Was Killing Fields Star Haing Ngor Murdered in Los Angeles by the Khmer Rouge?
Above Photo: Haing Ngor in a still from the film, The Killing Fields.
As part of my research for BACK, where the Khmer Rouge make an unpleasant appearance, I read many contemporary accounts of life, death and torture in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, written by lucky survivors of that evil regime.
One of these survivors was Haing Ngor, who wrote A Cambodian Odyssey, describing his life and torture under the Khmer Rouge. Amongst a mass of harrowing material, I also read Survival in the Killing Fields, on which the famous film, The Killing Fields was based.
The Killing Fields is also relevant to Haing Ngor’s life, because he starred in the film, with no acting experience, and went on to win an Oscar for his role as Dith Pran, assistant to the New York Times journalist Sydney Schanberg.
Ngor worked as a surgeon and gynaecologist in Phnom Penh when Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge took the city in 1975. Because of the new regime’s hatred of education, professionals and intellectuals, Ngor had to hide his medical skills and even stopped wearing glasses.
Along with two million other Cambodians, Ngor was expelled from Phnom Penh and sent into the countryside to grow rice and build dams, with his wife, My-Huoy, who subsequently died giving birth.
Although Ngor was a gynecologist, he was unable to treat her, because he would have been exposed. This would have led to him, his wife and their new born child all being killed. After the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, Ngor worked as a doctor in a Thai refugee camp and left with his niece in 1980, to live in the US.
In 1984, he starred in The Killing Fields, where he won his Oscar (only the second non-acting professional to do so) and was quoted as saying “The film is real, but not real enough. The cruelty of the Khmer Rouge is not bad enough.”
Then in February 1996, as he stepped out of his car one evening, he was shot and killed in the driveway of his home in Los Angeles. A neighbor found Ngor slumped on the pavement of his carport. He was already dead.
At first it was thought he’d been killed by Khmer Rouge agents, but the police investigation found that he was shot by three members of the ‘Oriental Lazyboy’ street gang looking for money to buy drugs, after he’d resisted a robbery attempt.
The irony of his death was not lost on commentators – he’d escaped death countless times at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, who’d killed millions of Cambodians, he’d survived torture (losing a finger during one bout), yet he’d died a victim of random street violence, a world away in Los Angeles.
In the aftermath of his murder, there was immediate speculation among the Californian Cambodian community that Pol Pot or a member of the Khmer Rouge had ordered a hit on Ngor, who remained an outspoken critic of the dictator and the regime. This was particularly worrying for them: if the Khmer Rouge were now capable of carrying out international hits on the regime’s former victims living in the US, perhaps nobody was safe.
Under major pressure to solve the murder, the Los Angeles Police Department launched an international investigation, only to conclude that Ngor was killed by the three gang members as part of a random street robbery gone wrong.
Adalberto Luper, a former LAPD detective who worked on the case, said:
“Knowing that this man was a human rights guy and deeply involved in Cambodia, the logical place to look would be to see if there is any Khmer Rouge link. If we didn’t do that, then it would open up the case for speculation.”
But the international investigation failed to come up with any compelling evidence, and officials said they could find no link to Cambodia or Pol Pot.
Eventually, several witnesses came forward saying they’d seen three men running from the scene, and police found graffiti nearby that they believed indicated a gang-related robbery.
Unable to find any ties between the suspects and Pol Pot sympathizers who might have ordered a hit, detectives dropped the Cambodian conspiracy angle. “We had to reduce all the potential tentacles that may or may not be true,” Luper said. “The investigation ultimately showed this murder was gang-related.”
At trial, the prosecutor argued Ngor had willingly handed over his gold Rolex watch but had resisted when the gang tried to snatch a gold locket he wore around his neck, which his dead wife had given to him back in Cambodia and which he’d never taken off. He was then shot and killed so they could steal the locket. Neither the watch nor the locket was ever recovered.
Two years later, the suspects were convicted on 16 April 1998. Bizarrely this was also the date that Pol Pot’s death was announced to the world (he’d died the day before, in the Cambodian jungle).
In 2004 US courts overturned the 1998 conviction of the three gang members, although a further appeal by US Prosecutors reinstated the original conviction and the gang members were kept locked up for long jail sentences (Tak Sun Tan – 56 years to life, Indra Lim – 26 years to life and Jason Chan – life without parole).
So, what was wrong with the case?
These are just my opinions, of course, but there’s enough to shed reasonable doubt on the convictions of the three men and on the alleged motive for the killing:
1. If this was a common street robbery, why did Ngor still have $800 in cash in his trouser pockets? Also, he had $2,900 in cash in his jacket on the back seat of the car, and the car key was on the ground.
2. The motive – killing Ngor because he refused to give up his locket – was total speculation created by the prosecution, backed up by nothing.
3. Why would the thieves have demanded his locket? Ngor typically wore the locket next to his skin under his clothing, so it would not have been in plain sight when the robbery was being commissioned. You’d have to have personal knowledge of Ngor to know he wore the locket.
4. At the time of the prosecution, even Ngor’s friends were skeptical of the robbery motive. They said Ngor’s survival instincts had kept him alive during the Khmer Rouge regime, and he would have done anything to protect himself, they believed, even giving up the locket.
5. There was no direct evidence linking the defendants to the killing. The case was purely circumstantial. Nor did the defendants have convictions for anything as serious as murder; only for snatching purses and street robberies.
6. At trial, the defence case, also circumstantial, was that professional Khmer Rouge-backed killers had carried out the hit. But of course, back then, this was nothing more than a good argument.
New Evidence Surfaces in Cambodia
Fast forward now to November 2009, when Kang Kek Lew, also known as Comrade Duch, the torturer-in-chief of the Khmer Rouge at Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh, was on trial at the UN-backed Tribunal in Cambodia. During the case, he claimed that Ngor was murdered on Pol Pot’s orders, because he’d appeared in the film The Killing Fields.
This seems a more credible motive than a street robbery gone wrong. Duch knew he couldn’t plea-bargain anything to do with this murder in exchange for a more lenient sentence. Why would he lie about it?
Yet incredibly, U.S. investigators didn’t find this testimony credible, and they didn’t reopen the case.
Others did believe Comrade Duch, however, especially Cambodians living in the US, many of whom remain convinced of a Khmer Rouge-related conspiracy, despite the insistence of US authorities that it was a street crime with no ties to Cambodia.
“I believe this 100%,” said Thommy Nou, 62, of Long Beach, a relative of Ngor. “This was a homicide set up by the communists or possibly the Khmer Rouge. That’s what I had thought all along.”
I believe a Khmer Rouge-motivated hit is a much more likely explanation for Haing Ngor’s murder and that three innocent men remain locked up in the US, who had nothing to do with it. In an odd way, they too have become victims of the Khmer Rouge.
For POWs left behind in Laos, see also:
© Peter Alan Lloyd
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