October 31, 2022 – By Magduline Bakor
This story is part of a collaborative project between Project: Cold Case and a University of North Florida Journalism class.
Phoutone Lothirath, known as “Tawn” since childhood, was the eldest of his seven siblings and always filled the role of the loving, older brother. “He would love to go have pho on his days off, which was rare because he worked all the time,” said his younger sister, Vienne Kasprowicz. “Tawn would call out, ‘Come on, kids! Come on!’ Then we’d all pile in his car and he’d take us to the restaurant and treat us to a bowl of pho.”
Those trips stopped three decades ago when Phoutone was murdered on Halloween Night by a man posing as a trick-or-treater at his home in Escondido, California. His murder is still unsolved.
Phoutone was born on November 12, 1964. He grew up in Laos along with his other siblings. While living in Laos, his father Khamdy was always traveling because he was in the military. His mother Gail stayed home taking care of the children. Phoutone dedicated much of his time to the Buddhist temple. “His focus was very drawn to Buddhism,” Vienne said. “With whatever the monks needed, dishes washed, cooking food, or the floor being swept – those kinds of things. My mom never had to worry, because she knew where he was at – in the temple.” but because of the Vietnam War, their family moved to the United States as refugees in 1979. They stayed in refugee camps in the Philippines for several months, then flew out to San Francisco, California for another several months, and then landed at their destination of St. Paul, Minnesota.
Phoutone’s family was sponsored and hosted by a Christian church group in St. Paul. Coming to the US with nothing but the clothes on their back, important documents, and barely knowing the language made it difficult to settle. “There wasn’t a whole lot of Southeast Asians coming to America at that time,” Vienne said. “We didn’t even have our relatives here yet; we were basically one of the first few from my family. There wasn’t an Asian grocery store where we could go and buy rice and things that we were used to eating”. Khamdy began to get sick and was in and out of the hospital. “He had some tests done and we found out that he had inoperable cancer,” said Vienne. “So, here, not even a month that we came to the US, we’re now finding out that my dad’s going to die. I can only imagine how [my mother] felt at that time with seven young children not having any kind of support system, or family to help or rely on or anything.” Less than a year later, Khamdy passed away.
Phoutone was a teenager and began wanting to hang out with his friends and party a lot. Gail relied on the older siblings to take care of the younger siblings while she was away at work.
“That put a lot of pressure on him,” Vienne said. “He’s a young boy himself having adult responsibilities. “As for Phoutone, he became out of control for Gail, so she sent him to go live with relatives in Texas to correct his behavior for a while. Phoutone came back to Minnesota when he was a young adult. “I see my brother as completely different,” Vienne said. “He was a teenager when he left and then he was a man. When Phoutone came back home, he was a young adult, but I always felt different in his presence, it was more calming and loving.”
Phoutone followed the fashion trends of the alternative look in the 1980s: acid wash jeans, crop tops that’d show off the abs or a band T-shirt, and the staple that pulled it all together, the Ray-Bans sunglasses. He loved to listen to soft rock music – Def Leppard, Pink Floyd, and Blondie. “We would be rocking out, I remember “Heart of Glass” playing on the record player. He and his friends would start dancing and being goofy,” Vienne said. “And I’m like, ‘Oh, let me dance too!’ I’m a little kid, so I would jump and try to imitate what he’s doing.”. He also was into riding motorcycles and driving muscle cars.
Phoutone met his future spouse, the two began a serious relationship and had two children together. They ended up moving to Escondido, California, after her family moved out there. Phoutone’s family was worried about the move since it’s so far from Minnesota. However, Phoutone reassured them by sending letters and pictures, and, as he got older, he would fly back home to visit. He would constantly ask to take Vienne, Sim, and Sounthone back to Escondido with him to stay for the summer.
On Halloween of 1995, Phoutone came home from work and took his son and a neighborhood friend out trick-or-treating. They went out early and returned early since he was tired. Phoutone then laid on the couch to rest and watch some TV. Tawn’s son, heard a knock at the door, thinking it was a trick-or-treater. He raced to the front door before Phoutone could get up. Standing on the front porch was a man wearing a white bandana covering his face, the only thing visible was his eyes, and he said, “trick-or-treat. “Eddie went to grab the candy bowl which was next to the door and as he turned back the man at the door stuck a gun out at Eddie and demanded he go into his room.
The man entered the house and went directly to Phoutone. Before he could get up, the man pinned him down with his knee and shot him twice in the chest and once in the head.
Police Detective Ralph Claytor reported at the time that Tawn’s son and their roommate heard a quick heated conversation. They heard Phoutone say, “Hey brother, we can work this out,” before several shots rang out. Claytor says he believes Phoutone knew who his killer was since Laotians only use the term “brother” with relatives or close friends. However, none of his blood relatives are suspected. Some witnesses reported seeing a small dark compact car nearby before the shooting.
“I was living in Minnesota with a friend of mine that I met in college at Long Beach who was also from Minnesota,” Vienne recalled. “We were staying with her grandma, and we had gone out for a Halloween party, just college kid stuff. We came home and I see my older sister at the door knocking on the side door. I’m like ‘what is she doing? She never comes over.’”
“I came out of the car and she’s coming towards me and she’s just a mess. She told me that my brother was killed. I can’t even describe how I felt, it is just unbelievable. The last time Vienne spoke with Phoutone was at her college graduation. The entire family came to Long Beach to celebrate.
Vienne catches glimpses of Phoutone from her own son. He’ll smile a certain way and she’ll see him. Whenever fishing or bowling gets brought up, she remembers him. Or if she sees a Snickers Bar or Pho, it always brings back memories. Vietnamese food always takes her back to those childhood days with her brother.
“I mean, was he a perfect brother? No, I don’t know a perfect brother,” Vienne said. “But I know that, when in his presence, I felt comfortable. I felt safe. I felt like I was being nurtured and cared for and loved.”
Vienne has been dedicated to solving the case and bringing justice to her brother. However, at times, she acknowledges that she needs to take breaks from the case for her own sake. Vienne keeps a huge binder filled with all the information and photographs regarding Phoutone.
“I still have the very strong family ties that were instilled in us since we were children from my parents,” said Vienne. “It’s unfortunate that all my siblings were not on the same page. It’s a tough subject.”
“Some would rather keep it buried and not have it resurface. That’s something that I chose not to do.”
If you have any information, no matter how small you think it is, about Phoutone “Tawn” Lothirath’s murder, please call the Escondido Police Department. You can remain anonymous by calling (760) 743-8477.