Kong Chung Bounnam, fugitive in Jade East murders in Memphis, on "I (Almost) Got Away With It"

KONG-CHUNG-BOUNNAM.jpg The Investigation Discovery network series "I (Almost) Got Away With It" will air at 9 p.m. Tuesday an account of the notorious triple murder-robbery at the Jade East restaurant in Raleigh in 1987. The series, which focuses on criminals who were caught after years on the lam, profiles Kong Chung Bounnam, a Laotian immigrant who evaded authorities for seven years before turning up in Ontario in 1994. He was known to have been shot in the leg, and the bullet was never removed from his wound. He was the last of five men tried in the case. Three had been convicted, and an accused accomplice who didn't participate in the deadly robbery was acquitted.

Here's Investigation Discovery's promo blurb:

After a friend is fired, Konh Chung Bounnam and three accomplices rob the restaurant where he worked. The plan quickly goes awry and three workers are brutally executed.  Bounnam and his friends go on the run but he is shot during the robbery and needs medical attention. The others are caught or turn themselves in, but Bounnam remains free despite his injury. He escapes close calls with the cops in North Carolina and Canada until his need for money draws the FBI's attention.

Bounnam is serving two consecutive life sentences plus 25 years for his role in the murders. His most recent appeal was rejected in 2002. Click the jump to read the 1994 story from The Commercial Appeal on the day Bounnam was captured in Canada:
Triple murder suspect Kong Chung Bounnam eluded local and Canadian authorities for seven years by going underground, leaving no paper trail and apparently not working much. He was arrested this weekend in Ontario, Canada.

Bounnam (pronounced BO-nam), who was arrested Friday night in St. Catharines, is accused of being one of five men involved in the 1987 armed robbery and murder of restaurant manager Arthur Lee, 24, his sister-in-law Man Yin Huang 'Amy' Lee, 24, and his grandmother, Kai Yin Chuey, 74. Lee's paternal grandmother, Ging Sam Lee, who is now 81, survived the attack at the now defunct Jade East restaurant in Raleigh.

Three other men accused in the violent jewelry heist are serving time for the murders. Another suspect, Hien Tien Huynh, who was accused of being an accessory before the robbery, was acquitted in 1989.

The victims were members of the Chinese-American family who owned and operated Jade East. The Lee family also had started selling gold jewelry there.

Chuey, Lee's grandmother, had escaped death 12 years earlier when a gunman seriously wounded her and killed her husband, L. M. Chuey, in a 1975 robbery at a neighborhood grocery they operated. After a five-day trial, with Chuey testifying through an interpreter, a suspect was convicted of first-degree murder in that case.

Bounnam's arrest Friday surprised the Lee family. As the years passed and Bounnam never surfaced, family members said they thought he never would. ''It's been so long, " said Jerry Lee, 36, who lost his younger brother, Arthur, his sister-in-law and his maternal grandmother. "I figured they would never catch up with him."

Chester Lee, whose wife, Amy, was killed, added, "With him being shot in the leg, I thought he was dead."

Losing three family members has been hard on all the family, Jerry Lee said, particularly on his mother and especially during holidays. "She lost a son, a daughter-in-law and her mother. Every holiday she would break down, " he said.

About a year after the murders, the Lee family sold Jade East restaurant. The memories were too painful to continue the family-owned and operated business. The Lee family now owns a jewelry business, but they don't advertise. They depend on their loyal customers and word-of-mouth to sell their goods.

The brutal slayings also have caused the family to arm themselves. Their jewelry store in East Memphis has security cameras, a metal detector, a bullet-proof window and locked entrances.

"You tend to kinda look over your shoulder a lot more, " said Chester Lee, 32.

"It has made us more security conscious. I own 22 guns. Before I had never owned a gun, " said Jerry Lee. "I think I'm a little more leery. I'm a little more cautious now."

Chester Lee had been married to Amy Lee only eight months when she was murdered. Born in Kai Ping, China, Amy Lee met Chester while he was on vacation in China.

Amy Lee's eulogy said she came to the United States on Feb. 10, 1987. Rather than wearing traditional Chinese dress, "she stepped off the plane wearing bluejeans, a bright pink sweatshirt and bright pink sneakers."

For Amy, it was a time for firsts: It was her first time to ride in an airplane and a car, to eat pizza and to fall in love. Chester "looked forward to their first birthdays together and their first Christmas together."

When Man Yin Huang told Chester she wanted an American name, he chose ''Amy" because of its meaning, "Beloved."

Bounnam, 26, is in a holding cell waiting to be extradited to face murder charges in Memphis. Local officials with the Federal Bureau of Investigations and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation are working out the details for his return.

Bounnam likely will appear in court Monday in St. Catharines, a city of about 140,000 about 10 miles west of Niagara Falls.

Detective Bill Bosward with the Toronto Police Department's fugitive squad said he had had a gut feeling Bounnam was in the area. He described it as "a bit of sheer luck" that police were able to crack the case with the help of Tennessee authorities.

The Toronto fugitive squad detective had been working on the case for almost a year, Bosward said.

"He was very elusive. He had gone underground, " Bosward said. "He left no discernible paper trail to follow up here. This was not one of my easier cases."

The fairly large Chinese, Vietnamese and Laotian populations in the Toronto area, Bosward said, "made his hiding that much easier."

Bosward, who plans to interview Bounnam soon, said he's uncertain if Bounnam was using an alias or if he was working as a farm laborer. The Laotian immigrant was 19 at the time of the fatal robbery.

"We have him listed as being unemployed. His apparent income was through his girlfriend. We do know he's still wearing the scars from the incident, " Bosward said.

Others accused in the murders had testified during their trials that Bounnam had been wounded in the leg during the armed robbery.

When he returns to Memphis, Bounnam will face three counts of first-degree murder and four counts of armed robbery.

Bounnam, if convicted in Memphis, could be sentenced to death. Canada does not have the death penalty.

"The death penalty issue is not a major barrier up here regarding extradition, " said Bosward.

TBI Case Agent John Simmons of Memphis spent roughly 18 months trying to find Bounnam.

"It was really difficult, " Simmons said. "We always felt Bounnam was out of the country."

Bounnam's sister lives in St. Catharines, but Simmons said Bounnam was not staying at her home.

At the time of the murders, a caller told police that a faded blue Camaro was seen leaving the restaurant. Police later found an abandoned car matching that description. It belonged to Bounnam.

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Thank you for sharing this story. It help bring some closure. I personally knew the Lee family and worked at Jade East. I was in high school at that time, 16 yrs old to be exact. By the grace of God, I was spared. I was suppose to come into work that evening to get trained as a cook by Arthur Lee. But family and friends frantically called me when I got home from school to deliver the horrible news. This was the worst funeral I've ever experience in my life, because the Lee's were my 2nd family at the time. The Lee family were kind and decent to everybody. I served at Chester and Amy's wedding reception. Amy was the sweetest and soft spoken Chinese lady I've ever met. This event still breaks my heart...

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Used to be a loyal customer of the jade east restaurant while I was stationed in Tenn. They were good people, served excellent food and were a kind people. Was sadden to hear of the crime in the late 80's and am glad all involved were brought to justice. And in fact still sad after all these years. Wish all the family well. Hope their joy can someday be returned to them.

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