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Tuesday, July 7, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Family Grieves For Brothers Killed In Tacoma Shooting -- `A Wedding Becomes A Funeral' -- Theories Fly On Reason For Deadly Attack

Seattle Times Staff Reporters

The dead:

-- Thi Ngoc Tuyen Vo, 21 -- Hung Dang Do, 33 -- Duy Quang Le, 25 -- Hai Le, 27 -- Nhan Nguyen, 26

TACOMA - They were brothers, Duy and Hai Le. Duy was to get married next month; Hai, next year. Their father had been hand-delivering the invitations to Duy's Aug. 15 wedding up until the day both brothers were killed.

"A wedding becomes a funeral," the father, Duc Le, said in Vietnamese.

A day after one of the bloodiest attacks in this city's history, relatives of Duy, 25, and Hai, 27, gathered at the family home in shock and grief. Family members wept and paced and chain-smoked and pounded tables and buried their faces in the ground.

Some appeared as stymied as the Tacoma police seem to be in their search for clues. Investigators still have no suspects in the Sunday morning shooting spree at the Trang Dai restaurant that killed five and injured five. It isn't known what connections, if any, the victims had other than being patrons of the restaurant. The Pierce County medical examiner has identified the fifth victim as Nhan Nguyen, 26, of Tacoma.

Witnesses told police three gunmen entered the restaurant and opened fire. At least 41 shots were fired. Of the five people injured, Khanh Huynh, 28, remains in serious condition at Madigan Army Medical Center. Hoai Nguyen, 28, is satisfactory at Tacoma General and three others were treated and released.

"It (the attack) was well-planned and well-executed," said homicide Detective Doug Margeson. "They (the attackers) got in, did what they wanted to do, and got out."

Because of the nature of the crime, and because of recent developments at the restaurant, police suspect the attack was gang-related. Police had been monitoring the restaurant for suspected drug and other criminal activities.

Family members said Duy and Hai Le were innocent bystanders.

The brothers were at their parents' house for a barbecue Saturday, the Fourth of July. After eating and watching fireworks, the brothers met up with two friends at Trang Dai restaurant on South Yakima Street in what has become known as the Lincoln Business District.

The district has become Tacoma's counterpart to Seattle's Chinatown International District. Many of the city's estimated 2,500 Vietnamese and 2,500 Cambodians live or work there. Most businesses have Vietnamese or Cambodian names.

The Trang Dai restaurant had just recently started offering karaoke. The place was dimly lit. The night of the shooting, the room lights were turned off. Only black ceiling lights were on, Margeson said.

"That place is dark even during the day," said Hung Nguyen, a local resident who frequented the restaurant.

According to police, three men entered the establishment through one of two front doors about 1:30 a.m. Sunday. One of the men had an assault rifle; the other two had handguns. The assailants opened fire; they said nothing and took nothing - except five lives.

Three of the victims, including the Le brothers, were sitting together at the same table. All the victims were Vietnamese immigrants.

"Living in Vietnam was hard, but they survived," said Thao Le, sister of Duy and Hai. "Living here is good, but they died."

The Le family arrived here five years ago - father, mother, three sons and two daughters. The family juggled remedial-English classes and odd jobs to make ends meet. Hai worked as a woodcutter, Duy as a welder. Both were working 12- to 14-hour days as they prepared for married life, relatives said.

The family was excited about the Aug. 15 wedding. Yesterday, An-Binh Nguyen wept as she looked at the diamond engagement ring Duy had given her. She said she would wear it for the rest of her life.

Later in the day yesterday, the father, Duc Le, walked to the back yard to get away from the crowd and the media. He smoked cigarettes. He said that, a day earlier, he had spent two hours touching his oldest son's body.

He touched Hai's face and chest and legs, because "I will never be able to touch him again."

The mother was so shocked over Hai's death that the family has not told her that her younger son was also killed. Relatives say they have shielded her from media reports and will continue to do so until they believe she can handle it.

Rumors swirled throughout the neighborhood yesterday as police spent another day gathering evidence at the scene. The street was blocked by police barricades, and the area immediately around the restaurant was closed off by yellow police tape. Seven cars, owned by the shooting victims, sat unmoved since Sunday morning inside the taped-off area.

Thai Nguyen, owner of the hair salon next door to Trang Dai, said he believes there are people in Tacoma's Southeast Asian community who know who the killers are. Gossipers loitered near his shop throughout the day.

Sunday night after the killings, as he swept his floor, some spilled inside: Two people, he said, claimed to have been in the restaurant early Sunday morning during the shootings, hiding in the bathroom. He said he didn't know their names. "I think somebody knows a lot. I think they are very scared."

At the Kien Giang pool hall around the corner, Hung Nguyen said two other people who were at the restaurant at the time of the shooting stopped by the pool hall yesterday morning.

Nguyen, whose family owns the hall, said the two witnesses had hidden behind a large speaker at the time of the shooting. Nguyen would not give their names. They were afraid, he said.

Theories abounded on the reason for the shootings: someone had a beef with the owner; it was a dispute over a girl; it was over a large gambling debt; it was a revenge act for a recent burglary; it was the last and loudest round in a continuing rivalry between Vietnamese and Cambodian gangs.

Rumors: the shooters wore masks; the shooters wore hoods; contrary to police reports, there was a shooter at each of the restaurant's three entrances; the lone female victim, Thi Ngoc Tuyen Vo, 21, a waitress, was shot as she tried to escape from the back door (her body was found near the back door).

Police will neither deny nor confirm the speculations.

Margeson said he believes it will be a long investigation.

Tan Vinh: 206-515-5656. E-mail: tvin-new@seatimes.com

Matthew Ebnet: 206-515-5698. E-mail: mebn-new@seatimes.com

Alex Tizon: 206-464-2216. E-mail: atiz-new@seatimes.com

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Community meeting

Tacoma police will hold a community meeting at 7 p.m. tomorrow about the shootings at the Trang Dai cafe. Location: the auditorium at Lincoln High School, 701 South 37th St., Tacoma.

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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