Vang Pao released on bail

Gen. Vang Pao
Former Hmong Gen. Vang Pao, on a visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. in May 2000, marking the 25th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War. The Lao veterans fought with U.S. forces against the North Vietnamese in Laos.
Photo by LUKE FRAZZA/AFP/Getty Images

(AP) - A federal magistrate ordered the alleged ringleader of a plot to overthrow the communist government of Laos released on bail Thursday, letting former Laotian Gen. Vang Pao return to his Southern California home under extremely strict conditions.

U.S. Magistrate Dale Drozd also approved bail for seven other defendants, including the other central figure in the case, Harrison Jack, 60, a former Army Ranger accused of acting as a middle man between the Hmong leaders and a presumed arms dealer who was really an undercover federal agent.

Drozd put off bail hearings for three other defendants until Friday. But after more than seven hours of arguments Thursday, he appeared poised to release all 11 of the men accused in the plot.

The rulings by Drozd followed a dramatic morning in court in which two defendants were hospitalized as their attorneys argued they should be freed while they await trial.

Drozd's decision will confine 77-year-old Vang Pao, who is considered a leader of Hmong who emigrated to America after the Vietnam War, to his home in Westminster and allow him to see only his family, doctors and attorneys.

"They were buying weapons to kill and maim in another country. You don't buy AK-47s to go duck hunting."

His home and those of four other family members and friends valued at a total of $1.5 million will be offered as bond. Drozd said if Vang Pao violates any condition of his release all five could lose their homes.

Jack, of Woodland, Youa True Vang, 60, of Sanger; Lo Cha Thao, 34, of Clovis; Dang Vang, 48, of Fresno; Lo Thao 53, of Sacramento; Chue Lo, 59, of Stockton and Seng Vue, 68, of Fresno were all ordered released under similar terms.

In all, families and friends of the eight men combined put up nearly 30 homes, an apartment complex, and a family trust valued at a $7.5 million.

A crowd of about 1,000 Hmong gathered outside the federal courthouse erupted in applause and cheers after Drozd's first bail decision was announced, throwing confetti and squirting water.

Vang Pao was the first of the 11 defendants to appear before Drozd for a new round of bail hearings. He appeared in court in a wheelchair after being hospitalized for chest pains last month.

Earlier in the day, U.S. District Judge Frank C. Damrell Jr. ordered Drozd to hold individual hearings on each of the accused - many of whom are elderly - to reconsider whether there are any conditions under which they could be released.

During the hearing before Damrell, defendant Seng Vue, 68, of Fresno, fainted in the courtroom and was taken by ambulance to UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento. He suffered a stroke three weeks ago while in custody, his attorney said.

A co-defendant, Chong Yang Thao, 53, also of Fresno, was taken to the same hospital earlier Thursday after he suffered a stroke, said his lawyer, Dina Santos. He was awaiting testing to determine the severity of the stroke, she said.

"This underscores the other issue here besides whether they are a danger to the community," Damrell said after Vue was taken from the courtroom wearing an oxygen mask and in a wheelchair.

Federal prosecutors argued that all 11 defendants are dangerous and there was no assurances that if released they wouldn't flee during what could be a yearslong court battle.

Prosecutors also warned that in the open the men could put out a contract on the life of the undercover agent or even continue secretly plotting against the Laotian government.

John Keker, an attorney for Vang Pao, said the alleged plotters had no idea what they were getting into when they contacted an undercover federal agent posing as an arms broker.

The men never intended to overthrow the Laotian government, only to help the Hmong defend themselves against Laotian soldiers that the group believes are trying to exterminate them, he said.

Defense attorneys also seized on what appeared to be Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Twiss backing away from one of the prosecution's central claims that the men were buying weapons to overthrow the Laotian government.

The ll are accused of plotting to buy nearly $10 million worth of machine guns, anti-aircraft missiles, rocket-propelled grenades, mines and other weapons.

"Did these folks conspire to kill people in a foreign land? The answer is yes. It makes no difference if they were conspiring to overthrow another government or rob a bank," Twiss said in arguing against their release.

After the hearing, Twiss said he believed the group intended to overthrow the government of Laos. But, he argued, whether or not that was their ultimate goal is immaterial.

"They were buying weapons to kill and maim in another country," Twiss said. "You don't buy AK-47s to go duck hunting."

The men face possible sentences of life in prison if they are convicted. They're accused of conspiring to violate the Neutrality Act against a nation with which the United States is at peace; conspiring to kill, kidnap and maim; conspiring to possess firearms and destructive devices; and conspiring to export munitions without a license from the U.S. State Department.

Defense attorneys and prosecutors sparred for three hours over whether the men are too dangerous to be released.

Keker charged that much of the headline-grabbing nature of the case can be chalked up to undercover agents playing "fast and loose" in trying to build their case. He pointed to exchanges between defendant Harrison Jack and the lead Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agent who posed as an arms dealer.

Jack is a former Army Ranger who led covert operations with Hmong fighters during the Vietnam War.

In at least three of the conversations between the two, Jack said ideally there would be no bloodshed in the overthrow. The 500 AK47s he wanted to buy would let the Hmong defend themselves against Laotian soldiers the group believes are trying to exterminate Hmong so they could flee the country, Jack allegedly said.

Several of the conversations took place over beers in bars and restaurants around the California capital.

"There's an enormous difference between what the evidence shows and what the prosecution alleges. The questions are, Who pumped it up, and was it bar talk or real talk?" Keker said in court.

He also argued that the most sinister parts of the plot - such as purchasing Stinger missiles - were suggested by the undercover agent, and that the agent led the group to believe he was working in coordination with the government.

Government transcripts quoted in court Thursday showed the agent saying the arms would be flown to Laos from Beale Air Force Base near Sacramento.

Keker also said members of the group had met with CIA officials and believed they had at least the tacit approval of the agency to conduct the mission.

Twiss said his office consulted with the CIA and denied that anyone from the agency ever met with the defendants. "We know it was not a CIA-backed operation. Any allegation that it was is completely false," he said.

Drozd said he understood the prosecution's worries about releasing Vang Pao, given the huge support he had outside the courtroom, but said he weighed that against his life's work and several decades of positive contributions he's made in the community.

The remaining three defendants - Hue Vang, 39, and Chong Yang Thao, 53, of Fresno and Nhia Kao Vang, 48, of Rancho Cordova - are expected to be granted bail on Friday.

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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