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Rebuilt from ashes, Alabama temple rebuilds again after murder of its head monk

Vern Phdsamay, 32, a Laotian immigrant, is accused of beating the head monk of Wat Buddharaksa Temple in St. Elmo, Ala., to death.
Vern Phdsamay, 32, a Laotian immigrant, is accused of beating the head monk of Wat Buddharaksa Temple in St. Elmo, Ala., to death.Mobile County Sheriff's Office

ST. ELMO, Ala. — Vern Phdsamay, a Buddhist monk, sits quietly not in his temple along Alabama's Gulf Coast but in a Mobile County jail cell. He's charged with murder, accused of having beaten the temple's chief monk to death last month before calmly washing up and eating dinner.

Once again, the peace at Wat Buddharaksa Temple has been shattered.

In 2006, the BP oil spill devastated the economy of the local Laotian and Thai communities served by the temple.

In 2008, a fire that was ruled an accident destroyed the temple. It took two years to rebuild and didn't reopen until May 2010.

Now it is without its spiritual leader of a dozen years. Prosecutors say Chaiwat Moleechate, 45 — the head monk, who led the work to rebuild the temple — was bludgeoned to death during an argument May 11.

Phdsamay, 32, was quickly arrested and charged with murder. At his bond hearing last month, Assistant District Attorney Jo Beth Murphree said Phdsamay smashed Moleechate on the head at least 12 times with a foot-long wooden pestle. Then, "He went back to his living quarters, showered and washed his clothes, and he went back and ate," she said.

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Phdsamay (pronounced PIT-suh-my) was bound over to a grand jury Monday. Penniless because he has sworn a vow of poverty, his lawyer says, he remains in Mobile County Metro Jail on $50,000 bond.

It's not clear exactly when Phdsamay, who speaks no English, joined Wat Buddharaksa. Authorities say he is a legal resident of the U.S., having immigrated from Laos and settled in the area in 2005.

What is clear is that for at least the last three months, Phdsamay had been troubled. He stopped talking and refused to join his fellow monks for meals, and Moleechate (pronounced MOLE-uh-shayt) had been trying to help him, temple members said.

A doctor was brought in to see Phdsamay, but he refused to take any medicine, temple members said. That was when Moleechate began making plans to send him off the grounds for treatment, said Bouasanouuong, a member of the temple's governing committee who, as is customary in some Thai communities, uses one name.

For some time, she said, it seemed that Phdsamay had been "kind of a little bit mental." But no one thought he might be capable of murder.

On May 11, a Friday, Phdsamay and Moleechate had an argument, and at some point Phdsamay's meal was thrown away, prosecutors said. Witnesses said Phdsamay began beating Moleechate with a long stick, later identified as the foot-long wooden pestle.

Chaiwat ended up dead, and Phdsamay — whose jailhouse booking photo shows him with long, red scratch on his neck — ended up in custody on murder charges.

Neil Handley, Phdsamay's attorney, said his client claimed that he got the scratch defending himself from Chaiwat, who he said "came at him" first.

That doesn't square with how temple members remember Reverend Chaiwat, as he was known.

Moleechate was "a very kind person," temple member Steve Chatahuane said. "He helped everyone that needs help."

"Sometimes I ask myself, do good people always go first?" Chatahuane said. "He was one of the good people that I knew."

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