In Edmonton, a trail of horror


The first legal hanging in what is now Alberta took place on Dec. 20, 1879. A Cree man named Swift Runner, possibly under the influence of the culture-specific “Windigo psychosis,” had killed and eaten nine family members, leaving behind damning evidence that he had sucked the very marrow out of their bones. The last legal hanging in Alberta took place on Nov. 14, 1960. Bobby Cook had fatally shot and beaten his father, his stepmother, and his five half-siblings. Or, anyway, somebody had.

Familicide is, sadly, as old a tradition in Alberta as bonspiels and bush parties. When word of Edmonton’s worst-ever mass murder began to filter out on Dec. 30, with little more than the ghastly fact of nine bodies at three locations being known, people hearkened back instinctively to Swift Runner and to Bobby Cook. On Friday the Edmonton police finally began to fill in a picture that had remained unclear while a mass of New Year autopsies and next-of-kin notifications were completed.

The perpetrator was Phu Lam, 53, a man who proved to have a long record of financial difficulties, gambling troubles, and evaded criminal charges, some related to domestic violence. Sometime between 3:45 a.m. and 8 a.m. on Dec. 28, Phu Lam killed Thuy Tien Truong, 35, a woman who was either his current or former domestic partner; Elvis Lam, 8, her son; Thanh Ha Thi Truong, 33, her sister; the sister’s three-year-old daughter Valentina Nguyen; the parents of the sisters, Thi Dau Le, 55, and Van Dang Truong, 55; and a male acquaintance, 41-year-old Viet Nguyen. All but Mr. Truong and Mr. Nguyen were residents of the house in which they were killed, a home in a northeast Edmonton neighbourhood, Klarvatten, near the Anthony Henday ring road.

Police are saying little more about the main crime scene for the moment, specifying only that the six were shot and that the crime showed indications of having been “planned and deliberate,” in the words of EPS Supt. Mark Neufeld. The Klarvatten killings are all thought to have taken place at around the same time—whenever that was. What is known for sure from eyewitness testimony is that at about 9:45 a.m., Phu Lam left the death house in a black SUV registered to one of his victims.

About 24 hours later came perhaps the most lingering mystery in this sequence of events: Lam appeared on the doorstep of a relative with two babies, one his own one-year-old daughter with Thuy Tien Truong, the other his eight-month-old nephew, son of Thanh Ha Thi Truong. No one knows if the infants were in the Klarvatten house during the murders, though it seems likely. No one knows why they were spared when a toddler was not. The relative who took the children from Phu Lam called police to report that he appeared troubled, even suicidal—but the call did not come until 8 p.m. that night.

Phu Lam left the residence and visited other relatives, but little else is known of his movements until he appeared at the southside home of Cyndi Duong, 37, at about 6:50 p.m. Lam shot Duong with her husband and her three children nearby—possibly present—and then fled. Phu Lam had a well-documented record of disturbingly specific death threats against his other victims, spending about six weeks in provincial custody without bail in late 2012 before various assault charges were stayed. (In a terse early Friday press release, the office of the provincial Crown prosecution service stated that the witnesses against Lam had recanted or “changed the nature of” their allegations.) But the attack on Cyndi Duong remains baffling. Supt. Neufeld said elliptically that there was some kind of “relationship” link between the Duong and Lam families, but it does not seem as though Phu Lam and Cyndi had ever met.

Having killed an eighth person under circumstances completely impossible to overlook, Phu Lam now became, for the first time, the object of a manhunt. The SUV he was driving was tracked to the Vietnamese restaurant where he worked, located in Fort Saskatchewan, the city to Edmonton’s northeast that anchors its long tendril of refineries and chemical plants. Police burst into the restaurant with tactical equipment on the morning of Dec. 30, only to find that Lam had killed himself.

Lam came to Edmonton in 1979, meeting his much younger wife on a return trip to Vietnam in 2000 and sponsoring her immigration to Canada in 2003. Records suggest that he brought the rest of her family over in 2009. In the 2012 criminal proceedings involving Lam and his wife Tien, she told the court that she had cheated on him and that Lam had used a DNA test to confirm that her son Elvis was not Lam’s biological child. They later reconciled long enough to have the baby who has now survived them, but a February 2013 bankruptcy application by Lam characterized the couple as “separated.” The gun he used to commit the murders has been traced back to a theft that took place in Surrey, B.C., in 2006.

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In Edmonton, a trail of horror

  1. The “Windigo psychosis” of 1879 sounds much like what happened with Vince Li on a Greyhound bus in 2008.

    What are we doing to treat mental illnesses?

  2. “When word of Edmonton’s worst-ever mass murder began to filter out on December 30, with little more than the ghastly fact of nine bodies at three locations being known, people hearkened back instinctively to Swift Runner and to Bobby Cook. ”

    Is this a parody, Mr. Cosh, of high minded North American outsiders writing nonsense about Africa? People who studied Albertan history might know the case of Swift Runner, and rather more will remember the case of Bobby Cook, but even so, it is hardly a matter of “hearkening back instinctively” but of remembering what one has learned. Other matters aside, I am sure you realize that relatively few Albertans are from families who were even around Alberta in 1879, and even post 1960 there has been a great deal of immigration to Alberta (and I doubt that wise parents of old Alberta families sit around telling children born post 1960 of the Bobby Cook case).

    Perhaps you “hearkened back to them,” (more credit to you). An elderly friend of mine who died some 15 years ago might have done so also, if he were still alive. If you want to declare this instinct, it is entirely your business, but most odd that you declare this to be also true of people as a whole.

    • He’s assuming Albertans know their own history.

      The psychosis is also known elsewhere.

      • Well, first, I should say that I think that generally Mr. Cosh is an excellent writer, that this is a sensitive discussion of a truly horrible crime, and finally that I thank him for discussing Albertan history, as he does here. We need more of that.

        But that sentence at least is badly considered (yes, I know, Mr. Cosh is writing to meet a deadline and needs a good transitional sentence to hold his piece together – all perfectly understandable). I think I have read a certain amount of Albertan history, probably more than average. I did know about the Bobby Cook case (not the case of Swift Runner, though) because I had read about it, but I doubt that many others thought about either case. I also come from a family that has been in Alberta since the early 30s, and grew up knowing people who had been born in Alberta during the late 1890s and early 1900s, but the first events I thought about were not historic Albertan cases, but more recent familicides elsewhere that have been in the news. Even people who read about Albertan history do not necessarily know much about the history of Albertan crime, after all, certainly not the extent of hearkening to the subject instinctively.

        • I’m not sure where you’re going with this, but history books are freely available.

          • I am not going anywhere with anything, Emilyone. Nor did I imagine that this was a grand debate. I am saying that Mr. Cosh’s claim that “people hearkened back instinctively to Swift Runner and to Bobby Cook,” is absurd, and (unusual for him) bad writing. Mr. Cosh may have immediately thought of them, but I suspect that the number of people in Alberta who thought about them (let alone “instinctively harkened” to these incidents) is minute. That “history books are freely available” is true, and also entirely beside the point.

        • It means that while you haven’t read enough history to ‘hearken back’…..other people have.

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