The mystery of O
O Thi Huýnh came from Vietman to America looking for a better life for her two kids. Instead, she wound up dead in the home of a man who is now a Sacramento DA.
Correction: In the story “The Mystery of O,” November 1, we wrote that Yuma police officer William Bangs reported that John Goldthorpe gave “untruthful” answers to two questions in a lie detector test during an investigation into the death of O Thi Huynh. Bangs never called Goldthorpe’s answers untruthful. We regret the error.
The version below has been revised consistent with the correction.
O Thi Huýnh came to America with little more than her two small children. One of the last refugees out of war-torn Vietnam before the fall of Saigon, Huýnh probably felt lucky. But she had no family, no job and no exposure to American culture, outside of the United States’ decade-long occupation of her home country.
Huýnh arrived in the dusty border town of Yuma, Arizona, in 1975 and moved in with a local sheriff’s deputy and his wife. With their help as sponsors, Huýnh hoped she would find a job, learn the culture and set about making a better life for her kids than she had herself.
But almost a year after she arrived in Yuma, Huýnh was found dead from a .22-caliber gunshot wound to the head in the home of her sponsor, John Goldthorpe. Following a two-week investigation by two separate law enforcement agencies, her death was ruled a suicide by Yuma authorities. O Thi Huýnh was buried in an unmarked grave in a Yuma cemetery. Goldthorpe is now a Sacramento deputy district attorney.
In May, almost 25 years after Huýnh was buried, the Yuma County sheriff’s office reopened the investigation into her death and assigned two detectives to the case full-time. A catalyst for the reopening of the investigation was a Sacramento private investigator who claims that he was made the target of a Goldthorpe investigation, and so decided to investigate the prosecutor.
The Yuma authorities won’t say much about their investigation, but they’ve interviewed Goldthorpe’s ex-wife, his kids and others who remember Huýnh’s troubling year in America—it’s clear the deputy district attorney is at the center of their investigation. In fact, Yuma Sheriff Ralph Ogden says there’s a “50-50 chance” that his reinvestigation into what he called Huýnh’s “suspicious” death will lead to a Goldthorpe arrest. Still, according to a Yuma sheriff’s statement, “John Goldthorpe is not a suspect” in the case, but is considered an “investigative lead.”
Which isn’t surprising considering the circumstances. Two weeks after Huýnh arrived in Goldthorpe’s home, the couple started adoption procedures on her daughter, Mai Hang, and son, Hung. When the police originally investigated Huýnh’s death, her friends were quoted in the original police report as saying that the adoptions were against Huýnh’s wishes. She thought she was signing sponsorship papers, they said. Goldthorpe, in other press accounts and in the original police report, has denied this.
While Goldthorpe wouldn’t comment on the reopening of the investigation, his lawyer says that his client is completely innocent and counter-charges that the Yuma sheriff’s office is out to get Goldthorpe to “make a name for themselves.”
In the years after Huýnh’s death, Goldthorpe raised the two young children as his own—after changing their names to Tammy and Tony Goldthorpe—without telling them much about their mother or the circumstances surrounding her death, according to the children. Both are now estranged from him and living in different parts of the country—Tammy, 31, in Portland and Tony, 28, in San Diego.
The reopening of the investigation into their mother’s death has ripped open a previously unknown part of their lives, forcing them to re-evaluate their pasts and the man who raised them. Both Tammy and Tony now talk reluctantly about their father and the years they spent with him in the Sacramento area (Goldthorpe moved here in 1980).
Now both are determined to finally get some answers to questions that have troubled them their entire lives. All they have left to remember their mother by are some tiny, tattered photos. And even then, they don’t really have definite memories of her—they have only an imagined past.
Tammy Goldthorpe sits curled up on the floor of her Portland living room. It’s 8 p.m., bedtime for her two kids, so she’s readying them as she talks. Her name is now Sloan, having met and married David Sloan in the years after she moved from Sacramento in 1994.
She puts her 4-month-old baby daughter down first and then returns for her son, Jack, almost 2 years old. Before she leaves for the bedroom, she takes him in the kitchen so he can kiss dad goodnight. When she returns, Tammy turns on a child-monitoring device and stations it nearby.
That Tammy hardly knew her mom doesn’t make it any easier for her to talk about the case being reopened. She’s never talked to a reporter on the record about what happened.
“After having kids of my own I can’t imagine someone taking my children from me. It just breaks my heart,” she says. “I was just a little girl. I wish I could have done something to protect her.”
What Tammy and Tony know about their mother, they’ve learned mostly from a small group of people who left Vietnam at the same time as they did. And that escape would have never happened without Jim Willis.
Willis, who now lives in Westminster, California, was a U.S. Army staff sergeant stationed in Vietnam when he met and married a Vietnamese woman in the early 1970s. After several stints in combat units, Willis worked in tech intelligence with the Central Intelligence Agency out of the American Embassy in Saigon. His wife’s—now his ex-wife’s—family owned a restaurant near the embassy. O Thi Huýnh’s family were longtime friends of his wife’s family.
At that time, Huýnh had two little children, both with American GIs. In fact, Willis and Tammy say she sold her body for money. Regardless, she had two Amerasian kids in wartime Saigon. Things were, of course, not easy.
“I know my mom had to do things in Vietnam to survive,” Tammy says. “I know she possibly had to sell herself. I don’t judge her.”
“Not every young Vietnamese woman who had American kids was just a barroom whore,” Willis adds. “A lot of them didn’t know what their future was and that’s what wartime does to people. Some of these girls worked to support a whole family.”
Willis left Vietnam in 1973, but when it was clear that Saigon was close to falling in 1975 he used his connections with the CIA to arrange for his wife’s family, along with Huýnh and her two kids, to come to America. There was rampant fear across South Vietnam that children born to Vietnamese women from relationships with American servicemen would be rounded up by the conquering North Vietnamese and either killed or put in concentration camps. In leaving Vietnam, Huýnh was leaving her extended family and saving her kids.
In all, Willis arranged for about 15 people to catch some of the last planes out of Vietnam.
They ended up in Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, one of four government reception centers for Vietnamese refugees. For many of the people there, the conditions were less than ideal—the refugees lived in the old World War II barracks and slept in old Army beds.
One day, while Willis was present in Fort Chaffee, Huýnh called the father of one of her children, a serviceman back from the war. Willis says that “apparently he made some promise to her, but when she called him, he told her, ‘I’m married, I can’t help you, I don’t want anything to do with you.’ ”
By this time, Willis was stationed at the Yuma Proving Ground, the military base opened during World War II as a weapons testing installation. He had arranged for his wife’s family to live with him in his house on the base. The situation—taxing both financially and emotionally—wasn’t exactly making him a popular guy around the proving ground.
“I got a bunch of bad looks,” Willis says. “The civilian populace didn’t like the military and the vets didn’t like people who brought the Vietnamese over here. I was getting it both ways.”
With a house already full of refugees, Willis couldn’t take in Huýnh and her two young children. But one day he was approached by Kathleen Goldthorpe, who also worked at the Yuma Proving Ground. Goldthorpe told Willis that she and her husband, John, were interested in sponsoring Vietnamese refugees. Willis told them how to get in touch with Huýnh and then let the Goldthorpes take care of the rest.
John Goldthorpe, who was 28 at the time, was a deputy sheriff in the narcotics division, but had also worked in the Yuma Police Department. An Arizona native with clean-cut good looks, Goldthorpe, Willis says, had a bullying nature. “He was the police and he damn well wanted you to know he was the police,” he says.
After Huýnh arrived in Yuma, it didn’t take long to see that something was not quite right in her relationship with the Goldthorpes, Willis says. After just two weeks with the Goldthorpes, Huýnh told Willis the Goldthorpes started an adoption process on her children. Goldthorpe maintained that Huýnh wanted the kids to be with the couple. But Willis didn’t buy it.
“She came in one day and said, ‘I believe they’re trying to steal my kids,’ ” Willis says. “She told me they told her to sign some papers and she thought they were just papers for sponsorship.”
Goldthorpe’s wife at the time, Kathleen Dunn, denies this.
“When Lynn first came—either at the airport when we met her or right after—she expressed the desire for us to adopt the children because it would Americanize them and so they wouldn’t be sent back to Vietnam,” Dunn says. “But it was with the understanding that she would always be part of our lives and we would be part of her’s.”
The Goldthorpes, however, took it to another level. They not only got Huýnh to sign her kids over to them—even though she couldn’t read English and had no lawyer—but they also changed all three of their names, Willis says. The kids became Tammy and Tony and O Thi Huýnh became Lynn Marie Goldthorpe.
“According to my mom’s friends, she was furious when she found out that they had changed her name,” Tammy says.
But Huýnh’s life in the next year would only get worse. And while Jim Willis at first thought the Goldthorpes’ home would be an ideal place for Huýnh and her kids—John Goldthorpe was, after all, a law enforcement officer—he came to feel otherwise in the coming months.
Willis adds: “I put her in harm’s way.”
At first glance, it’s difficult to understand why the Yuma authorities would reopen the investigation into the O Thi Huýnh case. After all, it’s hard to imagine, 25 years after the fact, that they’ve discovered new physical evidence relating to the investigation. It’s equally hard to imagine that there was any kind of universal call to look into the events that led to her tragic death—Huýnh died almost penniless, a refugee alone save for her two small children.
It gets easier to understand when you read the original Yuma police report.
The 71-page report is a detailed account of Huýnh’s troubled year in the United States. In it, her friends tell the investigators of a woman desperate to get her kids back. Almost universally, her friends told police that Huýnh constantly complained about the Goldthorpes and that she told her friends that she didn’t understand what she was signing when she signed the papers that initiated adoption proceedings on her two kids.
Although the investigation normally would have been handled by the Sheriff’s Department, the Yuma County Attorney asked the Yuma Police to handle the follow-up investigation because Goldthorpe—a sheriff’s deputy at that time—was a county employee. However, the initial investigation was handled by his co-workers in the Sheriff’s Department.
While there were signs of trouble from the beginning of the relationship between the refugee and the Goldthorpes, the strife accelerated in late March and into early April 1976 when Goldthorpe had her committed to Desert Manor, a mental hospital in Tucson, Arizona, which was about 240 miles from Yuma.
In the report, Goldthorpe alleges that he had Huýnh committed against her will for 10 days in the institution because he felt she was suicidal. Huýnh “said the children had been to (sic) much trouble for my wife and for me. She said if she could not live in the street she would kill herself and the children.”
While Huýnh was in the hospital, Goldthorpe’s wife, Kathleen, now says that she went to visit. Kathleen had good news—she was pregnant. But Kathleen says during their conversation, Huýnh told her what she had suspected all along—that her husband and the Vietnamese refugee were having an affair.
“I told her I was pregnant and she told me she was having an affair with John,” Dunn says. “I chose not to believe her at the time, but in my heart of hearts I knew it was true.”
Eventually, Jim Willis found out she was committed to the institution and called his friend Ryan Callin who told investigators that he got Huýnh a lawyer and got her out of Desert Manor. The attorney, Jeff Fritz, was also going to help Huýnh get her children back. Huýnh moved in with Callin and his wife in Yuma. The kids—officially the Goldthorpes’ kids by now—stayed with the Goldthorpes.
But after about 30 days with the Callins, Huýnh fired her lawyer because Goldthorpe supposedly promised that he would let her see the kids any time she wanted. It was only 18 days before the hearing would have taken place. Callin told the investigators: “Fritz knew we could win the case, but she let it go anyway. He tried to tell her that. She wouldn’t listen, all she wanted to do was see her kids.”
Huýnh’s arrangement with Goldthorpe didn’t last long. Callin told the investigators that it was his understanding that Huýnh actually got “about 10 minutes of supervised visitation or so. I understand she stayed there all night and the next morning, she wanted to see her kids again, and they said no, you can’t see your kids anymore. That’s it. Get out.”
Huýnh then moved to Tucson. While there, in mid-May 1976, Huýnh began sessions with a psychiatric social worker, Stephen Schiltz, at the Catholic Social Service. Schiltz told Yuma investigators that at one point during their sessions, after Huýnh “broke down and cried … I didn’t know where she was with suicide and I talked to her about that and she said she would not, no matter what happened, she would not kill herself, accidentally or on purpose at any time.”
What’s clear, the report indicates, is Huýnh still wanted to get her kids back. On the morning before her death, Sunday June 20, 1976, she took the Greyhound bus from Tucson to Yuma and had a friend pick her up at the station at 2:30 a.m.
On Sunday night, according to the police report, Huýnh went to Callin’s house where she asked if he could help her again. Callin told her, “as far as the lawyers here in Yuma, I couldn’t get one of them to take the case.” While Callin didn’t offer much in legal help, he did give her $200.
The next morning, Huýnh took a cab to Goldthorpe’s house, arriving at about 10:10 a.m., the report says. Goldthorpe told police investigators that he left home that morning at 8:15 a.m., but went back to check his mail and go to the bathroom at about 12:15 p.m. Goldthorpe told police that as he was leaving, he saw Huýnh’s purse on the coffee table. He saw her body between the coffee table and the sofa. Moving toward her, Goldthorpe said he noticed the gun in her hand. He removed it and called the Sheriff’s Department at 12:52 p.m.
The first person at the scene was sheriff’s deputy Mark Westgate, who later told police investigators that upon his arrival at the scene, he asked Goldthorpe which hand the gun was in and “Goldthorpe pointed to the left and indicated that this was the hand the pistol was in.” The police report noted that this “did not seem right during the investigation” to Westgate. Subsequently, Goldthorpe would insist that the pistol was in the right hand, which to Westgate was a problem because “if the pistol had been in the right hand then Goldthorpe could not have seen it.” At the scene, Huýnh’s body was positioned on its right side obscuring, Westgate thought, her right hand.
The police investigators differed over this account. Later, after seeing the crime scene photos, co-lead police investigator Lieutenant Gerald Bond said it was clear that the right hand could have been seen from any number of positions in the room.
There were more inconsistencies. The sheriff’s office used a paraffin test on Huýnh’s right hand to check if there was any remaining gunpowder. According to the report, the tests came back negative. Just to be sure, one of the police investigators fired the same pistol found at the scene and they used the same testing equipment and chemicals on the investigator’s hand that the sheriffs used on Huýnh’s hand. The results of the latter test were positive for gunpowder.
And then there was the matter of the lie detector tests. On June 22, the day after Huỳnh’s death, Goldthorpe was given his first test by Yuma police officer William Bangs. Bangs reported that Goldthorpe gave answers to these two questions: “Yesterday, did you know that Lynn was going to die?” and “Yesterday, did you yourself shoot Lynn?” Bangs wrote in his report that Goldthorpe was “truthful, with reservations.” Goldthorpe, he reported, “would be a difficult individual to test” because he’d “received news that his uncle had committed suicide today.” Ten days later, in a test with an independent examiner, Goldthorpe passed with flying colors.
Even with the inconsistencies in the case, the Yuma police ruled Huýnh’s death a suicide after its two-week investigation. The case was closed and would remain that way for another 25 years.
It’s likely that the resurfacing of the Yuma police report and the subsequent reopening of the investigation by the Yuma sheriff’s office wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for Sacramento private investigator Rick Von Geldern of Capital City Investigations.
Von Geldern, a dogged investigator who works for defense attorneys in the Sacramento area, is very familiar with the Sacramento legal scene. His involvement with Goldthorpe started in court.
To hear Von Geldern tell it, he was working as investigator for a defense attorney who was going up against Goldthorpe in a sexual assault case in court. Goldthorpe, who has prosecuted sexual assault crimes on and off for almost 20 years in Sacramento, alerted the court that he was going to become a witness in the case because he felt he had been disparaged by the other side, Von Geldern says. Von Geldern was asked to come up with some impeachment evidence for the defense. But while he was digging for a familiar theme in the way Goldthorpe handles prosecutions, Von Geldern says he learned from a source in the district attorney’s office that Von Geldern himself was being investigated by Goldthorpe for getting a witness to lie, a charge Von Geldern denies. That Von Geldern’s side won in court didn’t help the matter.
Von Geldern maintains that Goldthorpe only targeted him for investigation because he brought a credible witness who damaged the deputy district attorney’s case. The result? “My investigation continued regarding Mr. Goldthorpe and it seemed like it never ended,” Von Geldern says. “It went much, much further than I could ever have imagined and it hasn’t stopped yet.”
Knowing that Goldthorpe worked in Yuma, Von Geldern had a friend look up newspaper articles on Goldthorpe in the Yuma library. The result was finding several articles relating to O Thi Huýnh’s death. The friend, who was familiar with the Yuma sheriff’s office, reminded the authorities of Huýnh’s death. The sheriff’s office pulled the file and subsequently reopened the investigation in May. Then in June, the Sacramento legal newspaper, The Daily Recorder, ran a story on the investigation.
“The authorities in Yuma became re-interested in the case based upon my efforts,” Von Geldern says.
Yuma authorities investigating the case say that while they don’t know whether the initial tip came from Von Geldern or not, the case was worth reopening.
“If I would have happened to run across the original report and read it, I would have thought it needed to be reopened and looked into,” says Phil Spongross, Yuma deputy sheriff and lead investigator on the case. Spongross says that the interviews in the original police report bring up questions that were not answered when the case was closed in 1976.
Among the questions not answered, according to Spongross’ boss, Sheriff Ogden, is whether Goldthorpe and Huýnh had an affair while she lived in the Goldthorpe home.
“The witnesses—both a co-worker and a family member—that we’ve talked to have alleged that there was a sexual relationship of some sort between Goldthorpe and Lynn (Huýnh),” says Sheriff Ogden.
Goldthorpe, through his lawyer, Jerry Chong, denies ever having an affair with Huýnh.
“John denies having an affair with Lynn, categorically,” Chong says. “Everybody is just repeating what (Huýnh) said, nobody saw anything. And if this case ever gets to trial, I can guarantee you that I can probably cut them all to pieces on the witness stand.”
Spongross and his partner, Kim James, have spent the last six months conducting interviews with anyone associated with the events of 1976. But as of late October they still hadn’t talked with John Goldthorpe, even though Spongross says that Goldthorpe has expressed interest in helping with the investigation. In mid-October while in Sacramento for interviews, the deputies notified the Sacramento District Attorney’s Office that the investigation is ongoing. The District Attorney’s Office had no comment.
But Chong had plenty to say. He maintains that Goldthorpe has become the target of a witchhunt and that the Yuma investigators who have reopened the case “want to be John Wayne.” Not only has Chong barred Golthorpe from talking to the News & Review and other media outlets, he says he won’t let Goldthorpe be interviewed by the Yuma sheriff’s investigators.
Chong maintains that much in the original Yuma police report was simply made up. He says that O Thi Huýnh told her friends of circumstances that really didn’t exist. While he doesn’t know why, he has his theories.
“Maybe she was just a pathological liar and made everything up,” Chong says.
In his downtown Sacramento law office, Chong buttresses his case by playing a tape of the sheriff’s deputies questioning Toan Doan, a Vietnamese refugee who lived with the Goldthorpes in Yuma during the first six months that Huýnh and her two kids lived there. Doan also says he traveled with Huýnh from Vietnam and ended up in Fort Chaffee. After Huýnh arrived in Yuma, she convinced the Goldthorpes to sponsor Doan. He now works as a guard at Folsom Prison.
Upon learning that the investigation into Huýnh’s death was reopened, Goldthorpe sought Doan out to verify his version of what happened in their home 25 years ago. At one point in the tape, Yuma deputy sheriff Spongross asked Doan if he remembers telling the investigator over the phone that Goldthorpe had found him an attorney. Doan says: “Kind of, yes.” Goldthorpe gave Doan a list of “six or seven” names.
Doan told investigators that Huýnh knew what she was doing when she signed over her two kids to the Goldthorpes. He says that Huýnh called Tony’s American father, and while he didn’t want anything to do Huýnh, he threatened to come to Arkansas to get Tony. New to America and not familiar with U.S. law, Huýnh decided to give the kids to the Goldthorpes because at least then she would be able to see them, Doan says.
Doan also draws a very different picture of the Goldthorpe’s home-life than that of the police report. He told investigators that the house was very happy and that there was no tension between Huýnh and the Goldthorpes.
Perhaps the most revealing thing Doan tells investigators, however, is that Huýnh told him that she was part of a prostitution ring run by the Willis family in Vietnam. In the taped interview, Doan tells investigators that Huýnh told him that the reason she was brought to America was so the Willis family could start a prostitution ring in the United States and that Huýnh would become their lead girl in the States.
Jim Willis doesn’t deny that there was prostitution in Vietnam.
“My former in-laws had a restaurant and bar,” Willis says. “[Prostitution] wasn’t a shameful thing over there. It was a way to survive.”
Responding to Doan’s allegation that Willis and his ex-wife’s family brought Huýnh to the States to start another ring in Yuma, Willis laughs.
“So that’s why I went ahead and got a sponsor for my lead prostitute?” Willis says, sarcastically. “I sent her off to John Goldthorpe, a deputy sheriff.”
Willis says he was present when Huýnh called Tony’s father and says that not only did he want nothing to do with Huýnh, he wanted nothing to do with Tony as well.
In March, before the investigation into Huýnh’s death was reopened, John Goldthorpe called his stepson, Tony. He told him that he knew who Tony’s father is and that, if he wanted to, he could call him. Goldthorpe, however, didn’t want to tell him on the phone, so he promised Tony that he’d visit him in San Diego after school was finished so they could talk in person.
Then Tony found out about the new investigation from his sister, Tammy.
He called his dad and implored him to come to San Diego so they could talk about the case and about his real father. But Goldthorpe just “kept on avoiding it,” Tony says.
Still, Tony wanted to support his stepdad. At first, he wanted the case to remain closed because he didn’t want anything bad to happen to Goldthorpe. But after a couple of months where his questions went unanswered, the situation finally came to a head.
“He started telling me that my mother was a prostitute,” Tony says. “When I would try to come back with a question, he got upset and told me not to interrogate him. It was like I was a kid again.”
They haven’t talked since.
“I guess the hardest thing is trusting him all my life—you look up to your dad. I believed that my mother committed suicide,” Tony says. “Now I have to change the way I feel about that. But it’s also been hard for me to lose him. I feel like I don’t have a mother or a father now.”
For Tammy, it’s different—she hasn’t talked to Goldthorpe since 1994. And she has always harbored some doubts about their family history.
“My mother left her home to bring my brother and I here to look for a better life,” Tammy says. “Why would she go to the trouble of getting on the plane with us if she was just going to give us up to strangers after two weeks of knowing these people?”
It’s answers to questions like these that Tammy and Tony are hoping to find from the reopening of the investigation. They’ve both already talked with the Yuma investigators about Goldthorpe, but there’s not much more they can do except be patient.
“I was shocked when I heard the case was being reopened, but I was relieved because I’m hoping for closure,” Tammy says. “I need closure.”
But Tammy and Tony might not get closure. Sheriff Ogden remains open about which way this case could go.
“There are three possible solutions to this case,” Ogden says. “One, it was really a suicide; two, someone took her life; and three, there’s no way in hell we can figure it out 25 years later.”
But for all the talk about closure, it’s as if their past is opening up for the first time. In the late summer, after they learned the Yuma authorities reopened the case, Tammy and her family and Tony met up with Jim Willis, his ex-wife and her sisters for a mini-reunion in Southern California. The sisters told Tammy and Tony about their relatives in Vietnam, and gave them details of what their mother was like.
“They treated us like family and they told us about our culture,” Tony says. “And they told us our mother wanted to get us back, but [the Goldthorpes] made everything difficult for her.”
Willis says they’ll try to make a trip soon to Yuma to put a headstone on Huýnh’s grave and to give her a proper Buddhist burial. When she died, Goldthorpe mandated that she have a Christian ceremony, Willis says, and the kids and the family couldn’t even go. At least in that small way, Tony and Tammy can reclaim a past that never really existed for them, but was rightfully theirs nonetheless.
“It’s hard not to have a mother or father or a past,” Tammy says. “The past we do have is one big lie. We weren’t exposed to our culture and I feel that part of life was taken from me.”