Leads elusive in massacre at Arizona temple

August 12, 1991|By Jane Fritsch | Jane Fritsch,Los Angeles Times

PHOENIX -- Authorities pleaded with the Asian community yesterday for any information that might help explain the baffling killings of six Buddhist monks and three others found shot to death Saturday in their temple outside Phoenix.

But grim-faced Thai immigrants who came to the temple yesterday said that they had no answers.

"The monks never bothered anyone," said Amnuay Farmer, a member of the temple. "They lived here for three years and nothing happened. No enemies at all."

The bodies of the monks, a Buddhist nun and two young men who were members of the temple were found Saturday side-by-side and face down, each shot in the head.

Their positions indicated that they may have been kneeling when they were killed sometime late Friday or early Saturday, said Maricopa County Sheriff Tom Agnos.

The temple, called Wat Promkunaram, was untouched, but nearby sleeping rooms had been ransacked, Sheriff Agnos said.

He said that investigators, who have been working around the clock, are "days away" from completing their examination of the crime scene.

They have not determined a motive, but robbery is a possibility, he added.

"I think this crime is so horrendous," the sheriff said, that the entire Phoenix community "is not going to tolerate this. This is just really a terrible, terrible tragedy."

A. Somsin, secretary of the temple's board of directors, said some temple members believed the killings may have been a hate crime.

"We think that an important message was being sent that said 'We don't need you around here,' " he said. "This is not a burglary. This was not done by a psychotic killer. Psychotic people don't do things so methodically."

Mr. Somsin said the temple's board voted unanimously in an emergency meeting yesterday to close the temple indefinitely.

He said that unless the murders are solved and security is improved, "We may never, never get another monk here."

The monks, who were originally from Thailand, never locked the doors of their small temple and attached living quarters, said Sheriff Agnos. The plain stucco structure was built three years ago amid cotton fields about 20 miles west of downtown Phoenix, set back from the main road and several hundred yards from the closest house.

Congregation members discounted suggestions that the killings may have been a hate crime -- in contrast to Mr. Somsin's comments later in the day.

They painted a picture of a quiet and contemplative band of religious people who moved to the area to serve the Thai population that lives here.

Despite a reported lack of evidence, investigators seem to be focusing on the possibility of Asian gang involvement.

Sheriff Agnos said yesterday that gangs are "a growing problem not only here, but throughout the country." In Phoenix, he said, such gangs had been responsible for a number of robberies and home invasions in recent months. However, he knew of no murders committed by them.

He has called in an Asian gang expert from the Phoenix Police Department "to cover all the bases" but he would not comment on whether there were any leads or suspects.

The dead are believed to include the leader of the temple and all five of the monks who lived and worked with him; an elderly woman who recently had become a Buddhist nun; her grandson, who had recently begun studying with the monks; and another young male student.

Investigators would say little about the killings, except that they believed that two or more attackers took part in the slayings.

At least two weapons were used, the sheriff said, but he refused to describe them.

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