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The old general with the cold eyes and the hard gaze took the call from his attorney Friday morning at his home in California. Within a minute, the warrior's leathery face turned soft, and the tears began to roll.
Vang Pao was free.
There would be no trial, he was told. After two years of fighting a federal indictment for allegedly conspiring to overthrow the Communist-led government of his homeland, the former guerrilla leader, who had fought heroically for the United States from his jungle redoubts in Laos during the so-called Secret War in the 1960's, learned that he had been cleared of all criminal charges.
"He was just overwhelmed and there were tears of joy, of course,'' Chi Neng Vang, the youngest of the 79-year-old general's 25 children, said in an interview. "You could see it was a rebirth for him at that moment. We all hugged. He was acting like he was somebody again instead of someone who he knew he wasn't. He's been living in this dark period of time, and now we can finally move on with our lives.''
Nowhere was there more elation for the general's good fortune than in the Twin Cities and in California's San Fernando Valley, homes to the nation's largest Hmong concentrations.
"I am so proud and so happy and so excited," said the general's close friend, Xang Vang, director of the Hmong Mutual Assistance Association in Minneapolis. "I believe strongly that the justice system has provided justice for all. And this case is one of a mistaken arrest."
Earlier Friday, U.S. Attorney Lawrence Brown of Sacramento, Calif., announced that a federal grand jury had returned a new indictment against 12 other men - 10 of whom were originally charged with the general - on conspiracy and weapons charges. The new indictment did not include Vang Pao as a defendant.
"In our measured judgment, and based on the totality of the evidence in the case and the circumstances regarding defendant Vang Pao, we believe that continued prosecution of this defendant is no longer warranted," Brown said in a statement.
He did not elaborate on the reasons behind the decision to drop the conspiracy charges against Vang Pao.
A 'fantastic decision'
Backed by the Central Intelligence Agency to fight the North Vietnamese throughout the Vietnam War, Vang Pao later led his people from Thai refugee camps to new beginnings in the United States. But his reputation was deeply stained when federal agents arrested him in June 2007 for allegedly planning to buy about $10 million in illegal weapons for a violent, anti-Communist coup in the Laotian capital of Vientiane.
Agents obtained plans allegedly written by the group of defendants, including an outline for a 90-day coup with a $28 million budget. No evidence ever emerged that Vang Pao helped develop or write the strategy. He did, however, review a sample of the kinds of weapons to be used, authorities said.
Still, Vang Pao's heroic standing never wavered among first-generation Hmong refugees in the United States. Days after his arrest, more than 500 Hmong-Americans rallied in support of him at the Capitol in St. Paul. And over the past two years, scores of his followers demonstrated at the federal courthouse in Sacramento whenever his case had a hearing.
On Friday, many of those followers praised the justice system for finally uncovering what they believe is the truth.
Tom Heffelfinger, the former U.S. Attorney in Minneapolis, who first represented Vang Pao after his arrest, was ecstatic, calling the grand jury's action a "fantastic decision, because there were no good facts to hold [Vang Pao] accountable.''
Heffelfinger said he last saw the general two months ago in St. Paul, when they visited mutual friends. It was clear the case had taken a toll, Heffelfinger said. Vang Pao suffers from high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes.
"But he's a tough guy, a leader who's resilient," Heffelfinger said. "I think of all of us who were on his team, he had the greatest faith that the United States would do the right thing. He never expressed any anger at the United States for what happened to him.''
A call of thanks
Long Yang, director of Lao Family, a nonprofit organization in St. Paul that helps Hmong refugees, said he called Vang Pao minutes after receiving the news. "I congratulated him and asked him to forgive, because justice has been fair to him," Yang said.
Yang's congratulatory call was one of dozens to Vang Pao's home in Westminster, Calif. None of them, however, kept the general from issuing an immediate order to his son: Call Xang Vang, the lifelong friend in Minnesota.
Xang Vang's father had been a close aide to the general during the war, and the families were linked by their mutual struggle to survive the war that took their homeland and later, by their struggle for success as refugees, with children and grandchildren who blossomed in the United States.
It was Xang Vang who'd been ordered by the general to find an attorney the day agents walked him out of his house. And on Friday, it was Xang Vang who got the call from the general's son, thanking him for all the work he'd done, especially to raise money for the general's legal defense, which has cost close to $100,000.
Xang Vang said that his joy was centered around "how the justice system of the United States works.''
He said, "This is a system that has the right people in the right place who are able to show there was no guilt. We always believed information had been falsified and that by the end of the day it would be a case that would go nowhere.''
Not long after Vang spoke with the general's son, Vang Pao and his family decided to get away from the phone that wouldn't stop ringing. They drove to nearby Costa Mesa and stopped at a French bakery, where the general quietly celebrated his new freedom over a bowl of onion soup.