Operation Six Guns: The Tech. Sgt. Saner Wongun Case

  • Published
  • By Dr. Deborah Kidwell
  • OSI Command Historian

When a woman was found dead on an isolated Marin County, Calif., road in 1994, wrapped in a sleeping bag covered in plastic and apparently bludgeoned to death, the primary suspect was her husband, Technical Sergeant Saner Wongun. However, he was nowhere to be found for questioning. With all other leads exhausted, the case grew cold, even though agents suspected that Wongun, a native of Thailand, was guilty of the murder. While it was believed that he had fled to his native country to escape prosecution, all efforts to locate him there had stymied as well. Agents enlisted the assistance of Thai Police without success and Wongun remained on the Office of Special Investigations’ top fugitive list from 1994 until his capture in 2006.

Wongun had been encouraged to join the Air Force after being mentored by another Air Force sergeant in Thailand. He eventually immigrated to the U.S. and enlisted. He also became a naturalized U.S. citizen and served 19 successful years in the service before the murder.  In 2003, OSI Special Agent Jack Angelo was the Special Assistant to OSI’s Executive Director, Mr. Dan Butler. SA Angelo was asked to assist in locating Wongun and the effort was named Operation Six Guns. 

By 2003, the case had grown cold, but was not forgotten. It was discussed at the highest levels of OSI leadership and finally gained the attention of Mr. Butler and the OSI Commander Brig. Gen. Leonard E. Patterson. During a review of a briefing for a pending international partner meeting, General Patterson stated he was tired of seeing the slide that listed Wongun as the top OSI fugitive and wanted the case resolved. Three months later, after a similar briefing review, the commander was not too pleased when the slide came up again and he tartly asked Mr. Butler and SA Angelo how OSI could consider itself a premier law enforcement agency when they could not find, capture and close the number one fugitive case. That meeting prompted Mr. Butler to redouble efforts to locate Wongun. SA Angelo pulled the case file and conducted a review to see what could be done to locate Wongun. 

The review discovered that two separate OSI Field Investigations Regions had two separate cases opened on Wongun, one being the murder investigation, run by Region 3 Detachment 303 at Travis Air Force Base, Calif., and the fugitive case run by Region 6 Detachment 601 at Hickam AFB, Hawaii. There was an apparent lack of coordination between the two detachments and most recently activity had come to a standstill since several years after the murder had taken place. SA Angelo recommended OSI contact a fellow member of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, who happened to be a top fugitive hunter for the U.S. Marshall Service. OSI’s top subject matter experts in solving criminal cases also reviewed the case file to assist in developing options to facilitate Wongun’s capture. 

A meeting was arranged, a working lunch between the U.S. Marshall’s top fugitive hunter and the invited the case agents, who flew out to Washington D.C., along with their Region’s subject matter experts. The meeting took place at the Andrews AFB Officers club. During the meeting, it was strongly suggested OSI hold a summit with all the stake holders to develop a unified operational plan which was later set up at Travis AFB, Calif. SAs Angelo and Clete Hagg of the Criminal Division represented OSI headquarters. Each detachment sent their leadership teams and the two case agents attended as did subject matter experts in operational design, the Operational Enhancement Specialist and members of the legal community. They developed an operational investigations plan that included three major phases of effort. 

The first phase involved Wongun’s remaining family.  It was known that Wongun had two children, an older son and a daughter. Experts in Asian culture believed it would be very difficult for a father to leave his children, especially his first born son behind, so agents thought that the son may lead them to the whereabouts of his father. They contacted the son who said he was estranged from his father, did not know his whereabouts and had not been contacted by him over the years. However, agents convinced Wongun’s son to work undercover to develop information that could lead to the capture of his father. The son agreed to visit his father’s village in Thailand, speak with locals and his grandparents and hand out business cards noting that he would like to talk to his father to obtain needed family medical information because he was having some medical issues. This effort did not produce results. 

Meanwhile, OSI contacted International Police (INTERPOL) agents to ask for their assistance in finding Wongun. INTERPOL and OSI agents held a meeting at Benidorm, Spain, with elements of the Thai government, primarily to discuss the possibility of establishing a Force Protection Detachment (FPD) in Thailand, but agents also discussed the case. 

A few months later Mr. Butler and SA Angelo met with members of the Thai embassy in Washington D.C., to explain that OSI felt a strong sense of duty as a law enforcement agency to resolve the case and bring closure to the family. The Thai Embassy staff advised they would send word back to their counterparts in country to see what could be done. 

The second phase then kicked off with a deliberate public affairs campaign, which was rudimentary by today’s standards, with the objective of generating productive leads. While this effort did produce leads, none of them led agents any closer to finding Wongun’s location, and eventually reached dead ends. After the two phases, the case was no closer to being solved.  

The next step for OSI leadership was to try the third line of operations, and perhaps the simplest.  OSI offered reward money, starting at $5,000 and periodically increase that amount in $5,000 increments until it reached $25,000. Once the reward reached the maximum amount, local police working with a very persistent OSI agent, finally found the suspect in late 2006 selling charcoal in a village market. He was taken into custody and extradited to the U.S. for trial and conviction.

During the interview, Wongun, confessed to killing his pregnant wife. He said he flew into a blinding rage when he learned his wife was pregnant by another man. He killed her with a claw hammer and after disposing her body, he gave a friend $50,000 to care for his children and then fled to Thailand. Defense council later told the court Wongun had no plan to kill his wife that day, but “lost it” when his wife told him during a lunch break the news of her pregnancy.  Wongun apologized for his actions and noted he destroyed his successful 19-year Air Force career, as well as his entire life, by his actions that day.

In mid-2008, a military judge ruled to accept Wongun’s guilty plea to voluntary manslaughter.  His daughter supported the plea, and testified she had never seen her father act violently towards her mother before this incident. The judge sentenced the defendant to 10 years of confinement, a dishonorable discharge and forfeiture of all pay and benefits in the January 6, 1994 manslaughter of his wife after her affair.  He remained in federal prison until 2013.    

While an extremely unfortunate event for all involved, this case is significant to OSI because it illustrates the importance of perseverance, coordination and operational planning. Another unique aspect of the case was that authorities used age-progression techniques to produce an image of what Wongun might look like more than 10 years later with normal aging, given that more than a decade had passed before the extensive efforts to close the case began. 

The suspect’s capture involved the cooperation of various international and domestic government agencies and law enforcement officials, including the Thai government, INTERPOL officials, California police, the U.S. State Department, FBI, immigration and Air Force officials. 

Although many aspects of life had changed in the intervening years while Wongun had been a fugitive, persistence and dedication to quality investigations, allowed justice to be served in this case, and are consistent features of OSI’s quality investigations performed in service to the Nation and the interests of justice.