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SILENT WITNESSES FRUSTRATE S.L. DETECTIVES

When police officers arrived at the dance in the early hours of May 19, they found a 25-year-old man lying on his back in a pool of blood. A large crowd stood around watching.

Officers broadcast a description of a vehicle that was seen leaving the area. Minutes later, a car matching the description and containing three people was stopped. A bloody knife was found inside. Two of the occupants had blood on their hands and clothes.Soon afterward, police were notified that Youthaloth Oudanunh had died at LDS Hospital. He had been stabbed in the back, shoulder and neck and had bled to death.

Police booked the three people into jail for investigation of criminal homicide. But the three men - Vienphet Sundara, 25, his brother Viengkueo Sundara, 23, and Hoomphanh Vanvilay, 19 - were discharged and sent home a few days later after denying any knowledge of the stabbing. Investigators did not have enough evidence to charge them with the slaying.

Salt Lake police detectives are frustrated. They believe a crowd of people witnessed the stabbing, yet no one has been willing to admit it.

"Unless we get the cooperation of the Asian community or somebody that saw it, we can't continue," said Salt Lake Police homicide Lt. Jim Bell.

"We think there are several people who saw the stabbing. If they would come forward, we would be able to prosecute the case," he said.

"We can't pinpoint who was the actual stabber . . . who was holding him down, who was stabbing," Bell said. "Without a witness, all we can do is a cursory investigation without prosecution."

Two weeks before the homicide, Oudanunh became involved in a fist fight with one of the suspects. Police said he was expecting retaliation when he went to the dance at 120 W. 1300 South on the night of May 18, but did not anticipate he would be stabbed.

Bell said the victim's father does not speak English and may not have a good understanding of the judicial system. Witnesses also may fear retaliation, and some members of the Laotian community have a "we-take-care-of-our-own mentality."

But Shu Cheng, director of the Asian Association of Salt Lake, said he doubts cultural differences have much to do with why witnesses are unwilling to testify.

"I suspect the community is small enough they know each other well. If people are asked to come forward, I don't know whether that would put them on the spot," he said. "I think people are just afraid to come forward being the accusers."

Cheng said the criminal justice system can be confusing for many people, particularly those who come here from other countries. He said he hopes police can meet with Laotian community leaders to discuss the problem but believes a quiet, laid-back approach would be best.

"I think the community will respond to this, but probably not in a public way," he said. "If the community is made aware of the concerns about crime, they might look at it more as restoring justice for the victim."

Lou Tong, director of the Asian Advisory Council, said the Laotian community in Salt Lake City is a close-knit group. "When they act, they act as a united body rather than one person."

Tong praised the police for making real efforts in communicating with the Asian community but encouraged officers to continue to try to bridge the cultural and language differences.

Bell said detectives have not given up on the case. He hopes to meet with Asian community leaders in an effort to convince any witnesses of the importance they play in the investigation.