They had lived on a peaceful street in Rockville for five years, missing the relatives they left behind when they fled beleaguered Saigon in the final months of the war, but grateful for what they called the freedom of their adopted country.
Then, last spring, when his family of six Vietnamese refugees went looking for for a new house, they encountered George Anderson Michie who, according to police, introduced them to a new land of hucksters and flimflam.
Michie rented them a house and sold them a television set. Only months later, when Montgomery County policed booked the 48-year-old man on two counts of fraud, did the family learn that the house was never his to rent nor the television his to sell.
"It's really sad," said one county prosecutor. "These people really believe in America."
Michie, who faces up to three years in jail on misdemeanor charges that he defrauded the family out of $680, did not show up for a hearing yeaterday in Silver Spring district court. Judge L. Leonard Ruben issued a warrant for his arrest and ordeered $500 bond forfeited.
Frightened by the recent bombing of a Vietnamese publisher's house in Virginia, the three adults and three children agreed to tell their story if they could remain anonymous. The head of the household is a 64-year-old partially blind former Vietnamese official. All but the youngest, a 12-year-old, speak halting English, which police said made it difficult to find out what had happened.
"We still like America," said one o f the adults, a Catholic priest and cousin to the mother of the house whose work as a seamstress is the family's principal source of income. "We have a lot of American friends. People are very, very nice."
Their apparent introduction to the world of guile began last June 18 when the priest spotted a for-sale sign in the window of a home at 105 Charles St., not far from the block where the family has spent a more or less idyllic five years. They liked their neighborhood. They didn't want to leave it. People were friendly. Once a man had dropped by to help them tune their car.
According to the prosecutors, Michie, who had been renting the house and was not authorized to sublet it, agreed to let the family rent it. "It was a nice house," said the 12-year-old. "It has a basketball court and two plum trees out front."
Michie, the priest recalled, "said he wanted to rent it for $400 but that he loved me so much he'd rent it for $300." The family withdrew the money and Michie gave them a receipt, according to police.
In the course of a month's time, family members said, Michie persuaded them to buy an old television set that belonged to the owner of the house, Kenneth Waddell. He also pointed out the washer and dryer in the house, and the family decided that rather than move in their own they would donate them to the campaign to help the boat people. They were carted away, and the mother of the house has been washing her family's laundry by hand ever since.
The family said Michie tried to get them to buy a stereo as well. "He told me his son had died and he needed the money," said the oldest child, 20, who works as a cashier at a Rockville restaurant.
The family said they began to get suspicious when Michie kept postponing the date they could move in but they went ahead with their plans, cutting off the telephone at their old house, closing gas and electricity accounts, and changing their address at the bank.
The furniture, the two parrots, the basketball and the asparagus fern and their other belongings were packed and set to go. All told, they had laid out $680 in cash and were ready to move in. Then the priest met the real landlord, who knew nothing about his would-be tenants. The move evaporated.
When the mother found out, she collapsed three times in the bathroom and the family had to call the doctor next door to give her a shot to keep her blood pressure down. "I cried for two days," the mother said, "it was so sad."
The family can now laugh about the incident in retrospect, but they still hope to get their money and they are still looking for a new place to live. And if their faith in America has been daunted, it is not entirely lost. Said the priest: "It has so many freedoms."