in litigation. I want to go to Albuquerque and meet with the D.A. there. He’s got to be made to understand what it is we’re dealing with.”
“What will you charge us for doing that?” I asked him. Now that Don was retired and I no longer was churning out suspense novels our income had dropped significantly.
“No charge,” Michael said. “What I’m striving for is pure motives. Once you start doing something for compensation, even expenses, things get fuzzy. What if I turn up evidence of something you don’t agree with? I don’t want you and your family to be in a position to tell me not to expose that. I just want to see if I can help you get to the truth.”
When I repeated that conversation to Don, he shook his head in disbelief.
“When something seems too good to be true, there’s usually a catch,” he said. “Why don’t we see what Betty Muench has to say about this?”
Betty’s reading came back by return mail:
QUESTION: WHAT MAY I KNOW ABOUT MICHAEL BUSH AND ABOUT HIS ROLE IN SOLVING THE MYSTERY OF KAIT’S MURDER?
ANSWER: There is in Michael this energy which will have had him in a distant time — a past life — involved with those of this family who will be now unaware of how they will move. Michael will have been one to come along behind this family of warriors and take tally. His tally will sometimes have caused him great alarm at the power of this group. All in this family will
Kait will remember Michael as one who picked her up before out of the devastation and carried her to safety and continued life. It is as if he cannot accept that she will have now been lost in the war in this lifetime, one in which he was not there to carry her back to the fort to safety. This time it is all on a less tangible level but he will want this work and this lesson and this opportunity to assist again.
Michael timed his trip to Albuquerque to coincide with my speaking engagement at a writers’ conference. When we met for breakfast it was as if I had known him forever.
“The fraud ring is the tip of the iceberg,” he told me. “It’s a lever we can use to get law enforcement to take this case seriously, but Jim and I are agreed that Kait was killed for some other reason— probably drugs.”
“Everyone who knew Kait has told us she didn’t use drugs.”
“That’s what would have made her a threat to smugglers,” Michael said. “If she wasn’t part of the game, she’d be a danger to the players.”
He proceeded to give me a rundown on his activities since his arrival in Albuquerque the previous day.
“Schwartz refused to meet with me,” he said. “But the reporter, Mike Gallagher, did. Did you know the police found a Budweiser can on the curb across from where Kait was shot?”
“There was something about that in the case file, but it didn’t seem important,” I said. “The autopsy didn’t show any alcohol in Kait’s blood.”
“The significant thing is that there was a viable fingerprint on that can,” Michael said. “We need to get prints of the Vietnamese suspects from Immigration so APD can do a comparison.”
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