SANTA ANA – A Vietnamese refugee is under federal investigation amid allegations that he killed a fellow inmate while serving as trusty at a communist “re-education camp.”
Thi Dinh Bui, 60, of Orange Grove, is a former South Vietnamese army captain who spent 1975 to 1981 in the Thanh Cam camp near Hanoi after the end of the Vietnam War.
Another refugee, the Rev. Andrew Nguyen Huu Le, contends that Bui kicked him unconscious. The Roman Catholic priest also said in a signed affidavit to immigration officials that he saw Bui kill a man.
The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service is investigating the allegations.
Some want Bui deported if the allegations are upheld, but his fate would be unclear because the United States has no extradition treaty with Vietnam.
Bui, a father of nine, came to the United States in 1994 and now delivers newspapers as an independent contractor for the Orange County Register. He admits that he struck inmates but denied severely beating or killing anyone.
“The people I work with, how can I look at them in the face if I did? They know that I am a good man.”
The prison guards “gave me the job — chose me — so I took it,” he said. “My method of working was to help everyone at the camp, and to help them return to their families as soon as it was possible.”
He did confiscate food that prisoners smuggled back from field work, he said.
“The reason a number of prisoners — brothers in the camp — didn’t agree with me or hated me is because of the inspections,” Bui said. “They would bring stuff, hide stuff, and I’d usually take it away.”
The priest contends that in 1979 he and four cellmates chipped a hole in the wall and fled camp, but were caught the next morning. Bui kicked him until he passed out, he said in the INS affidavit.
“Bui dragged me by my legs up the stairs to the solitary confinement room, banging my head against the steps,” the priest wrote. “He threw me into a room and left me there; he thought I was dead. He then proceeded to beat Maj. Tiep Van Dang to death. I personally witnessed this brutal murder.”
Bui denies he hit anyone that day but only picked up the men that the camp guards had beaten, including the priest.
“I wanted to carry him over my shoulder,” Bui said. “But the guards wouldn’t let me. And they yelled at me, ‘Why carry him? Drag him.’ So I dragged him.”
Nine other former inmates told the Register that they saw Bui beat prisoners but not kill anyone.
The priest met with Bui once in 1996 and they prayed together. The same year, Le wrote a memoir of his life in the camp that made the accusations against Bui.
The memoir was sent to the priest’s friends and was circulated to refugee activists as e-mail.
Last year, activist Thang Dinh Nguyen of Washington filed a complaint demanding Bui’s deportation on the grounds that he committed crimes against humanity.
The sister of the man Bui allegedly killed also wants him deported.
“He is a cruel animal, not a human being,” said Nham Dang, 58, of Arlington, Va. “Like with World War II, if those who killed Jews came to the United States, you wouldn’t accept them. I think (Bui) has done a similar crime.”
The priest who allegedly witnessed the killing said he has struggled to forgive Bui.
“If the court calls me, I will tell the truth,” he said. “But I will ask for a pardon for him, especially for his family.”