In Edmonton, a trail of horror

The first legal hanging in what is now Alberta took place on Dec. 20, 1879. A Cree man named Swift Runner, possibly under the influence of the culture-specific “Windigo psychosis,” had killed and eaten nine family members, leaving behind damning evidence that he had sucked the very marrow out of their bones. The last legal hanging in Alberta took place on Nov. 14, 1960. Bobby Cook had fatally shot and beaten his father, his stepmother, and his five half-siblings. Or, anyway, somebody had.

Familicide is, sadly, as old a tradition in Alberta as bonspiels and bush parties. When word of Edmonton’s worst-ever mass murder began to filter out on Dec. 30, with little more than the ghastly fact of nine bodies at three locations being known, people hearkened back instinctively to Swift Runner and to Bobby Cook. On Friday the Edmonton police finally began to fill in a picture that had remained unclear while a mass of New Year autopsies and next-of-kin notifications were completed.

The perpetrator was Phu Lam, 53, a man who proved to have a long record of financial difficulties, gambling troubles, and evaded criminal charges, some related to domestic violence. Sometime between 3:45 a.m. and 8 a.m. on Dec. 28, Phu Lam killed Thuy Tien Truong, 35, a woman who was either his current or former domestic partner; Elvis Lam, 8, her son; Thanh Ha Thi Truong, 33, her sister; the sister’s three-year-old daughter Valentina Nguyen; the parents of the sisters, Thi Dau Le, 55, and Van Dang Truong, 55; and a male acquaintance, 41-year-old Viet Nguyen. All but Mr. Truong and Mr. Nguyen were residents of the house in which they were killed, a home in a northeast Edmonton neighbourhood, Klarvatten, near the Anthony Henday ring road.

Police are saying little more about the main crime scene for the moment, specifying only that the six were shot and that the crime showed indications of having been “planned and deliberate,” in the words of EPS Supt. Mark Neufeld. The Klarvatten killings are all thought to have taken place at around the same time—whenever that was. What is known for sure from eyewitness testimony is that at about 9:45 a.m., Phu Lam left the death house in a black SUV registered to one of his victims.

About 24 hours later came perhaps the most lingering mystery in this sequence of events: Lam appeared on the doorstep of a relative with two babies, one his own one-year-old daughter with Thuy Tien Truong, the other his eight-month-old nephew, son of Thanh Ha Thi Truong. No one knows if the infants were in the Klarvatten house during the murders, though it seems likely. No one knows why they were spared when a toddler was not. The relative who took the children from Phu Lam called police to report that he appeared troubled, even suicidal—but the call did not come until 8 p.m. that night.

Phu Lam left the residence and visited other relatives, but little else is known of his movements until he appeared at the southside home of Cyndi Duong, 37, at about 6:50 p.m. Lam shot Duong with her husband and her three children nearby—possibly present—and then fled. Phu Lam had a well-documented record of disturbingly specific death threats against his other victims, spending about six weeks in provincial custody without bail in late 2012 before various assault charges were stayed. (In a terse early Friday press release, the office of the provincial Crown prosecution service stated that the witnesses against Lam had recanted or “changed the nature of” their allegations.) But the attack on Cyndi Duong remains baffling. Supt. Neufeld said elliptically that there was some kind of “relationship” link between the Duong and Lam families, but it does not seem as though Phu Lam and Cyndi had ever met.

Having killed an eighth person under circumstances completely impossible to overlook, Phu Lam now became, for the first time, the object of a manhunt. The SUV he was driving was tracked to the Vietnamese restaurant where he worked, located in Fort Saskatchewan, the city to Edmonton’s northeast that anchors its long tendril of refineries and chemical plants. Police burst into the restaurant with tactical equipment on the morning of Dec. 30, only to find that Lam had killed himself.

Lam came to Edmonton in 1979, meeting his much younger wife on a return trip to Vietnam in 2000 and sponsoring her immigration to Canada in 2003. Records suggest that he brought the rest of her family over in 2009. In the 2012 criminal proceedings involving Lam and his wife Tien, she told the court that she had cheated on him and that Lam had used a DNA test to confirm that her son Elvis was not Lam’s biological child. They later reconciled long enough to have the baby who has now survived them, but a February 2013 bankruptcy application by Lam characterized the couple as “separated.” The gun he used to commit the murders has been traced back to a theft that took place in Surrey, B.C., in 2006.

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