Dave Kouba died in the early spring of 2008. Some forty years before he died, he flew for Continental Air Services, Inc (CASI) in Laos which delivered airborne aid to refugees and did contract work to support the allied effort to keep the North Vietnamese from taking control of the country.
That’s where I first meet him.
I was a para-military officer for the CIA and in early 1972 was assigned up-country Laos where I armed and worked with local Hmong village defense units to stop the armed incursions of North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao forces. Mostly I got around on Air America and CASI porters – short take-off and landing aircraft (STOL) – which were suited for the rough-hewed, short runways that the Hmong villagers dug into the sides of mountains for allied aircraft to land.
I don’t remember any specific mission that Dave flew for me, although I have clear recollections of heading out to the CIA ramp in Long Tieng several mornings about dawn to brief Dave on our work that day.
I remember him as quiet and competent. If he understood what needed to be done, he’d do it.
For our work upcountry Laos, the Pilatus porters pilots seats were configured so that the pilot faced straight ahead, looking out the front windshield over the instrument panel, and the “customer,” that would be me when we worked together, sat in the co-pilot seat which was reversed, facing the rear. Shoulder to shoulder, pilot and “customer” would go about landing here and there facing in opposite directions. With my ops assistants –first Va Xiong and then Nhia Vang – on board with maybe replacement militia or ammunition or radios or whatever – I’d give Dave directions where we wanted to go and he’d take us there. As we approached the different sites, my ops assistant would call ahead – if the village had radios and fresh batteries - and judging from their conversation, I’d tell Dave whether to land or not.
Most landing strips were to the edge of mountains with sheer drop offs causing powerful wind drafts up or down, leaving little room for pilot error. Getting through the wind turbulence, then getting the plane down, and stopping on a dime took death defying skill. And we often did this a dozen times a day. Some pilots did not want to wait on the ground while I did my usiness in the different far flung villages. They’d want to get me and my crew off as soon as possible and get back up in the air, preferring to circle around overhead rather than shut down on the strip, possibly to invite fire from enemy gunners. I remember Dave always shutting down and waiting. Being absolutely no problem.
And he always had this big, wide smile. I remembered he was from the mid-west and also vaguely remember that he didn’t get his pilot training from the military, like most of the other pilots I worked with. Not that it made any difference. Dave was just nice and straight forward and he had a way with the aircraft, as if they were one, landing on those tiny little dirt strips way out in the farthest reaches of the Lao mountains, hard up against enemy forces.
Nice guy. Dave Kouba.
I left Laos after the cease fire in 1973. Dave stayed on. He was the last pilot out of Long Tieng on 14 May 1975 taking the “Hog,” the last CIA case officer, and General Vang Pao, the leader of the Hmong. There was chaos on the ramp that day and although I wasn’t there I know for sure Dave was smiling as he handled the landing, picked up his passengers and took off. His voice would have been calm and his manner unhurried. While there were many unknowns at the end of that war, Dave Kouba’s unaffected and sure way would have reassured his passengers that for this part of their day, everything was OK.
I lost touch with Dave during the 80s and early 90s when I went on to other CIA work. We saw each other for the first time in almost 20 years when we met at an Air America reunion in Texas. I saw him at other reunions and then in 2003, my wife and I moved to Las Vegas and we were re-united by a mutual friend, Tom Krohm. Another mutual friend, John Lear, also lived in Vegas and we got together as a group several times over the years. Dave told me he was working for America West at the Las Vegas airport handling bags. He said it kept him busy and fit.
The last time I saw the ol’ porter pilot was in the fall of 2007. Retired from the CIA, I was back on contract doing ops work, mostly at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. I had just come back from headquarters where I had bought him a hat and some shot glasses with the CIA logo. He and his girlfriend, Mary, came by my house to pick them up and we talked for maybe an hour. One subject was the 3-frog Karen bronze drum that I have in my study and Dave reminded me that he had more than 100 of the drums at one time. They were collector items from Southeast Asia, especially valuable to people who had served there. He said the drums were worth in the thousands of dollars each and what he had left was in storage in Florida.
He was good spirits that night, seemed in perfect health. We laughed and talked about old times. He called me later to say that a young Hmong fellow – maybe he mentioned him by name, Tua Vang – was collecting his video and pictures from Laos into a CD and he wanted to know if I would participate in a filming of our work together, or maybe join him at John Lear’s house for a taping. There were the holidays or something and I turned him down. Another time, previously, he had called me to see if I was interested in going to a Hmong ceremony in California. That time, too, I turned him down.
In January 2008 – the month after I last saw Dave - I left for Washington and was there working through the 4th of
Sometime after I left, my wife received in the mail a couple of DVDs from Dave, produced by Tua Vang. One was a video of Dave and his girlfriend’s return to Laos in 2006 with footage of them in Vientiane and on the PDJ near some of the stone jars. The other DVD was some action videos of landing sites amidst some still photos of upcountry Hmong in village settings.
In May 2008 I heard Dave had died. Cancer someone said. Died alone in his condo. No known next of kin. A young Hmong – I presumed Tua Vang – was handling arrangements to settle his estate. A memorial was planned by the Hmong in California in July.
It was all very sad, and very distant. I was working on the east coast then and Dave to me was more Laos than anything, though we had had those contacts in Las Vegas. But his death was out of my hands, in God’s. I might have said a silent prayer, I don’t know. I had just gotten back to Vegas in July when John Lear invited me to Dave’s memorial, but I was tired and begged off. I did not go. I had heard next of kin had been found and his remains disposed of. Later I heard his ashes had been flown to Southeast Asia and Mac Thompson had thrown them to the winds upcountry Laos, per his written instructions.
In November 2009 I got an email from Mac Thompson in Thailand who said that the FBI had taken some things from Dave’s condo when he died and the Hmong handling Dave’s effects had been unsuccessful in getting them back. My friend asked if I could call the local bureau office to find out what was what.
So I did. The young agent I talked with said he had inherited the case when the primary FBI agent who had been transferred and it had been a year since he had anything to do with the stuff. He had to check on its disposition and get back to me. A couple of weeks went by, no response, so I called again and the young agent told me to come down to the bureau office and pick up the boxes. He said my name was mentioned in some of the records.
When I got there he said the CIA and the FBI had been called to Dave’s apartment after his death when so many photos of armed Asian militia were found. The stuff taken was to insure there was no evidence of terrorism or armed insurrection anywhere. Everything eventually was vetted and cleared.
I picked up two boxes of photos, CDs, DVDs, pictures and files and a tube holding some extra large photos. 90% was background to the two DVDs Tua Vang had made of Dave in Laos, including CASI records of his last day flying Hog and Vang Pao from the CIA site, upcountry and other Lao related material. Little personal stuff but what stood out from the rest in those two boxes was a Statement of Financial Position as of 30 June 1988. Dave and his wife then, Carrine B. Calvasina, were worth $2,753,000 with $300,000 of that in Oriental Art and Coins, $1,000,000 in cash and stock and $150,000 in his share of the “Iowa Farm.” Plus other securities and property.
Curious about the disposition of Dave’s effects I went to the Clerk of Court/Clark County (Las Vegas). Records there indicated Tua Vang probated Dave’s will on 9 September 2008. That will, written in early December 2007 was a generic Office Depot/Kinko type that was drafted in stages. Exclusion of a former will was typed in, provisions leaving his residence and car to Tua Vang, his “Best New Friend,” and Nao Leng Vang, his “New Old Friend” was written in as was the statement, “Tua Vang will have power at his discretion to distribute all remaining assets.”
According to Cary Payne, Esq, a local estate lawyer, there were numerous flaws in the will that, if challenged when it was probated, may have voided it. For example, it was notarized on 8 December but was witnessed on 16 December. One of the witnesses was also the notary, a legal error.
The Petition to Prove the Will and to set aside Estate Without Administration filed at probate, was either incomplete or fraudulent, according to Payne who examined the documents. This petition states Dave’s worth was under $100,000. Assets were listed as half interest in his residence and his Ford SUV. That was all.
No mention of a bank acc’t, savings, stock, antiques, etc.
Again according to Payne these financial instruments could have been declared to the Clerk of Court if they were listed under a trust – which would legally separate them from his personal effects. But if monies, stock or antiques were part of Dave’s estate and not listed (or in a trust) then the effort to get the state to approve Tua Vang as the executor without oversight was fraudulent. According to the records filed by Tua Vang, it was almost as if Dave died destitute.
Dave was worth millions not that long before. And he told me he had 100 Kao drums worth thousands each.
I was curious as to what happened to his assets. And what had happened to Dave.
A check of tax records indicated Dave was the sole owner of
his residence at the time of his death. Why the probate petition said he was only half owner was not made clear in the petition.
On the subject of Dave’s death, Sgt Glasgow of the Metro police department read me the report of his first responders, who had discovered Dave’s body. That report indicated Tua Vang notified them that Dave had not answered his telephone for some time, and at Tua Vang’s request, police were dispatched on 24 April 2008 to his residence at 1881 Arbol Verde Way, a modest development of semi-detached homes near the Las Vegas airport and UNLV.
The officer reported that when he arrived he noticed a collection of newspapers in the drive and on inspection detected a foul odor coming from inside the house. There was a note on the door that said something to the effect, “Do Not Enter, I Am Inside.” The officer or officers entered the residence and found
Dave’s body in a back bedroom. The body was in a state of decomposition so that the exact date of death was not known or determined. A note was near the body that said to the effect, “The pain from my bone cancer is too much.” Dave died from a gun shot wound to his chest. A pistol lay on the floor near his body.
The coroner was called and the property sealed. A couple of days later the coroner ruled the death a suicide and that was so noted on the death certificate.
This was news to me. His obituary said he had died from natural causes.
Word in the SKY grapevine was that he had died of cancer. Now,
suicide? Shot in the chest?
Back to Country Clerk’s office I found that on 8 May 2008, two weeks after Dave’s body was found, Tua Vang petitioned the Clark County Public Administrator for access to and control of Dave’s property, using his legal appointment as executor in the will as justification. The Public Administrator accepted what Tua Van presented, ceded rights to him, issued the keys to the condo and closed the case.
Sgt Glasgow said there was no consideration that anything other than what seemed apparent took place. There was no homicide investigation, for example. There was no chance, according to Glasgow, that the police would take another look at events. There was no chance the coroner would consider any other cause of death.
Cary Payne, the lawyer, said that although this case had unique issues, it was really not unlike many that occur in Las Vegas. People end up here and sometimes leave everything to a kind neighbor, or the gardener, or whoever, and although relatives back home sometimes hollered, local judges usually always went with the windfall luck of the kind neighbor or gardener. Trying to get someone in the legal system here to re-examine the circumstances of Dave’s death would be very hard. But he said the will hardly meets minimum legal standards, and there may be fraud in avoiding state oversight of what may have been considerable assets. He said he would not consider taking the case on contingency – he has a six year involvement with something similar and has amassed about $500,000 in billable hours trying to unravel it for his client, and there is no end in sight. Payne said, everything consider, Tua Vang is the established executor. Accept it and go on.
However, also in the boxes received from the FBI was an airport access badge from America West, where he worked as a baggage handler, and a cancelled passport. That passport had 19 pages of visas and entry/exit caches.
I was amazed at some of the entries:
There was something about the phrase “isolate himself” and the regular nature of the visits to Columbia – plus the fact he was a baggage handler at an international airport at a time coincident to other baggage handlers in Miami being arrested for being the US receiving end for Columbian drugs – that caused me pause. Was there a tie to his previous work in Laos, another drug trafficking area?
Was his “marriage” a cover for regular drug hauling sessions in Cali, Columbia? If it was all on the up and up, why did his orbit say he had to “isolate himself” during this time? Dave had stayed on in Laos after most others had left. Had he gotten involved in flying drugs there? Why exactly had the FBI become involved?
I called Dave’s sister in Iowa. Tua Vang had filed her address in identifying next of kin when he probated the will. This was a year and a half after his death. She said the family had lost touch with Dave in recent years. But while he worked in Laos – when the family did have contact – he had sent her boxes of artifacts which she had stored in her basement. She thought she had 60 boxes at one time, before sending them to him when he moved to Florida with his first wife. She volunteered that Dave had sold his part in the family farm some years ago because he told her he needed the money. She said their mother, 91 years old, grieved Dave’s self imposed exile from the family, still grieved his death. She said they had been contacted by Tua Vang about Dave’s suicide and she and her brother Tim had flown out to the Sacramento California area in July for the memorial service. Mary, Dave’s old girlfriend, did not. Dave’s sister had received only one email from Tua Vang since the summer 2008 memorial service, but he had not responded to recent emails for information on some of Dave’s personal effects that she hoped to get back for the family.
She gave me Mary’s telephone number, but in signing off from that first telephone call, she asked what I was doing, why was I calling, what was going on. She, her brothers and her mother did not have closure over Dave death, but she wanted to know my interest.
And I told her I didn’t have a good answer. Others who I had shared my early findings with, told me to let it go. The lawyer had said let it go. Tua Vang had conducted an impressive memorial in Dave’s honor, he had handled the distributions of some personal effects and had his ashes disposed of according to Dave’s wishes. Let it be, everyone said, and I told his sister that. But I felt guilt over not being there for Dave at the end, or near the end. I did not mean to bring up old hurt as much I hoped to document Dave’s last few months for us all to have some closure. I wouldn’t be long, I promised.
I didn’t tell her that I was curious about Dave’s missing assets and that strange coincidence of working as a baggage handler at the Vegas international airport and his many, many visits to Columbia.
I called Mary, the girlfriend, and she told me that she was born and lived near where Dave grew up in Iowa. They had met in their twenties and over the years had kept in contact. He had always sent her roses on her birthday. She had lived off and on with Dave in Las Vegas from 2002 to 2007 – until about the time he met Tua Vang – eventually leaving due her own illnesses. Her pain and cancer treatment just overloaded the relationship. Following are some other things she said:
Dave either liked you or he didn’t, and as time went on he didn’t like a lot of people. He was private by nature and
never talked much about himself. To the people he liked, he was generous to a fault. For an example he had a plane in Florida once, but eventually just almost gave it away.
He had a Lao girlfriend in Vientiane, Phosai, who he relocated to Paris when he left Laos back in the 1970s. In France she had met and married a well to do French businessman but stayed in friendly contact. She and Dave had visited her once, even met her husband. Mary said
Phousai was lovely and charming. Still cared for Dave.
She did not know what came between Dave and his family. His mother, a wonderful person, had visited him when he lived in Florida, had stayed with him there. Dave had alluded to the fact that he was close to his father, who had died in a workplace accident when Dave was 6, and he may have had a competitive relationship with his two brothers over his mother’s and father’s affection, Mary wasn’t sure. It was just her guess. Dave never talked about it. He always seemed friendly to his half sister and half brother, born after his mother remarried. Once when Dave visited Mary in Iowa they drove over to meet the family – it was her idea. Everything was cordial and friendly, but once they left Dave had no comment about the visit or anyone they had met. She had no idea why. Dave was like that, she said. Quiet and private.
He had bone cancer that had metastasized to other parts of his body. Sometimes she knew he was in great pain, but he never complained. If he took any pain pills, she wasn’t aware of it.
Dave had left his boyhood home early, got his pilot’s license attending Texas Christian College and began crop dusting in Mississippi and Australia. The job in Australia led him to CASI in Laos and eventual work with the CIA there.
After Laos he was married a CPA from Texas and they moved to Florida where they ran a nursery. Something Dave said once led her believe the woman was very focused on the money end of things and when they divorced she took most of what they had. The nursery went out of business.
Dave met a lady Columbian doctor in Miami when he was in south Florida running his nursery and Mary said when the lady doctor returned to her home country, Dave eventually followed and they married.
Dave was very close to the doctor’s son by a previous marriage, named Mauricio, and had helped him get a pilot’s license when he came to the states several years ago. The son still lived in Las Vegas. Mary gave me his telephone number.
She said Dave took her to Florida once and they went to the storage facilities where he had his Kao drums. She thought there might have been ten or a dozen. Not long after she received word that Dave had died, she called that storage place and the lady who answered said that as coincidental as it might be, as they spoke, an Asian man who introduced himself as Tua Vang, was at the storage unit, loading the contents into a truck.
Mary said Dave didn’t have much in the way of assets when he died. He had given away most of his stuff, including some Kao drums. Those drums that remained in Florida were probably his greatest assets. Plus some Lao piasters he kept under his bed. She said he didn’t have much money in the bank. No stocks/bonds that she knew of.
She said his best friend was John Lear in Las Vegas, but even with Lear, there in 2008, he began to withdraw. He stayed in his condo almost all the time he wasn’t working. She said he didn’t have many friends at the end.
She knew she was the beneficiary of most of Dave’s stuff from the last will she knew he had written. Tua Vang, when he called her shortly after Dave’s body was found, told her that he was the executor of Dave’s will now and he would be dispersing Dave’s effects per Dave’s wishes. (Mary verified this when she checked with Clark County records.) She gave Tua Vang the addresses and telephone numbers of Dave’s mother and siblings. She told him she had many personal items left in the condo that she’d like back. She also said there was a pair of ceramic elephants from the storage unit that Dave had promised her, plus a painting he had on the wall of his condo.
She said Dave had engaged a professor named “Richard” from the University of North Illinois to help assess and sell some of his drums.
She never saw a gun in Dave’s condo. If he had one, it was news to her.
She said the last time she talked with him was end March 2008. He had asked her about coming back out to see him, but she couldn’t. She was away for a week or so and when she got back, there were no calls from Dave, which was unusual because he called her often. She tried to call him on or about 5 April and called regularly thereafter, but there was no answer. She learned why when Tua Vang called her in early May.
I went by to see John Lear. He knew that Dave had committed suicide, and like me, did not know he had cancer. Dave never complained. He said they drifted apart the end of 2007, early 2008. Didn’t know why. They used to meet every week for lunch, to talk about old times, then it just got longer and longer between meetings until maybe early 2008 was the last time he saw Dave. He said Dave had 48 Kao drums, he was sure. Got the number of “Richard” from Dave’s sister and called him at the University of North Illinois: Dr. Richard M. Cooler. He said he had appraised the drums at Dave’s family residences in Iowa twenty years ago. Over time he had tried to help Dave sell them, without much success. He said Dave gave him “about” ten drums “some of which” he donated to different museums, and the U of NI. He said the drums are worth between 4 and 6 thousand dollars each. He was not sure how many drums Dave had at the end, but he thought the benefactor would be hard pressed to find private buyers at this time.
Called Mauricio, the son of Dave’s ex wife from Columbia. He still lives in Vegas. He said he was contacted by the FBI shortly after Dave’s death and was asked some general questions about Dave’s activities. When asked about the gun found near Dave, Mauricio said he never knew Dave to own a gun and the FBI guy said they have records where Dave purchased it locally, shortly before his death. Mauricio said in the 90s Dave regularly flew to Cali, Columbia to visit with his mother and he was with him almost always when he visited, almost all the time. There was no chance Dave
used the trips there in any drug related way. What he did was to set his mother up in a clinic outside Cali. She was a dermatologist with qualifications to be a plastic surgeon. Most of Dave’s time, and money, was focused on that clinic. His mother eventually came to Las Vegas to live with Dave and they married. But it didn’t last long and she returned to Columbia.
He thought his mother assumed all the assets from the clinic when they separated.
In January 2010, I met with Tua Vang in Sacramento, California. He was at the restaurant (where we were to meet) early and was accompanied by a Hmong friend, “Mikey.” Slight of build, with a warm smile, he impressed from the very first as a nice guy, very likeable. The type person Dave Kouba would have taken to. Intelligent, he talked initially about some of the Hmong historical ventures he is working on. He said he is a US citizen and was recently laid off from his job. Being unemployed he could devote time to his Hmong based ventures. He said he had heard about Vang Pao’s planned trip back to Laos sometime soon, but did not approve because of the strained official relationship the US has with the government of Laos. He spoke freely and answered all my questions without hesitation. Following is what he had to say about Dave:
He met Dave in early 2007 as he was searching for Jack Knotts at some reunion. When he told Dave about some of the documentaries he was involved with, Dave expressed interest in Tua Vang helping him sort out his photos and videos, or more correctly he told Tua Vang what he had planned to do to make a CD of his photos/videos and Tua Vang told him what he planned would be very difficult. Tua Vang volunteered to help.
They met a half dozen times in 2007 working on Dave’s DVD. Early December 2007, when Tua Vang visited Dave in Las Vegas, Dave said he wanted Tua Vang to be the executor of his will. He had a partially prepared will filled out that they notarized during that visit. Dave pointed out a painting he wanted his old girl friend, Mary, to have. He told Tua Vang about the Kao Drums in Florida and mentioned “Richard” as an expert of the drums. He told Tua Vang that he wanted him to have at least one half of the condo. Dave said this condo “is half yours now.”
Tua Vang said that the day Dave left the CIA base upcountry Laos in the porter that they had flown over his father’s village and his father had called up to the plane in an effort to get some word on what was happening. In years before there were many CASI and Air America flight overhead but that had stopped after the fighting ended. Dave sole aircraft that day was unusual. He never got a response. Dave said he remembered on that trip down that they did receive several calls, but that Vang Pao, preoccupied with other things, did not answer. As an indirect consequence of this, Dave put Tua Vang’s father, Nao Leng Vang, in his will as co-executor.
In early 2008 Dave called Tua Vang to tell him that they were raising the storage fee in Florida and Tua Vang should be aware of that, maybe moving the drums to some other location.
Also in early 2008 Tua Vang finished the work on the DVDs and sent Dave several.
Tua Vang knew that Dave was battling cancer, although he rarely talked about it. It was obvious the last few times he saw him that his health was deteriorating.
Tua Vang said it appeared to him Dave was withdrawing more and more to the condo; Dave wasn’t a good housekeeping and there wasn’t a sense of order about the place.
In March 2008 Dave flew over to Sacramento and met with General Vang Pao. He spent two days altogether and while he looked pale and drawn, he was enthused and appreciative about the attention he received.
Dave was always quiet and polite, although he had strong likes and dislikes which he did not tend to alter. This cynicism was not as prevalent there towards the end as it had been in early 2007 when they first met. Dave did not talk about himself much. He never mentioned his family in Iowa. He mentioned his girlfriend Mary and he mentioned his Lao girlfriend living in France.
The end of March 2008, Dave called Tua Vang to ask him if he could come to Las Vegas mid April. He said Phosai, his Lao girlfriend from Paris, was coming to town and he wasn’t able to go to the airport to meet her or take her around town. Tua Vang said he’d try, but then something came up and he couldn’t.
At the last minute in April Phosai cancelled her trip. Dave probably died soon after finding out.
Dave lost most of what he had accumulated in life to his first and second wives. Tua Vang actually recovered 28 drums from the storage area, most of which he intends to donate to museums.
There is no evidence Dave was involved in narcotics, although circumstances of his flying in Laos, his subsequent travel to Cali, Columbia and his work in baggage collection at an international airport, might imply otherwise.
As far as can be determined Dave never did a dishonest thing in his life. He was, more than anything, nice and unassuming.
His 8 years flying in Laos define his life, and maybe like so many others who worked there, it consumed him. Back in the real world where he wasn’t as happy, or suited, he allowed his private nature to take over, and he retreated into the safe heaven of his mind. His name should be added to the likes of Hog, Kayak, Bag, Bamboo, and Clean, who, in fighting the good fight in Laos, lost touch with the everyday America life and died after the war. Young and disconsolate.
At the end Dave committed suicide probably because he was sick but mostly lonely for times gone by.
It is enormously appropriate that his ashes were blown to the winds near Long Tieng, Laos.
God speed Dave. You are not alone or forgotten.