Mike Turpin hardly seemed like the type of person who would die under mysterious circumstances. He had been in Vietnam with the 1st Infantry Division. He changed gears and began working as a television newscaster with the American Forces Vietnam Network, the military’s radio and television service for American forces. In 1972, after Turpin had been discharged, he curiously decided to return to Vietnam, where he would die under extremely suspicious circumstances. Here we break down the mystery that continues to go unsolved almost 50 years later.
Who was Mike Turpin?
Mike Turpin was a military man who had served in both the Korean War and the Vietnam War. He was born on January 29, 1928, in Gary, Indiana. In 1944 when Mike was 16 years old, he joined the Merchant Marine but ultimately decided the Marines were not for him a year later when he enlisted in the Army in April 1945.
Mike Turpin served in Korea, where he suffered a head laceration and earned a Bronze Star. While in Vietnam, he served with the 1st Infantry Division and received a Purple Heart, Silver Star, and Bronze Star. He was discharged from the Army in 1968.
Turpin was married five times, with four of them ending in divorce. His last three wives are deceased, and his first two wives are presumed dead.
Turpin officially died in April 1972 at the age of 44 years old. At the time of his death, he was in Vietnam as a civilian, but it is not clear what he was doing there. His death remains so murky that several different theories have arisen trying to explain the circumstances surrounding his passing.
The International House in Saigon
One theory surrounding Turpin’s death involves trouble at the International House in Saigon. After Turpin was discharged from the military in 1968, he ran a small bookstore at the International House. The International House was a popular social club located in downtown Saigon and primarily catered to foreign civilians.
In 1968, Turpin also married his fifth (and final) wife, Kyong Ui. Kyong Ui was the International House’s chief accountant, and the two had met while Mike was still in the Army. Everyone called Kyong Ui Kim, but Turpin referred to her as Lily. Lily also had a daughter named Doris Hochberger, who used to go to the International House with her mother when she was younger.
The International House had a $20 membership fee. Members could eat low-price steaks, drink, and play slot machines. It appealed to Americans who frequented the establishment in large numbers. According to wartime columnist Daniel Cameron, who wrote for the Saigon Post, a federal grand jury indicted two managers at the International Club for defrauding the U.S. government hundreds of thousands of dollars. The scandal forced the club to close in 1969.
According to Lily’s daughter Doris, everyone who worked at the International House got subpoenaed and had to testify. Suddenly, Mike Turpin moved Lily and Doris to Bangkok. As Doris recalled, “it seemed my dad was shipping us off to get us out.”
Mike had many biological children from his previous marriages. His daughter Jocelyn Turpin, the daughter of Turpin and his third wife, was researching her family history when she came across a connection between the International House and a scam involving diamonds imported through the Post Exchange.
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Clark Mollenhoff wrote about this diamond investigation in 1971, reporting that a global diamond trader was doing more the $1 million a month in business through the Post Exchange system. Mollenhoff eleven that expensive jewelry was being sold through the International House to avoid high South Vietnamese customs duties.
Although there is no official link between Lily and Mike to the illegal activities happening at the International House, the family lived very lavishly. Doris remembers her mother having a lot of diamonds all over the place. The family also lived in a large home that included a pool, two housekeepers, and a gardener. Furthermore, Turpin also kept a small arsenal of weapons in the house and taught Doris and Lily how to shoot.
Jocelyn remembers her father telling her that he was due in court in Los Angeles in 1971 but didn’t want to go because he believed he wouldn’t return home. Family members believe that both Turpin and Lily had been subpoenaed to testify before a federal grand jury and a U.S. Senate subcommittee investigating Vietnam scandals. However, the family doesn’t know whether the couple were subpoenaed to testify as suspects, informants, or straightforward witnesses.
Jocelyn believes that Mike was killed because of his connections to the black market. She argues that he was involved with something shady and that a number of people wanted him dead so no information would come out about his illegal activities or connections.
Died of Natural Causes
In late April 1972, U.S. Embassy Consul General Malcolm Hallam wrote to Turpin’s family stating Turpin’s landlord had found Mike Turpin dead in his room. The letter stated that “he was sitting in a chair dressed in pajamas with his head and upper torso slumped over… and his head was resting on a small table. There was no visible evidence of violence within the room.” Vietnamese police found no evidence of foul play.
Hallem told the family that Turpin’s friend, Larry Worth, who was the president of Worth Co. Ltd. in Saigon, stated that Turpin had visited him the night before the body was found. Larry Worth’s business card was in one of Turpin’s pockets after his death.
The official death certificate listed Turpin’s cause of death as “natural” and showed that no autopsy was performed. Afterward, Turpin’s body was flown to Georgia, where Lily (Turpin’s fifth wife), and Turpin’s father, Leslie, met the plane to identify the body.
Although Lily’s daughter Doris didn’t go with her mother and grandfather to see Turpin’s body, she remembers that the adults felt uncertain that the body was really Turpin’s, stating, “mom said it could have been anyone. There was no embalming.” However, interestingly enough, a U.S. Foreign Service report on Turpin’s death states that the remains were “embalmed and shipped by air to the United States.”
Theory #1: Death by Bar Brawl
Turpin’s children were not familiar with the theory surrounding his death, but his Army friends believe this theory holds water. Army Spc. 5 Dick Ellis worked with Turpin at American Forces Vietnam Network and ran his teleprompter for the 6 p.m. news. Ellis recalls that Turpin was shot in a bar incident when he returned to Saigon as a civilian
Although Turpin’s children had not been initially aware of this theory, they weren’t shocked by it. Jocelyn remembers how the military police once went to her grandparent’s home in Georgia to tell them that their son had been found in an ally badly beaten. Turpin was known to get in bar fights when he was younger.
Theory #2: The CIA Killed Turpin
A mysterious death case wouldn’t be complete without a theory involving the CIA. Doris remembers a man who identified himself as “Mr. Olsen” visiting her mother, Lily, in Florida. Mr. Olsen told Lily he was with the CIA and told Lily that Mike had been murdered and shot in the head.
Mr. Olsen had brought photographs as evidence, including a picture showing a man leaning over with his head on a desk. The photo seemed similar to the scene that Embassy Consul General Malcolm Hallam had written about in his letter to the family. Doris remembers feeling that the entire scene looked staged as there was no mess or blood.
Jocelyn also believes that the death scene was staged, as no sort of identifying features were given when describing the hotel room. Furthermore, the lack of an autopsy prevents any other sort of confirmation of Turpin’s death.
Furthermore, the items returned to the family after Turpin’s death are suspicious. The family got Turpin’s clothing and passport and smaller items, including his toothbrush and a wristwatch. However, the family never got back Turpin’s pipe and books. According to Jocelyn, he never went anywhere without his pipe or books.
To make matters even more interesting, the Embassy also returned two photos to Turpin’s family, both from inside Andy Wong’s Chinese Sky Room nightclub in San Francisco taken 28 years before Turpin’s death. Jocelyn wonders why a get-together in a Chinatown nightclub was so important to Turpin that he brought these photos halfway across the world with him, when he brought so few other possessions with him. No photos of Turpin’s own family were found in his personal belongings.
It has never been confirmed that Turpin was in the CIA, but both Doris and Jocelyn believe he worked for them. They are not blaming the CIA for his death, but they do believe that any work Mike may have done for the CIA contributed to his death.
There are a few more theories that are worth exploring. For a complete breakdown on the case of Mike Turpin, we’re hoping to see the book Hot Mics and TV Lights: The True Story of the American Forces Vietnam Network, written by authors Rick Fredericksen and Marc Yablonka, on bookshelves in the near future. You can also learn more about this story and others at War Stories Press.
For now, we still have a mystery on our hands.