2014/10/29

Who was Tuan Nguyen?

Who was Tuan Nguyen?
Friends unravel mystery of homeless man killed in LA accident
 

On the night John Doe No. 278 died, he had a pocket full of used Lottery tickets, $350 in cash and a small Samsung cellphone never once used to make a call.

Not that there would’ve been anyone for him to dial with the phone. There were no contacts, no voice mails, no recently called or missed calls. It had only been used for games.

He was a loner and a creature of habit. For the past year, he’d dutifully go into Jolly Donuts at 9 p.m., get a cup of coffee and charge the phone. He was particular about where he sat in the shop. If the table he preferred was occupied, he’d wait until it was empty before sitting down. There was also a slight streak of pragmatism there. It was one of only two tables close enough to an electrical outlet.

Heang Lei, who was working the night of Oct. 4, saw him come in and remove his baseball cap, just like he always did. He gave her a dollar bill for the coffee. Again, like always. He added sugar in a long pour that revealed a sweet tooth. He dumped in the powdered milk — never liquid — before getting a stirrer. There were six people scattered at the shop’s tables. But as fate would have it on this particular evening, the spot he always opted for was available.

The homeless man Lei knew by sight, but not by name, settled in to the seat and plugged in his phone.

Before it would finish charging, he’d be dead.

Officially, the Los Angeles County Department of Coroner doesn’t know who he is. Unofficially, they followed up on a tip that his name was Tuan Nguyen, a man who had been homeless for the better part of three decades in the Canoga Park area.

Craig Harvey, the county’s coroner investigations operations bureau chief, ran the name through the California Department of Motor Vehicles after learning he’d been born in 1961.

The computer spit out 623 possible matches.

“There’s part of the problem right there,” Harvey said.

Complicating matters was the crime-free life Nguyen lived. In more than three decades living homeless in the Canoga Park area, he’d never been arrested. No arrests meant no fingerprint hits in the system. To the computers, the existence of a body without a name wasn’t proof a life was lived.

In the three weeks since he was killed when a 42-year-old driver ran her SUV through the front doors of Jolly Donuts on the corner of Roscoe Boulevard and DeSoto Avenue, no family has come to identify or claim him. Los Angeles Police Department authorities have said the investigation is ongoing and don’t believe the driver, Kristin Chang, was impaired by drugs or alcohol.

That he was still unidentified bothered Lori Huynh because she knew he was more than a blue toe tag on a body and a green sheet filed in a box at the medical examiner’s office.

He had a life. She’d seen it unfold over 20 years almost every day at the corner of Roscoe Boulevard and Winnetka Avenue. She knew it because she’d taken time to get to know him. And his story of coming to the United States as a refugee from Vietnam after the fall of Saigon resonated with her because it was a version of her story, too.

She bought Violet Nails salon in 1986 after escaping from Vietnam in 1980. Shortly after getting the business running, she noticed a slight Asian man wandering the parking lot alone. She started small — offering him coffee — and over the course of two years and countless conversations pieced together parts of his life. It wasn’t until 1988 that he told her that both of his parents were among the so-called boat people who fled Vietnam and that they died at sea.

“His voice was a bit blurry,” said Huynh, 77. “He said he was all that was left of his family.”

Since she sold the business in 2007 she hadn’t seen him as often. But the new owners of the salon were given specific instructions as part of the sale: They had to look out for Nguyen.

They agreed. And when he died, they got together flowers and put them at the scene of the accident. Then they wept.

Nguyen came from an upper-middle-class family in Saigon. His parents worked for the water and power department in Saigon, and the three of them lived in a nice enclave near the city’s government center. He attended the highly regarded Petrus Ky High School, now known as Le Hong Phong High School.

He had an aptitude for math. Even after living decades on the street in Canoga Park, he’d sometimes sit and draw schematics. He usually always had a book in his backpack.

When he told Huynh and her son David his story and how his parents were among the estimated 200,000 Vietnamese refugees who died at sea in the ’70s and ’80s, she told him about her journey. How her family was forced to split up after her husband was forced into a Communist-run re-education camp. How after floating in a boat with 300 people packed on it, she lived for six months on an island of horrors near Indonesia.

“I once walked around and saw people lying there with flies covering them like a blanket,” she said. “I thought they were dead, but then they moved and the flies left. I told my cousin later that it was worse than dying.”

She wanted to help him, and the two forged a bond over their common background. Over the years, she’d bring meals to the shop and feed him. She remembered noodles were his favorite meal.

He developed a routine in the strip mall over the years. He’d gather recycled cans from the back. He offered to take the trash out for Ben Massaband, who ran his dry-cleaning shop next to the nail salon for 32 years.

“I saw him more than I saw my family,” he said.

Kate Leone, co-owner of Mane Affair Beauty Lounge just around the corner from the nail salon, said that earlier this year, she had forgotten to lock up the front door after leaving work on a Sunday night. The salon was closed Monday and when she came in Tuesday morning, she was startled when the door just pushed open.

After checking to make sure nothing had been taken, she went to her security camera system and saw why: Nguyen discovered she had mistakenly left the door unlocked and then spent the Monday when it was closed as a guard. The camera showed him like a sentry and even when he’d leave for a bit, he’d come back and test the door and make sure nobody had come in.
 
Maria Avila, who cut his hair twice a year, cried when she learned he died in the accident. Avila said she always tried to cut it for free. He always insisted on paying the $10.

“He thought we were looking out for him, but he was looking out for us,” Avila said.

Brooke Carrillo became homeless last year after losing her house to a short sale and now lives in her car with the rooftop packed with stuff covered by a blanket (“I call it my car’s hunchback”).

The 42-year-old has been volunteering at the pantry at Our Redeemer Lutheran Church, cooking and serving meals to the homeless in the area. The church offers meals every Thursday, and Nguyen came regularly.

She served Nguyen’s last meal at the church on Oct. 2, two days before his death. It was spaghetti noodles and a glass of cranberry juice.

Carrillo knew he’d been homeless a long time, but he kept to himself. He’d sleep in Winnetka Park or sometimes in a secluded spot off Winnetka Avenue.

“He was part of us for a long time and it’s hard to live a life that long on the street,” she said. “I’m a year on the street and people might not think that’s a long time, but when you’re out on the street, it’s a very long time.”

Her car is her last attachment to her old life, and she collects cans to buy gas to keep the car moving from spot to spot to avoid being bothered by the police.

Her eyes filled with tears when she learned Nguyen was dead.

“I was out of gas one time and he just came over and gave me money so I could keep my car going,” Carrillo said. “Just a kind, generous man who never bothered nobody.”

He had two vices: smoking and playing Lottery scratchers. He generally rolled his own cigarettes.

The latter habit paid off big once — an $800 payday not long ago. He used some of the winnings to buy perfume for the women who worked at Violet Nails. He bought flowers for the shop from the Jon’s Market that anchors the strip mall.

It’s unclear if the $350 he had on him was from that haul, but Harvey said unless it’s claimed by next of kin, it ultimately will be transferred to an unclaimed cash account run by the state.

For now, even in death, Nguyen is transient.

He’s currently housed in the county crypt with close to a couple hundred bodies. If nobody identifies and claims him, DNA samples will be collected and stored. Within two to four months, he would then be sent to a crematory in either Orange County or Whittier before being brought back and stored at the Los Angeles County Cemetery.

Those grounds are dotted with shade trees planted along a gently sloping patch of grass just a little ways removed from the white and blue building. Each December, the county conducts a small ceremony for those to be buried in a common grave.

Harvey said unless someone identifies him and gets a probate judge to issue an order to collect his remains, it will take a few years for him to eventually be buried in a simple site marked only by a plaque and the year he died: 2014.

Then the journey and transiency would likely end in December 2017. He’d be settled.

Nguyen would be home.

David Montero

Source: Who was Tuan Nguyen?
 
Khai Dân TríDavid Montero