Clovis News

Judge dismisses all charges in Laos-plot case

A federal judge this afternoon dismissed all remaining charges against 12 defendants accused of plotting to overthrow the Communist government of Laos.

The U.S. attorney's office in Sacramento filed a motion to drop the charges today "in the interest of justice." The order was approved by U.S. District Judge Frank C. Damrell Jr.

The move follows the death of Hmong leader and Vietnam War-era Gen. Vang Pao last week in Clovis. Vang Pao was dropped from the case in 2009.

The decision comes after a federal judge in November dismissed key parts of the case against the 11 members of the Hmong community -- including four from Fresno -- and a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel. That included the government's charge that the men violated the federal Neutrality Act.

In a news release, U.S. Attorney Benjamin B. Wagner said, "While some defense attorneys have raised claims of misconduct, I believe the case was investigated and prosecuted properly and professionally. The decision to seek dismissal of this case was not the result of any alleged misconduct by any government employee."

"Based on the totality of the circumstances in the case, the government believes, as a discretionary matter, that continued prosecution of defendants is no longer warranted," said the motion, which was filed in U.S. District Court in Sacramento.

One defendant was Harrison Jack, the retired Army lieutenant colonel. Among the other defendants were David Vang, Hue Vang, Chong Vang Thao and Seng Vue of Fresno.

In addition, prosecutors had earlier announced their intention to drop the charges against Youa True Vang of Sanger, who served as a colonel under Vang Pao in the Vietnam War era when the general led a CIA-sponsored guerrilla army against conmunist forces in Laos.

A federal judge in November dismissed key parts of the case against the 11 members of the Hmong community and a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel. That included the government's charge that the men violated the federal Neutrality Act. The act prohibits people in the United States from taking part in a military action against the government of another nation with which the U.S. is at peace.

The men were arrested in 2007 and accused of plotting to send fighters and weapons, including machine guns and explosives, to Southeast Asia to attack Laos. All had pleaded not guilty.

The 11 are members of California's Hmong community, many of whom fought alongside U.S. troops during the Vietnam War.

The Census Bureau estimated the U.S. Hmong population at close to 240,000, as of 2009. Tens of thousands of Hmong settled in the San Joaquin Valley and the Upper Midwest after leaving Southeast Asia following the war.

Thousands showed up at the Sacramento federal courthouse to peacefully demonstrate every time there was a court hearing in the case, wearing white and waving signs and American flags.

"It's over," said Daniel J. Broderick, a federal defender who represented former Army Lt. Col. Harrison Jack of Woodland, a Vietnam veteran who had been accused of helping organize the plot. "I can only say, thank heavens. He's extremely grateful they took a long hard look at the case, and we agree this is the absolutely appropriate response."

In November, Damrell ruled prosecutors had failed to clearly show that such a military expedition existed.

He also said the government failed to specify what role each defendant allegedly played, or when the purported military effort began.

He and defense attorneys also questioned who the government alleged was the leader, once they dropped charges against Vang Pao and last year moved to dismiss the case against another key player in the original indictment.

The government could have pursued remaining charges, including conspiracy to violate the Neutrality Act, or could have filed an amended compliant. But prosecutors faced another key hearing in February, when defense attorneys planned to argue that the case was built on lies and omissions by an undercover agent of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner said prosecutors reassessed the case after Damrell's November ruling.

"After considering all aspects of the case, we decided that under the totality of circumstances, it is not in the government's interest to continue this prosecution," he said in a statement.

He dismissed defense attorneys' contention of misconduct, saying the decision did not hinge on those allegations. He praised the investigating agents and attorneys.

"The allegations in this case concerning a conspiracy to acquire arms to support offensive action against the government of Laos were serious. Preventing violent crimes against a foreign country and its population is our obligation under federal law," Wagner said.

"It's never too late to do the right thing," said defense attorney Bill Portanova.

Defense attorney Mark Reichel also praised prosecutors.

"Hopefully, the word 'terrorism' now won't be thrown around like nickels, it will be reserved for real threats to American security," Reichel said. "It is a great tribute prior to the funeral of Vang Pao. It will allow the celebration of his life to be complete and unblemished at his funeral."