Nha Trang lets go of murder suspect as US prepares to jail him

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American who dodged Vietnamese authorities finds himself facing a decade in prison at home

The door to Ton Nu Thi Hong's home lies deep in a busy alleyway off Nguyen Thien Thuat Street in downtown NhaTrang.

On a recent Sunday evening, neighborhood children kicked a soccer ball around as black storm clouds gathered overhead.

As rain began to fall, Hong, a soft-spoken secondary school teacher, sat down on the couch in her living room to watch Olympic volleyball reruns with her two children and a sleeping puppy.

Her husband shuffled around the living room in a pair of shorts.

Like many others in the quiet seaside town, she believes a man named Timothy George Doran brutally murdered a woman in this quiet house nearly two years ago.

According to an officer from the Nha Trang Police force, a warrant for Doran's arrest was never issued.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, the officer confirmed that Doran had been a suspect in the crime, but his escape to the United States left them with few options.

 "We can't do anything because he's in America now," he said.

Doran's attorney, Nick Marchi, declined to comment for this story, citing an "active investigation." He did not respond to a request to forward questions to Doran who pled guilty last week to an unrelated crime in Seattle, Washington.

"˜A crime in the house'

Doran arrived at Hong's door with a friend in January 2011. The muscular, 46 year-old American introduced himself as a teacher, though he never graduated from high school or college.

He explained that he has two sons, aged three and four, from a previous marriage.

Hong had rented her home to foreigners before; most asked that she remove the ancestral altar on the top floor.

"But he asked to light incense for my ancestors," she said. "He seemed like a nice man."

When Doran and his boys moved in, Hong and her family relocated to a nearby basement apartment that flooded when it rained. They planned to use Doran's rent to help their daughter through her final year of university.

On March 13, 2011, a bad wind whipped through the town.

Hong's neighbors called and said that a loose window was banging against its frame and would shatter unless someone closed it.

The following day, she arrived to find the front gate locked. That night, she returned with a locksmith and entered the house to find Doran's clothes strewn about the house"”some were still soaking in the sink.

Hong stopped on the second floor landing. An awful smell hung in the air; dried blood streaked along the walls.

Her husband returned later that night and followed the smell to an upper floor bathroom. When he opened a large cabinet above the toilet, he found something rotten wrapped in a blanket. He peeled back the bedspread and discovered the decomposing thigh of Nguyen Thi Bich Ngoc"”a 24 year-old hair stylist who had become friendly with Doran and his children.

"I fainted when he told me a crime had been committed in the house," Hong said.

Case-closed

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Provincial police spent two days taking fingerprints and gathering evidence from Hong's house before handing her the keys.

"They told me that it was [Doran]," she said. "The prints they found all over the house matched the ones on Ngoc's body."

But, by the time the authorities called down to Ho Chi Minh City, Doran had fled the country with his two sons.

The crime has left both Hong and the investigators bemused.

A policeman with children in her class told Hong that a sex toy had been discovered among his possessions and that Ngoc's body showed signs of both intercourse and strangulation. 

The landlord wasn't sure of Doran's relationship with the young hair stylist who had lived nearby. Hong says she later learned that Ngoc had asked a close male friend to confront Doran and make him promise that he would stop being so aggressive with her.

"He promised to stop," she said. "A few days later, he picked her up from work, brought her here and killed her."

Hong invited a Catholic priest (for Ngoc) and hundreds of Buddhist volunteers to perform exorcism rites over the house. She continues to leave offerings at a nearby pagoda for Ngoc's soul on anniversaries of the crime.

But she has long abandoned any hope that Doran would ever face justice for the crime she believes he committed.

"I think he has escaped successfully. And no one is going to catch him. But I don't want it that way. The guilty should pay (for their crime)."

Out of the frying pan"¦

Prior to Doran's return to the United States, he was already being sought by the US Marshall's office.

The former truck driver had been convicted of second-degree rape in 1992 (essentially rape without threat to human life) and the terms of his parole required him to notify police within three days of changing his address or starting a new job.

But when Doran left for Vietnam in October 2010, he never told the police.

When the sheriffs couldn't find him, the case was assigned to the US Marshall's office.

While the crime of "failing to register as a sex offender" may sound like a minor infraction, Doran's movements across state and international lines made his crime a federal offense.

After returning to Seattle in March 2011, Doran moved around. He lived in San Francisco and North Carolina.

Four days before Christmas in 2011, he turned himself in.

An investigator speaking on condition of anonymity confirmed that Doran had taken his sons with him on some of these trips and speculated that worries about his kids may have driven him to turn himself in.

Last week, after nine months of battling the federal complaint against him, Doran pleaded guilty.

His sentencing is scheduled to take place next January. Despite Doran's change of plea, representatives from the US attorney's office have indicated that they plan to pursue the maximum sentence: ten years in prison.

The evidence wall

Early hopes of extraditing Doran to Vietnam have largely fizzled.

No official statements have been issued by police or government officials since the discovery of Ngoc's body"”other than those warning that Doran appeared to be monitoring online news about the murder from abroad.

Last week, a US law enforcement official speaking on condition of anonymity said that efforts to provide DNA evidence to Vietnamese authorities had hit a wall.

"Things have gone back and forth," the official said. "But it's sort of stalled on the Vietnamese side."

The anonymous Nha Trang police officer claimed that the provincial investigators were unable to produce the required information. Because they could not arrest Doran, he claimed, they could not gather his DNA evidence. 

A growing relationship

Ngoc's family members and the concerned American expatriates who have pursued Doran remain hopeful that his upcoming sentencing will buy them time to get him back to Vietnam.

"Eventually, there's a hope of getting him extradited here," said Michael Cull, a Vietnam War veteran living in Nha Trang who has led the effort to bring Doran to justice. "It's up to the State Department to move further."

On Monday, Christopher Hodges, spokesman for the US Embassy in Hanoi, sent a response to a list of questions that began: "We extend our deepest condolences to the family of Nguyen Thi Bich Ngoc."

Though Hodges wrote that he could not comment on "any alleged investigation" he seemed to intimate that an extradition from the US to Vietnam was possible.

"Although the US and Vietnam do not have a bilateral extradition treaty, our two countries have a growing law enforcement relationship," he wrote in an email.

By Calvin Godfrey, Thanh Nien News (The story can be found in the October 5th issue of our print edition, Vietweek)
Nhan Van contributed to this report

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