Slain deputy raised in Modesto

Vu Nguyen
Vu Nguyen Sacramento Bee Staff Photo

SACRAMENTO -- In the chilly rain just after midnight Thursday, Sacramento sheriff's SWAT officers poured from an armored truck and surrounded a beige tract house across the street from a middle school in the southwest portion of the city, one of the city's poorest neighborhoods.

Inside, the department's most wanted suspect emerged, a bleary-eyed and tiny 16-year-old looking "terrified," an eyewitness said.

Officers looked at the "wanted" flier with his photo and scrutinized the boy: He was the one.The teen, who is being held in Juvenile Hall, is suspected of shooting Sacramento sheriff's Detective Vu Nguyen on Wednesday afternoon during a chase through south Sacramento back yards.

The teen was not armed when arrested, but sheriff's officials are conducting ballistics tests on several guns found during the investigation, including one found soon after Nguyen was shot.

Grief and mourning are just beginning over the loss of Nguyen, who grew up in Mo- desto, attending Burbank Elementary and Mark Twain Junior High schools before graduating from Modesto High School in 1989.

His family wept inconsolably Wednesday night. He was married in April. Funeral plans may be settled next week after Christmas.

News of the Nguyen's death shocked those who knew him as a child. He was a member of Modesto High's football team, yearbook staff and student government, according to family friends.

It's been 18 years since Arlen Peters coached Nguyen on the Modesto High football team. But he remembers the former running back, outside linebacker and defensive back.

"He wasn't a star, but he was the kind of guy you wanted on your team because he was a hard worker and dependable," Peters said.

Peters recalls that Nguyen was a small guy, but he was strong because he worked out hard.

"You really get to know (the athletes) well when you spend all summer in the weight room and coach them all season," Peters said. "(Nguyen) was quiet and disciplined."

When Roberta McReynolds heard a Sacramento County sheriff's detective had been shot, she stopped to pray as she always does when she hears sirens or feels an emergency responder is putting his or her life in jeopardy to do a job.

"Little did I know I was praying for a friend of my son's," McReynolds said.

Her son, Michael O'Brien, grew up with Nguyen. Although they lost contact through the years, they followed similar career paths and became sheriff's deputies, O'Brien in Nevada's Washoe County, which includes Reno.

"It just hit me especially hard since I have a son in law enforcement, too," McReynolds said.

Chano Flores grew up with Nguyen. He was junior class vice president in 1988, and Flores was treasurer.

According to Flores, Nguyen was born in Vietnam. Flores said Nguyen had a great family, too.

"His mother and dad were the nicest, kindest people. They loved having company over," Flores said.

"He was a pure, good person with a fun- loving spirit. He was just one of the guys and never said a bad thing about anyone," Flores said. "I remember all of us wrestling in the pool in my back yard. We'd pick our favorite (World Wrestling Federation) guy. That's the first memory I had when I heard what happened.

"I can't believe it happened to a person like him, to someone who just wanted to give," Flores added.

Suspect called gang 'wanna-be'

Detectives and prosecutors worked Thursday to build a case against the teen, who was described by one friend as a gang "wanna-be" and by Sheriff John McGinness as a small but ruthless person.

"The bottom line is physical stature (and) age are really not relevant when you have somebody who is consumed with a passionate hatred and a desire to harm others," McGinness said. "And particularly when they're armed, it's a perfect combination for horrible things to happen."

Nguyen, a seven-year veteran of the department, was heavily involved in the Asian community and widely respected as an of-ficer trying to improve life in some of the Sacramento County's roughest neighborhoods.

"He shared the same hard-core, sincere belief that many of us do, that there is nothing more important in terms of societal efforts than the protection of the public," McGinness said. "His efforts made Sacramento County a safer place."

Officials did not release the teen's name Thursday but said he is expected to be charged as an adult within 72 hours of his arrest.

Deputy gave chase as youth ran

The shooting happened just after 2 p.m. Wednesday as Nguyen and his partner were making routine contacts with gang members.

Nguyen and his partner spotted a small Asian youth standing in front of a house where known gang members live at 37th Street and 42nd Avenue, said Sacramento sheriff's spokesman Sgt. Tim Curran.

When officers made eye contact with the teen, he ran. Nguyen chased him. Moments later, Nguyen's partner heard gunshots and ran to where he'd heard them, finding his partner shot in the neck.

Nguyen was rushed to UC Davis Medical Center, where he died.

Ping "Pinky" Phrommauongxay, 20, said she was inside the house where deputies first spotted the teen when she heard the gunfire.

Minutes later, she said, officers demanded that she exit the house and she was cuffed and questioned about the incident, which she said she did not witness.

On Thursday, Phrommauongxay said she's known the teen for about seven years. She described him as a "floater" or a wanna-be. "He just tries to fit in," she said.

She said he had no father figure, so she has tried over the years to give him discipline. Once, when he was 9, she said, she tied him to a tree "to embarrass him" and toughen him up.

She and other friends beat him up last week, she said, "but I guess it didn't work."

"It was like tough love," she said. "The environment we're in is not the best."

Phrommauongxay said she doesn't know whether he commits crimes to represent his gang, but, "He wouldn't be very good at it."

She said the boy came to the house regularly on his bike, sometimes playing basketball on the hoop facing the street.

In front of the yellow house Thursday, empty beer bottles and cardboard beer cases flanked a baby carriage.

The neighborhood around that house was the scene of a siege by law enforcement Wednesday afternoon and night as authorities searched for a suspect.

But they found their suspect hours later in Meadowview at his sister's home across the street from John Still Middle School.

The sister would not comment Thursday. But Elisio Savala, who said he has lived there since being released from prison on Nov. 11, said he had met the boy at the house Wednesday.

The two shared pizza at some point Wednesday, he said.

Hours later, at midnight, Savala said he saw SWAT officers swarm out of an armored truck. The next time he looked out the window, he said, "there was a gun in my face."

He said the family opened the door and the teen came out of his sister's bedroom, wearing a black T-shirt and black shorts. Savala said the boy looked "like a terrified little kid."

McGinness said the teen was "relatively cooperative" with investigators and has a past of run-ins with the law that were not violent. He did not attend school, the sheriff said.

He described the teen as angry and resentful of law enforcement, a product of a "subculture where life has no value and violence is the way."

Sacramento law enforcement officials could not remember a suspected cop killer as young as the 16-year-old suspect. From 1997 to 2006, just 36 juveniles were arrested in connection with the slayings of law enforcement officers nationwide, according to FBI statistics.

Leaders urge efforts to fight gangs

Several community leaders who work with gang members and their families said they weren't surprised by the suspect's age or level of violence.

They called on city and county officials to devote more resources to battling truancy and working to repair troubled families before kids make gangs their surrogate family.

Rhonda Erwin, an activist who lives in south Sacramento, said the age of the suspect is tragic but should not shock a community that "continuously underfunds prevention efforts and makes massive efforts toward suppression."

"I hope (Nguyen's) passing, as tragic as it is, I hope it will create an atmosphere to disarm aggression, disarm greed and to bring about solutions toward preventing violence and the gang life behavior," she said.

Laura Leonelli, a member of a community group that fights Asian gang violence, said the slain deputy tried hard to reach out to kids like his suspected assailant.

"He was very supportive of the commu- nity," she said. "That kind of commitment is very hard to replace."

Bee staff writer Eve Hightower can be reached at 578-2382 or ehightower@modbee.com.

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