Nguyen Dam Phong believed, in the words of his wife, that "his pen was his rifle."
A well-known Vietnamese journalist who fled Saigon in 1975, Phong founded a Vietnamese-language newspaper last year, crusading against alleged corruption among his countrymen.
On Aug. 24, he was working on an article at home when he called his wife, Hoa Troung, about noon.
"He said, 'Wait a minute,' " she recalled in anguish. "He put down the phone. . . . I heard a sound . . . a man. Suddenly I heard, 'Aaahhh, aaahhh.' I heard the voice of my husband. Then I heard a shot. A dog barked."
A neighbor found Phong just outside the house in pajama bottoms and a shirt, bleeding from multiple gunshot wounds from a .45-caliber pistol.
Friends believe he was slain by enemies trying to silence his newspaper. Police, who are not so certain, say they have no firm suspects, only "lots of people he made mad."
The killing of Nguyen Dam Phong has opened a window into the world of the Vietnamese refugee community in the United States, its factions, schemes and connections to underground organizations in Southeast Asia attempting to overthrow the Communist government in Vietnam.
Phong's newspaper, Tu'Do, which means freedom, circulated as far away as Los Angeles, which has the largest number of Vietnamese immigrants in the country. In it he wrote about the underside of Vietnamese-American society in vitriolic style. He was uncompromising in his viewpoints and bordered on the libelous in his characterizations of his targets.
When an organization came to Houston offering to help local Vietnamese refugees bring members of their families from Vietnam, Phong sold the group an ad, and then warned his readers to beware of the promises it made.
Still, Phong's murder has terrified others in the Vietnamese community, who complain of having to pay extortion to gangs and being subjected to threats and intimidation. But it also has perplexed the Houston Police Department, which is battling a language barrier and a closed society within its boundaries.
Mementos of Phong's earlier days line the shelves of his modest home. There is Phong at the Paris peace talks in 1969, at the Mexico City Olympics in 1968, in Japan in 1970. A stack of passports and scrapbooks attest to the kind of life he once led as a journalist and government employe.
But in the spring of 1975, in the final days of the war, Phong, his wife and 10 children from two marriages fled Saigon, boarding a boat and floating at sea for several days before being picked up by the U.S. Navy.
They were brought to Ft. Chaffee, Ark. Because the couple had so many children, it was many months until sponsors could be found.
Phong and his wife and several of the children moved into a small apartment when they arrived in Houston. The other children were placed in the county home until the family got settled and could find larger accommodations.
"They were fine people, they were an inspiration," said Chickie Brown, who sponsored them upon their arrival. "It was just like a pioneer family to me."
The whole family was extremely industrious. Phong's first job was in a small factory that made terrariums. "He introduced new designs, with an eastern influence," said Marie Dolan, who also helped the family in their resettlement.
Eventually, the entire family moved into a larger home and Phong landed a job as a dental lab technician. Three years ago, the family purchased its own home.
"They never complained about what they had left behind in Vietnam, which I understand was considerable," Dolan said.
One thing Phong had not left behind was his love of journalism, and in the summer of 1981, he started his paper for a few hundred dollars. It began as a 16-page biweekly with a press run of around 5,000. At the time of his death, it had expanded to 44 pages with a circulation of 7,000 to 10,000. About 2,500 copies were sent to other cities.
Phong produced the newspaper almost single-handedly while working as a dental technician, often staying up until 2 a.m. and rising again before dawn to resume work.
"He would wake up at 4 a.m. and make coffee and write," his wife said.
Phong wrote most of the paper, laid out the pages, arranged for its printing and distributed it to local Vietnamese stores.
In one of his last issues, he charged that some people were raising money without authority in behalf of a Vietnamese general who had returned to Southeast Asia in hopes of liberating his country and was captured by the communists in the fall of 1981.
Police have been told that Phong was warned not to print the article.
"He was too loud, too outspoken," said Pauline Van Tho, a former member of the South Vietnamese parliament who now works in Houston helping to resettle other Vietnamese refugees.
Phong's vitriolic attacks on other members of the community brought him numerous warnings, including several death threats. But he was undeterred.
"Anytime an article came out, the calls would come," said his widow. "But he didn't take it seriously. He said, 'I've got God on my side. No one can take my life. Only God can take it.' "
Hoa Truong covered her husband's coffin with a Vietnamese flag and buried him on Aug. 27. She said she doubts that the newspaper will continue.
"I think I will let it die with him," she said, surrounded by five children, all of whom are now deeply afraid. "I will let his dream die."