Yesterday’s Crimes: Insurance Scams and Killing Kids for Profit

Suulan Chem, 37, and her nine-year-old son, Michael Nguyen, were pulling into the driveway of their white, stucco home on 25th Avenue in the Sunset District at 12:25 a.m. on Sept. 2, 1992 after a friend’s birthday dinner. Three toughs were waiting for them. 

One of the men put a gun to Chem’s head and forced her to the ground. “Be quiet,” he commanded. “Make no noise, or we’ll kill you.”

The other men snatched Chem’s purse and threw her boy into their getaway car. The men sped off while the mother screamed for help on the sidewalk.

Just seven hours later, Michael’s battered body was discovered by a woman walking her dog in what the San Francisco Chronicle described as “a brush covered ravine” in Golden Gate Park. Michael was just a week away from starting  third grade at McKinley Elementary School in Duboce Triangle.

[jump] Chem and Michael’s father, Thanh Nguyen, had fled Vietnam after the fall of Saigon in 1975. Nguyen drove a cab for Luxor and Chem tried her hand at several businesses that went down the drain. Neither of them had very much money, making them unlikely targets for kidnapping-for-ransom. A lie detector test cleared Chem of any involvement in her son’s murder.

“At this point, I have no idea why the child was killed,” Homicide Inspector Jim Bergstrom told the Chron, noting that the case was “very unusual.”

Mayor Frank Jordan, the former police chief, put up a $25,000 reward for information leading to an arrest in the case.

“This is a heinous crime, and I want to use all possible means to apprehend the person or persons who committed this murder,” Jordan said in a statement released by his office.

Investigators came up with the theory that Michael’s murder was ordered by loan sharks because of a $100,000 loan taken out by the sister of Chem’s former boyfriend, Thaun Wu, 41, While the loan shark theory wasn’t quite right, it pointed police in the right direction.

Thuan Wu, also known as Tom Wu, was an insurance salesman who had the habit of taking out big policies on unwitting friends and family members. Wu had known Michael since the boy was six, and he took out five policies worth a total of $750,000 on young Michael.

Michael’s mother was unaware of the policies on her son, or of an additional $100,000 that Wu took out on her, naming Wu’s own teenage son as beneficiary. It was later determined that Wu forged Chem’s signature on the policies.

Wu also held a $100,000 policy on his sister, Nga Tuyet O, who died after a plunge off the Bay Bridge in 1991. Her death was ruled a suicide, so Wu couldn’t collect.

Wu held another $300,000 policy on his friend, Phoc Huyhn, who was shot five times after Wu invited him to a card game. Huyhn survived, depriving Wu of yet another big payout.

When police arrested Wu in a Marina District motel on Jan. 28, 1993, the scam artist was wearing a hat and glasses in what Police Chief Anthony Ribera called “an obvious attempt to disguise himself.”

It was later found that Wu planned to fake his own death by finding a male corpse that looked like him in either China or Vietnam, burning the body, and then reporting it to the US Embassy so he could collect on insurance policies he had taken out on himself. After carrying out this elaborate scheme, Wu planned to alter his appearance by undergoing plastic surgery, and take a new identity by entering into a sham marriage.

Police also arrested Victor Kiet Diep, 21, for the kidnapping and killing of Michael Nguyen. Diep was being held in the San Mateo County Jail for a strong-arm robbery of a phone store in Foster City when he was arrested for the Nguyen murder. Chem identified Diep as the man who held a gun to her head.

Wu and Diep were found guilty of first-degree murder and other charges on June 18, 1996. Wu was also found guilty of conspiracy to murder Phuoc Huynh, and Diep was convicted of using a firearm in the commission of a felony. Wu and Diep were later sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. 

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