A man reputed to have once been a ranking member in a Vietnamese gang that terrorized New York City’s Chinatown in the 1990s admitted Wednesday to playing a leading role in a plot to collect a drug debt that ended with two men stabbed, weighted down with cement, and thrown into the Schuylkill to die.
But as he pleaded guilty in federal court to extortion, drug, and conspiracy charges, Lam Trieu, 49, insisted that he hadn’t intended any of what happened on that night in August 2014.
“I did not mean for anyone to be beat or killed,” he told U.S. District Judge J. Curtis Joyner. “I just meant for them to be scared.”
Trieu is one of six men federal prosecutors have charged in connection with the slayings of brothers Viet and Vu “Kevin” Huynh in one of the most vicious incidents of gang violence Philadelphia has seen in years.
The Huynhs were kidnapped and tortured for hours before their abductors drove them to the river, stabbed them dozens of times, blindfolded them with duct tape, and tossed them in.
A third man taken and attacked with them managed to climb his way out of the inky depths, flagged down police, and survived to later testify against one of their captors at trial.
And while their primary captor, Tam Minh Le, 50, was arrested on state murder charges and sentenced to death shortly after, it took years for investigators to track down the others involved in the crime.
Investigators have described both Le and Trieu as former ranking members of a gang of Vietnamese immigrants named Born to Kill, after a slogan painted on the helmets of some U.S. soldiers during the Vietnam War.
Based on Canal Street in Manhattan’s Chinatown in the ’80s and ’90s, its members were mostly migrants who had fled the political strife the war created in their native country as 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 its 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 his involvement in the Huynh brothers’ deaths.
Speaking in court Wednesday through a Vietnamese interpreter — and under frequent coaching from his lawyers — Trieu admitted he had reached out to Le, his old BTK associate, to collect on a $300,000 debt they owed to their marijuana supplier in California.
Le had fronted the drugs to the Huynhs, known South Philadelphia drug dealers. And Trieu traveled to Philadelphia with three others to get the brothers to pay what they owed.
He allegedly instructed Le to abduct the brothers and, if necessary, bring them back to New York as hostages. But after Trieu returned home, his men and Le bundled the Huynhs into a van, drove them back to Le’s house in Eastwick, where they were tortured and then driven down to the grandstands along Boathouse Row to die.
Trieu insisted he was furious when he learned hours later what had happened.
Still, while he was not charged with the brothers’ murders or their abduction, FBI agents arrested him in 2018 on charges of conspiracy, drug distribution, and collecting credit through extortionate means that threatened to send him back to prison for life.
His guilty plea Wednesday came as part of a deal struck with prosecutors that is likely to spare him that fate. But it could have additional consequences, including his deportation from the country.
Trieu was ordered deported after serving his last sentence in the 1993 case, but as with many of Born to Kill’s members, Vietnam refused to take him back. With nowhere to send him at the time, the U.S. released him on immigration parole and he had been living with his wife and children in Queens, N.Y., working in a dim sum restaurant up until shortly before his arrest.
Three others — John Dao, 43; Jason Rivera, 35; and Minh Nguyen — still face charges for their roles in the plot and are scheduled for trial in September, while one — Trung Lu, 40 — remains a fugitive believed to have fled back to Vietnam.
A sixth man — Hai Nguyen, 38 — pleaded guilty last year to helping Le escape to Ashland, Va., after the slayings of the Huynhs.
Le, meanwhile, remains incarcerated at a state prison in Greene County, near the border with West Virginia.