Perhaps not since the Manson family crawled out of the desert has there been a crime scene as horrible and baffling as the one Maricopa County sheriff's deputies were called to on the morning of August 10, 1991.

Inside Wat Promkunaram, a Buddhist temple in the far west Valley, nine bodies were arranged in a loose circle on the floor of a common living room. Though the victims' posture suggested they might be bent in prayer, one, two or three small bullet holes punctuated the back of each head. Someone had executed these people.

Alessandro "Alex" Garcia, 17, has pleaded guilty to these murders and has agreed to testify against the alleged triggerman, 18-year-old Johnathan Doody. In addition to Garcia's testimony, prosecutors will introduce at trial a smattering of physical and circumstantial evidence, and Doody's own self-incriminating statements. For the investigators, the rest is epilogue: They have their killers.

"There is overwhelming evidence that Johnathan Doody and Alex Garcia acted alone," says Sergeant Russ Kimball, the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office detective who organized the multiagency Major Crimes Task Force to investigate the murders. For Kimball and other investigators, the facts render speculation about motives immaterial: There is a reason some crimes are described as "senseless."
Still, the murders at Wat Promkunaram have from the beginning been occluded by rumor, dread and political intrigue. Immediately after the massacre was reported, stories began to circulate that the Buddhists had been murdered by Asian gangsters and their murders were somehow connected to drug trafficking.

That is not a theory to which prosecutors subscribe. But it is an issue that Doody's attorney, Peter Balkan, intends to raise at trial. Though Balkan says he does not have the resources to thoroughly investigate a drug angle, internal sheriff's office documents obtained by New Times indicate the task force did take these rumors seriously: Agents were sent to Thailand--part of the heroin-rich "Golden Triangle"--to investigate a possible connection with the narcotics trade.

Investigators--aware they might be perceived as blaming the victims--quietly searched for evidence of drug dealing at the temple. And when evidence began to lead them in another direction, they abandoned--in retrospect, perhaps too quickly--their theory that illegal drugs may have had a role in the murders.

Yet the probe bore some astonishing fruit, a startling string of coincidences suggesting that someone living or working at Wat Promkunaram took some dark secrets to the grave.

Late on the evening of August 14, 1991, two police dogs trained to detect heroin, cocaine and marijuana were sent into the temple. Investigators waited until after dark to employ the dogs to avoid tipping off the press.

Deputy R.C. Helton later reported that Rudy, the drug-sniffing dog he handled, "reacted" to two areas inside the temple. Another dog and handler--neither identified in the report--were sent in after Rudy's tour, and hit on the same two places: A long, low platform covered with blue cloth that ran along the north end of the sanctuary, and a filing cabinet in the abbot's room.

While subsequent searches turned up no drugs, a task-force member says the dogs might have reacted to the scents of residual traces. He also says while police consider drug-sniffing dogs "fairly reliable," their reactions are not conclusive. They are, however, sensitive enough to react to microscopic residue. And the fact that two dogs independently hit on the same areas convinced detectives that something unusual had been there.

Investigators also found a trap door that concealed a plywood-lined space near the recessed altar on the west wall of the sanctuary. While the dogs did not react to the empty "secret compartment," it looked newly built.

Investigators were even more interested in one of the first items of evidence they collected. Written in Thai on a notepad found on a dining table in the room where the bodies were found were directions from Phoenix to a public telephone in the parking lot of a high school in Placentia, California, a city of 35,000 in Orange County.

According to the note, from the pay phone, the note's bearer was to dial a local telephone number and ask for "Phet." A final sentence, scrawled in English, indicated that "it now weighs 1083 pounds."

Investigators believe the final sentence is an allusion to what U.S. Customs officials describe as the "largest heroin seizure in the history of the United States." In that raid, agents arrested five people and confiscated 1,080 pounds of "virtually pure" China white heroin with an estimated street value of $2.5 billion to $3 billion.

The raid took place on June 20, 1991, at the Join Sun Corporation warehouse in Hayward, near Oakland, California. In April, agents had received a tip that a large heroin shipment was being moved from Thailand to the Bay Area via Taiwan. They staked out the Port of Oakland and watched as longshoremen put crates into a truck, then unloaded them in a warehouse obstensibly used to store imported china. For more than a month, they kept the building under 24-hour surveillance before moving in and arresting five suspected drug smugglers--including two brothers and their wives. All five suspects were from Taiwan, and the two couples lived in an ultraexclusive Contra Costa County development called Blackhawk. They await trial.

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Philip Martin