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Guilty verdict in kidnapping trial of Vietnamese brothers found dead and dumped in the Schuylkill

“This is crazy,” Jason Rivera, of Queens, muttered as his attorney motioned for him to stay silent as the judge dismissed the court. He now faces a mandatory minimum life sentence.

Philadelphia police investigate along the Schuylkill River in August 2014, after the bodies of brothers Viet and Vu Huynh were found stabbed and sunk with buckets of cement. A third man, Tan Voong, survived what he said was an abduction.
Philadelphia police investigate along the Schuylkill River in August 2014, after the bodies of brothers Viet and Vu Huynh were found stabbed and sunk with buckets of cement. A third man, Tan Voong, survived what he said was an abduction.Read moreAlejandro A. Alvarez / Staff file photo

A New York City man was convicted Tuesday of aiding members of a notorious Vietnamese gang in a kidnapping plot that ended with two Philadelphia brothers stabbed, weighted down with cement, and thrown into the Schuylkill to die.

It took a federal jury less than seven hours to convict Jason Rivera, 37, of Queens, on allegations that he and five others carried out the August 2014 abduction and slaying of Viet and Vu “Kevin” Huynh in one of the most vicious incidents of gang violence Philadelphia had seen in years.

The group held and tortured the Huynhs for hours over a $300,000 drug debt before their abductors drove them to the river, stabbed them dozens of times, blindfolded them with duct tape and tossed them in.

A third victim — Tan Voong — was taken and attacked along with them but managed to escape, climbing out of the inky depths to flag down a passing motorist for help. He survived his injuries, eventually providing information that helped lead to the arrests of his captors.

“I was on my knees knowing something bad was going to happen,” Voong told the jury of nine women and three men in testimony last week. “Then I feel I was getting stabbed. After that, it was just the water.”

As the jury foreperson announced the guilty verdicts Tuesday on counts including conspiracy, kidnapping and extortion, Rivera silently shook his head and started mumbling agitatedly, ignoring silencing motions from his attorney. He now faces a mandatory minimum sentence of life in prison.

“This is crazy,” Rivera said.

» READ MORE: How the FBI tracked linked a brutal 2014 murder to a gang that terrorized New York City in the '90s

The verdict came after a seven-day trial and a government case that relied heavily on the testimony from the other men who played a role in the Huynh brothers’ deaths. Four others have been convicted in connection with the crime in the years since the slayings.

Throughout the proceedings, defense lawyer Thomas Mirigliano sought to discredit the group that testified as “liars and criminals” willing to say anything to avoid spending the rest of their lives in prison.

“Not only are these individuals liars and crooks,” he said during his closing pitch to the jury on Monday, “if we really dig deep into their testimony, their ability to recollect these events [is] really in doubt.”

But the government’s witnesses consistently identified Rivera as muscle sent to Philadelphia with two other men by a New York City drug dealer Lam Trieu, a former ranking member of a gang of Vietnamese immigrants called Born to Kill, named after a slogan painted on the helmets of some U.S. soldiers during the Vietnam War.

“Lam Trieu asked him to jump, and Jason Rivera said how high?” Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Livermore said in his closing argument. “That relationship is almost master-servant relationship.”

Based on Canal Street in Manhattan’s Chinatown in the ‘80s and ’90s Born to Kill’s members were mostly migrants who had fled the political strife the war created in their native country when they were children, only to turn their aggression against Chinese and other Asian business owners after arriving in New York.

They robbed rival gangs, ran protection rackets, and left a string of bodies across New York and New Jersey before a 1993 federal prosecution sent much of the gang’s leadership, including Trieu, to prison.

And while Born to Kill was believed to have died out after that case, Trieu’s old gang ties led to both his and Rivera’s involvement in the Huynh brothers’ deaths.

Testifying at the trial, Trieu — who pleaded guilty to kidnapping, drug and conspiracy charges last year — admitted he’d reached out to another BTK associate in Philadelphia, Tam Minh Le, 51, to collect the debt the Huynhs owed to their marijuana supplier in California.

Le had fronted the drugs to the brothers, known among police as South Philadelphia drug dealers. And Trieu sent Rivera along with two other men — John Dao, 44, and Trung Lu, 41 — to get the Huynhs to pay what they owed.

Trieu told jurors he had instructed Le to abduct the men and, if necessary, bring them back to New York as hostages. But after Trieu returned to New York, his men, Le, and fifth captor Minh Nguyen bundled the Huynhs into a van and drove them back to Le’s house in Eastwick, where they tortured them and drove them down to the grandstands along Boathouse Row to die.

“My feet touched the sand. That’s when I knew exactly what was going to happen,” Voong, the lone survivor of the attack, testified. “I knelt down, and they constantly stabbed me [then] they throw me down to the river.”

Le was sentenced to death in state court shortly after the slayings and remains in a state prison in Greene County, near the border of West Virginia.

Dao and Nguyen have also pleaded guilty to charges in federal court and are facing sentencing in the coming months.

Lu remains a fugitive and is believed to have fled back to Vietnam.

As Rivera was led out of the courtroom in handcuffs Tuesday — his future sealed by the jury’s decision — he shrugged his shoulders, cast his eyes downward, and calmly marched off to a future likely to be spent almost entirely behind bars.