Man denies killing kids

Published 4:19 pm Friday, January 11, 2008

A man accused of tossing four young children to their deaths from an 80-foot-tall coastal bridge said he was harassed into making a false confession and did not kill them, his defense attorney said.

As a Coast Guard search for the children’s bodies in waters around the Dauphin Island bridge was suspended, Lam Luong met for the first time with an attorney and denied the account of prosecutors, who have charged him with four counts of capital murder. He was ordered held without bond earlier Thursday in Mobile.

The appointed defense attorney, Joe Kulakowski, said Luong told him the children, ranging in age from a few months to 3 years, were taken around 9 a.m. or 10 a.m. Monday by a woman named Kim who claimed to know their mother and would get them food and clothes. He said they were not returned later Monday as promised.

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He said officers should be searching for Kim and a second woman who left with the children in a van, Kulakowski said.

Prosecutors said Luong, 37, gave that account after the children were reported missing Monday but it turned out to be full of holes and that he eventually confessed.

“We believe he killed the kids by tossing them off the bridge,” said District Attorney John Tyson Jr.

Coast Guard Capt. Ed Stanton announced the suspension of the search by his agency, which at one point covered 100 square miles of water and involved divers, boats and helicopters.

“Many factors go into a decision like this and believing that the children are not alive at this time, we must ensure our crews are ready to respond to other search and rescue cases,” Stanton said.

State and local teams continue their search efforts Friday morning.

Luong, who came to the U.S. from Vietnam in 1984 and until recently had been living in Hinesville, Ga., had a crack cocaine possession charge pending in Hinesville. Authorities said Luong is believed to have thrown the children from the bridge after an argument with his wife, but they gave no details on what the dispute was about.

Tyson said Luong’s wife, 23-year-old Kieu Ngoc Phan, discovered the children missing Monday and went to police with Luong.

Based in part on a witness’s account, investigators said the four children were thrown from the highest part of the two-lane span Monday morning, a point about 80 feet above the waterway.

The main waterway channel below the highest part of the bridge has a depth of 55 feet.

Presumed dead were Phan’s four children: 4-month-old Danny Luong; 1-year-old Lindsey Luong; 2-year-old Hannah Luong; and 3-year-old Ryan Phan, who was raised from infancy by Luong but is not his biological child.

Kulakowski said Luong told him of being harassed by Bayou La Batre police into making a false confession.

“When police yelled, `We know you killed them,’ he at some point realized they weren’t going to believe him,” said Kulakowski.

He said Luong was questioned Monday night and the entire day Tuesday.

“We don’t have any bodies. There’s a lot of emotion and nobody knows the facts right now,” Kulakowski said.

In Bayou La Batre, a fishing village where Luong had worked briefly as a shrimper, many held out hope the children would be found alive but also despaired over the details of their disappearance.

Nguyen Bon, a nun at a Buddhist temple, said she’s been in constant prayer for the children since they disappeared Monday. She said she feels “heartbreak” for them, like others in the community. A temple prayer service was planned Thursday night for the family.

“We’re hoping the four kids will be found alive. There’s really nothing we can do but sit tight and pray. Hope for a miracle,” said temple member Devan Phan, who is not related to the children’s family by the same last name.

Minh Le, manager of Boat People SOS, Inc., a social service organization for the large Asian community here, said, “We hope for the best. There’s a lot of uncertainty. We remain open-minded about it until evidence unfolds, for the childrens’ sake.”

In his first court appearance Thursday, Luong was shackled hand and foot and wore a bullet-proof vest amid heavy security at the brief bond hearing in Mobile.

In denying bond, District Judge Charles McKnight described the allegations in the capital murder case as “heinous.”

“I’ve never seen anything like this before,” he said.