THE THAI CONNECTION | News | Phoenix | Phoenix New Times | The Leading Independent News Source in Phoenix, Arizona



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...
Share this:
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.

Task-force investigators contacted Bay Area authorities, but apparently were unable to establish any solid links between the Join Sun heroin seizure and the temple murders. Still, the heroin seized in Hayward originated in Thailand, and sources on the task force say some investigators were convinced the Buddhists were killed in retribution for the seizure.

"There may have been some tie [to Phoenix]; we'd been working on that," says Rolin Klink, a U.S. Customs agent in San Francisco. "We haven't found any tie that we can prove."
And what of the mysterious "Phet" and the Placentia telephone booth? John Albano, of the Phoenix office of the Drug Enforcement Administration, says those avenues were not pursued.

"When this whole thing started, because of the sensitivity of it, we just left that completely up to the County Attorney's Office," Albano says. "As far as I know, we never initiated any investigation on our own; it was housed out of the Maricopa County Attorney's Office. I don't think we have anything at all to add to it."
Temple telephone records obtained by the task force revealed that at least five calls had been placed from the temple to a private residence in Placentia in the six months prior to the murders. Two calls had been placed the week before the murders. Included were calls from the temple to South America, Florida, Las Vegas and Southeast Asia.

Nine days before the temple murders, someone at Wat Promkunaram called the Thai Tepparod restaurant in Hollywood. The restaurant, which closed recently, was owned by two Thai citizens, one of whom--Bruranasombat Chow--is now a fugitive wanted by the FBI for questioning in connection with the contract murder of a police informant. An FBI spokesman says that though there are no outstanding warrants for Chow's arrest, he is believed to be involved with the heroin trade in Florida, Las Vegas and New York.

And there are other troubling coincidences. In March 1991, two men--Kwok Yin-kat and David Sun--were arrested in Hong Kong for allegedly attempting to smuggle heroin into the United States by hiding the drug inside statues of the Buddha. According to the DEA, the smugglers' plans were to have monks carry the icons through customs. Since the statues were used in the celebration of "Buddhist Lent" (which in 1991, began on July 28), the smugglers apparently assumed U.S. Customs would not scrutinize traveling clerics. There are at least 43 Thai Buddhist temples in the U.S., nearly all of which received visitors from Thailand during that time.

Though the two men were arrested in March, the DEA source said other smugglers employed similar methods of importing heroin.

In April, Pairuch Kanthong--Wat Promkunaram's chief priest--had journeyed to Thailand to visit his family. Task-force investigators say when he returned to Phoenix, he brought with him several cases of Buddha statues to be handed out to temple members during the observance. Some of the statues were still in the temple the morning the bodies were found; none bore any trace of illegal narcotics.

The high priest brought more than the Buddhas back from Thailand. He also brought a fey 21-year-old Thai with long, silky black hair. This was Chirasak Chirapong, the mysterious young man whom temple members and neighbors would come to know as "Boy."

@body:Arizona's Thai community is small and scattered. According to the 1990 census, there are only about 1,300 Thais in the state.

"No two of us live close together," says Amporn Somsin, a Scottsdale physician who serves on the Wat Promkunaram board of directors. "We hardly see each other."
Language was an obstacle in the murder investigation. Many temple members do not speak English, and others have no more than a rudimentary grasp of the language. In addition, several of the Buddhists were new to the temple; few temple members knew these victims very well. Even those who were in frequent contact with the monks were unable to supply much information about them.

To identify the bodies, investigators recruited Choosin Bhandvansee, the chairman of Wat Promkunaram's board of directors, and Samchad Hiranrat, a former monk. While Hiranrat speaks no English, he is one of the few people who knew all temple residents. Bhandvansee, despite his position, knew little about the monks' families or personal histories.

Hiranrat told detectives that the abbot brought Chirapong--Boy"--to Arizona as a favor to the young man's rich aunt. She apparently wanted the monks to straighten him out. Temple members told investigators that in Thailand, Boy had grown wild and lazy. He had a taste for Western culture, flashy clothes and possibly drugs. His aunt believed a summer under the tutelage of monks of Wat Promkunaram might be his last shot at redemption.

But there are indications Boy did not follow the monks' ascetic example. While he is remembered by temple members as polite and easygoing, sources close to the investigation say he was bored with the routine of the temple and not particularly interested in holy work. Task-force members say he often carried large amounts of cash that he flashed as a roll. He liked American movies and music. During their search of the temple, detectives discovered a cache of X-rated videotapes presumably belonging to Boy.

"He may have been dealing a little dope," says a task-force investigator. "That's something we've heard."
Johnathan Doody, accused killer of the temple residents, knew Boy. Doody, whose parents are both Thai and who came to the United States when he was 6, spoke Thai and attended the temple sporadically. His younger brother, David, spent three weeks studying at the temple in the summer of 1991. During that time, Johnathan Doody occasionally visited the temple, usually to pick up or drop off his brother.

Joseph Brandon Burner, a friend of Johnathan's, says he accompanied Doody to the temple "two or three times." Burner says he last went a few days before the murders.

That day, Burner says, he, Johnathan, David and Alex Garcia went to give Boy a Terminator 2 souvenir cup, a promotional item purchased at Subway sandwich shop. Burner says Johnathan Doody had told him there was a "chest full of money" in the temple.

Investigators say they have never had a firm explanation for Boy's presence at the temple. He was the only resident of the Wat without religious duties, and the one with the most contact with people from the outside. He was the only victim not wearing the traditional saffron-and-orange robes of the clergy when he was killed.

Boy wasn't the only recent arrival from Thailand. Four of the murdered Buddhists arrived at Wat Promkunaram in July 1991. Though the turnover among Thai Buddhist monks is fairly high--the Theravada tradition requires all males to spend a portion of their lives as a monk--the fact that six of the nine victims had been in Thailand less than a month before the murders did not elude investigators.

They also noted that at least three of the Buddhists were from Chiang Mai, a city in the heart of the remote "Golden Triangle" near the border of Thailand and Myanmar (formerly Burma). Many of the region's people are literally raised in the drug culture, with children working alongside their parents in the poppy fields. In the early 1980s, the father of one of the murdered monks was arrested in Thailand for smuggling heroin.

Also among the victims were Foi Sripanprasert, a 75-year-old nun, and her grandson, 16-year-old Matthew Miller. Sripanprasert had spent most of her life in Thailand, working a family rice paddy and raising four children. She had come to Arizona four years before the murders to live with her daughter, Fong, and her serviceman husband, Steve Miller.

Matthew Miller was the only American citizen living at the temple. He was spending the summer as an acolyte. However, some of his classmates from Trevor Browne High School remember him as a surly, tattooed tough. His half-brother, 20-year-old Jerry Hastings, says Miller "wanted to learn Thai, to learn about the culture."

Task-force sources suspected Miller and Boy may have bought and sold small amounts of marijuana while they were at the temple. Perhaps coincidentally, the name and telephone number of Jerry Hastings were also scribbled on the sheet of paper with the Placentia number. Investigators believe the English notes written on the pad were made by Miller.

Miller also knew the murder suspects. Alex Garcia told police that Doody decided all the temple residents must die after Miller recognized the gunmen.

Seven days after the murders, the victims' bodies were released to the Thai community. On August 17, the Saturday following the discovery of the bodies, a weeklong wake commenced, with the victims lying in state at the temple. Then all the bodies--with the exception of Miller and Sripanprasert--were flown to Thailand.

Investigators noted that no one came to Bangkok to claim Boy's body. And no one--not even his rich aunt--was there when it was cremated.

@body:On November 17, 1978, a Thai citizen named Lamthong Sudthisa-ard failed to show up for the fourth day of his trial in federal court in Los Angeles.

The former president of the Thai Association of Southern California was being tried on charges of importing heroin and conspiracy to import heroin.

He had told an undercover DEA agent posing as a mobster that he could smuggle heroin from Thailand because of his connections with Thai customs officials. DEA agents say he then had made two trips to Thailand in the summer of 1977, and on August 17 of that year, they had seized 1.5 kilograms of heroin he shipped to the U.S.

After he vanished, Sudthisa-ard was convicted in absentia and his $75,000 bond was forfeited. The Los Angeles office of the DEA assumed he had slipped quietly back into Thailand.

A month to the day after the murders at Wat Promkunaram, Smith Thongkam, a 53-year-old Valley restaurateur who became a spokesman for the local Thai community in the wake of the temple murders, hosted a supper for the Thai ambassador to the United States. The ambassador was in town to express his concern and monitor the progress of the murder investigation. Also present at the dinner at the Spicy Thai restaurant were Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley, Sheriff Tom Agnos and Arizona Attorney General Grant Woods.

As the luminaries dined, good news circulated through the restaurant. Earlier that day, the Tucson Police Department had received a call from a man who claimed to have information about the temple murders. Investigators picked up the man--later identified as Mike McGraw--from a Tucson psychiatric hospital, and were interviewing him. McGraw's statements set off a 48-hour chain of events that ultimately resulted in the arrests and indictments of four young men from Tucson.

After about 90 minutes of questioning inside task-force headquarters in downtown Phoenix, McGraw had implicated himself and several others--including Mark Nuez, Dante Parker and Leo Bruce--in the killings at Wat Promkunaram. Nuez, Parker and Bruce all eventually made statements implicating themselves and others in the murders.

Though the investigators believed there might be others involved in the crime who were still at large, they appeared to have apprehended the core conspirators and the triggerman. Bruce told investigators he shot them all with his brother's .22-caliber rifle.

Although Smith Thongkam's dinner was a success, his prominence was short-lived. On October 5, 1991, DEA agents from Los Angeles arrived in Phoenix to arrest him on the drug charges he'd been convicted of 13 years earlier. Lamthong Sudthisa-ard hadn't fled to Thailand, after all. He had simply moved 350 miles east, changed his name, and purchased a business. Apparently, after 13 years in the Valley, he felt secure enough to associate with high-ranking law enforcement officers and reporters.

On October 9, Thongkam waived extradition to California to face sentencing. Duane Brady, MCSO spokesman, told the press the arrest was unlikely to alter the course of the investigation. Task-force members thought they had broken the case on September 10.

And perhaps they had--though not in the way they expected. For the same day McGraw made his telephone call to Tucson police, another task-force investigator picked up a rifle later determined as the murder weapon. But it wasn't the rifle Leo Bruce claimed he used to shoot the Buddhists.

On August 20, security police at Luke Air Force Base stopped Johnathan Doody and Rolando Caratachea, two west Valley teenagers, for "suspicious activity." Inside Caratachea's 1972 Nova, they found a .22-caliber rifle. The officers told Caratachea to put the gun in his trunk and sent the boys on their way.

The next day, the same security officers spotted Caratachea and Doody in the latter's 1983 Mustang and again stopped them. According to court documents, they asked Caratachea about his rifle. He told them he had left it in the back seat of the Nova, which was parked in front of Doody's parents' house on the base.

Routine reports of the officers' contacts with the boys were forwarded to the task force.

On September 10--the same day McGraw called Tucson police--MCSO detective Rick Sinsabaugh interviewed Caratachea at the restaurant where he worked. Sinsabaugh told Caratachea his rifle might be involved in a case he was investigating. Caratachea agreed to turn over the rifle for testing, and the detective drove him from the restaurant to the Glendale apartment he shared with Johnathan Doody.

When Sinsabaugh retrieved the rifle, he noticed a sticky substance on the barrel he thought might be blood. Caratachea told him he had loaned the rifle to a friend who had returned it dirty. Sinsabaugh didn't ask who the friend was, and Caratachea didn't volunteer a name. (The sticky substance turned out to be residue from tape; Caratachea later told detectives that Doody and Garcia had tried to build a silencer by taping a hollowed-out potato to the end of the barrel.)

Also while he was at the apartment, Sinsabaugh spoke with Doody and Alex Garcia, who was there by coincidence. Doody told Sinsabaugh his brother had spent three weeks at the temple. Sinsabaugh would later note in a written report that Doody was "visibly nervous" and "shaking slightly" during the conversation, and that he avoided eye contact.

Sinsabaugh's report also includes the detective's version of a bizarre exchange with the then-16-year-old Garcia. Sinsabaugh wrote that a protective Garcia "confronted" him, claiming to be Doody's legal guardian.

Sinsabaugh submitted the rifle to the Arizona Department of Public Safety lab for comparative analysis. But, partly because the Tucson suspects had confessed to the murders, the rifle was treated exactly the same as the 75 to 80 other .22-caliber weapons collected by the task force. It was put in queue and the results on the weapon were not returned to the sheriff's office until nearly six weeks later.

Science couldn't match Leo Bruce's Marlin to the shell casings found at the scene. But on October 24, the crime lab informed the temple task force it had matched a weapon--Rolando Caratachea's weapon--to the crime. Caratachea's rifle was identical to Bruce's except its barrel was four inches longer and it held 17--instead of 13--rounds. Investigators found 17 spent shell casings on the floor in the room where the Buddhists were killed.

On Friday night, October 25, Johnathan Doody was arrested--in his ROTC drill-team uniform--before a football game at Agua Fria High School. Hours later, Alex Garcia was arrested at his parents' home.

With a sudden surfeit of suspects, the focus of the investigation shifted from trying to identify and arrest suspects to finding evidence that would link the Tucson men with the high school boys. And though Doody and Garcia both gave investigators several versions of what happened that night at the temple, neither implicated the Tucson men.

Investigators never came up with any physical evidence to link the Tucson suspects--who recanted their confessions almost immediately--to Doody and Garcia. And by the time County Attorney Rick Romley ordered them released from jail--on November 22, 1991--many of the task-force investigators had concluded none of the Tucson men were involved in the Wat Promkunaram murders.

@body:Today, prosecutors believe the drug coincidences are irrelevant to the temple murder case. Though they will not comment on the case, prosecutors believe they can reconstruct the bloodiest mass murder in modern Arizona history.

The official version prosecutors plan to present to a jury later this year holds that in the muggy predawn hours of August 10, 1991, Doody and Garcia kitted themselves out in military fatigues and invaded the temple Wat Promkunaram.

"If they were to come in and say, 'We'll tell you who helped us,' I'd have to say, 'No thank you, boys, I want you,'" says K.C. Scull, the lead prosecutor on the case. "We can't say for 100 percent certain that they were the only ones there that night, but they were there."
Scull believes they herded the victims into a tight circle and made them lie down. Then, after ransacking the office and living quarters, Doody methodically shot each in the back of the head.

A cursory examination of the crime scene gave up evidence of both chilly sophistication and heedless crudity. While the Buddhists had been systematically executed, someone had upended a fire extinguisher and sprayed it about a bedroom. And, in the hallway, someone had scratched--in foot-high letters--the word "bloods," underlining it with three slashes.

Prosecutors will contend that Doody and Garcia left the temple with about $2,500 in cash and a sackful of cameras and consumer electronic products. But two of the dead Buddhists had wallets concealed in their robes--one contained $260 in cash, the other more than $100.

Also, although the living quarters were a shambles, the temple's sanctuary--where worship services were held--apparently had not been violated. Near the altar, four small, wooden collection boxes crammed with cash and secured only by tiny padlocks were left undisturbed. The invaders also ignored a small, potted "money" tree, currency taped to its branches as leaves, in the sanctuary. If they were after money, why would the intruders ignore the easy pickings in the sanctuary?

It was apparent that the invaders tried to open the stainless-steel safe in the living room. A few feet from the safe--a few feet from where the Buddhists died--investigators found every set of keys in the temple heaped on a dining table. The lock required a key and a combination; sources in the Thai community say that even if the residents had supplied the intruders with the safe's combination, for security reasons, the key was not kept on the premises.

Some people cannot understand how two teenage boys could control nine people, some of whom were quite robust. Even with Garcia holding a shotgun on them--he says he fired four times, inflicting nonfatal injuries on four of the victims--it seems hard to imagine that nine people could go so meekly to their deaths.

But an American who once served as a Theravada Buddhist monk says the monks would not have lifted a finger to defend themselves. The former monk, who requested anonymity, believes they would have accepted their fate with quiet dignity.

"Hatred is never appeased by hatred," a passage in the Dhammapada, a Buddhist catechism, reads. "Hatred is appeased by nonhatred. That is the eternal law."
Similarly, Gananath Obeyesekere, a professor of anthropology at Princeton who is recognized as one of the world's leading experts on Buddhist theology, says two of the central tenets of Buddhism are the futility of vengeance and the absence of a concept of intrinsic evil.

"It is impossible for the Buddha to say, 'Vengeance is mine,'" Obeyesekere says.

Others find it hard to reconcile the terrible facts of the crime with its beardless villains. Doody and Garcia are unlikely suspects. Nerdy, quiet kids, neither had any known serious brushes with the law prior to their arrests in the temple case. Nor had they experienced any particular problems in school or with their families.

Still, these boys said they did it. And physical evidence collected by investigators corroborated their statements. Forensic science has provided the cops with a murder weapon and detectives' footwork has put that weapon in Doody's hands.

The County Attorney's Office will focus on the botched robbery theory, on Garcia's testimony against Doody, and the two teens' statements to investigators. They will try to keep the jury from hearing "irrelevant" information about a possible connection between the temple and illegal drugs.

Yet there is much unanswered, much that Peter Balkan, Doody's attorney, might be able to use to raise a reasonable doubt in the minds of the jury. It is his job to exploit the investigation's labyrinthine twists and aporias, to try to introduce confusion into what may be a laborious trial.

Balkan will tell the jury how the Tucson suspects were questioned and confessed, and about how even after their release, Sheriff Tom Agnos insisted they were involved with the temple murders. Can the statements of Doody and Garcia be trusted in light of the four "false" confessions obtained from the Tucson suspects? Can the forensic evidence be trusted, given the political pressures occasioned by the murders? Can a jury believe young Johnathan and Alex did this all by themselves, with no help, no direction, and no support? And what about the drug connection?

KEEP NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. Your membership allows us to continue offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food, and culture with no paywalls. You can support us by joining as a member for as little as $1.