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Arsonist sentenced for hate crimes;
Hmong family tells of fleeing burning home

By: TOM KERTSCHER, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, February 13, 2002 Wednesday

In a case that invoked the Vietnam War, America's promise of freedom and the tragedy of Sept. 11, a 23-year-old Manitowoc man who helped burn a house down was sentenced Tuesday to nearly 19 years in prison.

The Hmong victims and the judge spoke eloquently about what the crimes, and the punishment, said about this country.

Andrew Franz, the first of the seven white perpetrators to be sentenced in the hate crimes case, stayed silent.

Franz, a two-time burglar who has served prison time, had pleaded guilty in October to two hate crimes and a gun charge in the Hmong case. He said at the time that the 1998 arson, as well as an unfulfilled murder plot, were meant to "send a message" that Asians in the Manitowoc area should leave him and his friends alone. On Tuesday in Milwaukee, U.S. District Judge Charles Clevert also spoke of sending a message, but first he listened to three of the victims.

Chao Lee, 43, began to cry before finishing her first thought. On July 28, 1998, she recalled, she, her husband and their six children ran into the night as their home went up in flames. Franz had ignited gasoline that he and one of his friends had poured on the porch.

"All that came out was our bodies," Lee said.

All of the family's possessions, including the sacred Hmong clothing she was saving for her burial, were lost.

Like other victims in the case, Lee and her family had resettled in the Manitowoc area from their native Laos after the war in Vietnam. Many Hmong fought with Americans and faced almost certain death had they remained in their homeland after the Communists took over.

"We came here seeking peace, but this is not peace," Lee said.

After the fire, the family had to live for a time with Lee's parents, a total of 12 in a tiny home.

"Every night one of the kids asked us, 'When can we go home?' But there is no home . . . nothing but ashes," said Lee, whose family moved into a new home.

Lee's testimony was translated by her oldest child, 20-year-old Xiong Lee. The last to escape the home, he said he would have perished had his mother not gone back inside to find him.

One who saw combat with the CIA in Vietnam was Humphrey Chang, 57, who was wounded twice during the war. Three days before the Lee fire, Franz and two of his co-defendants, armed with shotguns, had gone to Two Rivers intending to shoot Asians. They ignited an explosive outside Chang's home, hoping it would flush people out, but no one fled and no shots were fired.

"America is a country where freedom began," Chang said. Americans cannot allow such racial terrorism, "the act of killing innocent life for the only reason of hate," he said.

Franz and his friends said they had planned the arson and the shooting as revenge for an earlier fight between Asians and whites at a Manitowoc park. His father, Michael Franz, said that he and his son were sorry "for what happened" and that since the crimes his son had "really turned his life around."

Bobbi Bernstein, a civil rights prosecutor from Washington, D.C., and local Assistant U.S. Attorney Brian Pawlak said Franz's assistance to the FBI was pivotal in bringing charges against the six co-defendants. They recommended a roughly 17-year sentence.

Franz, who remained composed as he watched the victims speak, shed tears as he spoke with family and friends during a break in the hearing. But after Franz refused a second offer to speak, the judge told him he had seen no sign of remorse and spoke of the need to deter "this despicable" type of crime.

"Last Friday night in Salt Lake, a tattered American flag was paraded into the Olympic stadium as a reminder that this country had been attacked and that hate, unrelenting hate and total disregard for life, can have very tragic and lasting consequences," Clevert said.

"Given those considerations, it is important that this court impose a sentence as a reminder, a lifetime reminder for you and anyone who learns of your crime, that this court and our courts will deal with this type of crime very strongly and with the firm belief that we have to stamp out the kind of hate displayed in your case."

Franz will serve at least 85% of his 19-year term before being eligible for probation.

Later in the day, Judge J.P. Stadtmueller sentenced 21-year-old Augustine LaBarge of Manitowoc to 10 years in prison, one month less than the maximum for his lesser role in both crimes.

Four more adults will be sentenced. The record of the seventh defendant, a juvenile, is sealed.