PHILADELPHIA – Tam Voong was not supposed to survive the night he was beaten, bound, stripped, stabbed in the neck and kicked into the Schuylkill River.
Yet the 23-year-old took the witness stand in Philadelphia on Tuesday and described the night his two friends lost their lives. He says he used a rock to cut his wrist ties and crawled up the riverbank on Kelly Drive to get help.
Voong was nearly killed while trying to deliver some of the $100,000 that his friend Vu "Kevin" Huynh said he owed the defendant.
Authorities describe the 31-year-old Huynh as a popular singer in his native Vietnam and a heavy gambler who racked up a $100,000 debt at a casino near Philadelphia. The other victim was his 28-year-old brother, Viet Huynh.
Voong said he arrived at the defendant's house to find the brothers bound and badly beaten. He had only been able to raise $40,000, but never got to deliver it before all three were put in a van and taken to the river.
Tam Le, 41, faces a double-murder trial after a judge at Tuesday's preliminary hearing upheld murder, kidnapping, aggravated assault and other charges for trial.
Viet Huynh was stabbed 10 times and his brother 32 times, according to autopsy results. Both lived in Paoli, near Philadelphia, but traveled frequently to Vietnam, authorities said.
Le, with a shaved head and narrow goatee, stared intently at Voong during his long testimony.
But Le held his head in his hands as he listened, presumably for the first time, to the statement his wife gave police during his several months on the lam. She told them that they had taken their three young children, along with her older two, to Rochester, New York, after the Aug. 27 deaths.
She said her husband told her about the river killings and was stunned when she told him based on news reports that one man had survived.
"Tam got real pale and was getting real nervous and saying he couldn't believe someone survived," Bich Vo testified. "He then told me that he couldn't return to Philadelphia because the cops would be looking for him."
She said she thought the debt stemmed from $20,000 to $30,000 worth of used appliances her husband had sold the brothers. Le was on parole in a New York manslaughter case when the Huynh brothers were killed, Assistant District Attorney Ed Cameron said.
The slayings occurred two weeks after Vu Huynh and Voong and were arrested in upstate New York with more than 10 pounds of marijuana. Voong, who described himself as a former drug dealer, said he had also been kidnapped weeks earlier in a separate incident in South Philadelphia.
In questioning from Le's lawyer, Christopher Phillips, he said he did not belong to an Asian drug gang. He said he simply did favors whenever his friend called. That's why he agreed to try to round up $100,000 for him that night, he said.
Police are not sure if Vu's debt stemmed from the seized marijuana or $100,000 he had lost over six months at Harrah's Casino in Chester, Homicide Detective Shawn Leahy said.