Family: Job was perfect fit for officer

This is the boyhood home of Sacramento County sheriff's Detective Vu Nguyen at 1000 Raube in west Modesto.  A childhood friend says there were no police role models there when they grew up.
This is the boyhood home of Sacramento County sheriff's Detective Vu Nguyen at 1000 Raube in west Modesto. A childhood friend says there were no police role models there when they grew up. Modesto Bee

SACRAMENTO --Thangh Nguyen picked out a tiny digital camera that clips on a key chain. Mai Nguyen bought a sweater and a gift card.

Both are left with the unopened Christmas gifts they intended to give to their brother, Vu Nguyen, 37, the Sacramento sheriff's detective who was slain Dec. 19 in the line of duty.

The family had prepared to celebrate the holiday together, but turned to comforting each other through waves of grief.

"We couldn't accept it," Nguyen's sister Huong Nguyen said tearfully, describing the family's reaction to the news that he had died.

Nguyen was shot in the early afternoon while chasing a suspicious teen in the neighborhood near 37th Street and 42nd Avenue in south Sacra-mento. Within 12 hours, sheriff's SWAT team members arrested 16-year-old Jimmy Siakasorn on suspicion of homicide. He was arraigned on a murder charge Monday, and is being charged as an adult.

Nguyen's parents, five sisters, two brothers, and nieces and nephews have come from Modesto, Santa Clara and Orange County to Nguyen's Natomas home to plan his funeral and to mourn. Natomas is in north Sacramento.

They gathered Friday night on couches in Nguyen's bare-walled living room, breaking away to offer food to a sheriff's deputy stationed outside. They shared memories of Nguyen and talked about learning of his death.

All but the youngest of the siblings were born in Vietnam. Thang Nguyen, a surgeon in Orange County, said his brother was 5 when the family left the country.

It was the day before the dramatic fall of Saigon. The children's father took them from their home on the outskirts of the city to a U.S. fire station, transporting them two at a time on a motorcycle.

The family was airlifted to a U.S. Embassy and made it to the United States, settling in southwest Modesto, near Paradise and Carpenter roads. Their neighborhood experienced the sort of gang violence that Nguyen would combat as an adult.

Thang Nguyen said the children were urged to go into medicine or law. The family was puzzled with Nguyen's choice to become a dep-uty.

"The (neighborhood in Modesto) may have shaped him, but there were no po-lice role models," Thang Nguyen said.

Still, his family said, he was born for the job. He was very methodical, and they nicknamed him "square," his sister Huong Nguyen said. He was observant and humble, preferring to let others shine.

Jason Scoles started a lifelong friendship with Nguyen at Burbank Elementary School. Both knew neighborhood children who had been lured by drugs and gangs.

"I think we both had a similar sense of wanting to help after growing up where we grew up," said Scoles, 35, a teacher at an international school in Santi-ago, Chile. "We saw a lot of people have their lives flushed down the toilet by the stuff that's out there."

Scoles said Nguyen told him one of his first and most lasting memories: U.S. soldiers helping his family and other refugees flee Vietnam. When they shared a Sacramento apartment during college, Nguyen spoke of joining the FBI or becoming a U.S. marshal.

"He saw these large U.S. GIs -- to him they seemed like giants -- pushing helicopters off the edge (of a naval vessel) to make room for all the refugees," Scoles said. "Vu had this intense sense of need to serve our country."

Nguyen earned a degree in criminal justice from California State University, Sacramento, became a probation officer and then served seven years as a Sacramento sheriff's deputy and detective.

Sacramento County Sheriff John McGinness said Nguyen was a gifted officer who showed respect for his superiors and for the people he arrested.

"He is among the people who stand out in law enforcement because it was an absolute passion for him," he said.

Still, his family worried.

"I didn't like it. I thought it was dangerous," Thang Nguyen said. "But we thought because he was so careful that any danger he'd come to, he'd have under control."

Didn't talk much about work

Nguyen told his older brother that young kids could be dangerous. "Don't let the age fool you," he once said.

But he didn't often say much more about his work, just that it was very busy and he was having fun.

As deputies have come to the home to pay their respects, the siblings have learned more about their brother.

One officer said Nguyen told the Vietnamese youths he ar-rested that they were bringing disgrace to their culture.

Others said he was brave, never hesitating to sprint after suspects. The family already knew that he was often quiet, but could be wickedly funny.

Nguyen enjoyed going to Las Vegas, Lake Tahoe and San Francisco. He got married in a private ceremony in April.

Speaking through an inter- preter, Phanh Nguyen said her husband gambled seldom but won often.

She grew tearful as her in-laws described how they learned of her husband's death.

Thang Nguyen was performing surgery at an Orange County hospital Dec. 19.

When he finished about 4 p.m., he was given a message to call a Sacramento sheriff's sergeant.

The sergeant tried to break the news gently, Thang Nguyen said, saying his brother had been hurt and doctors were working on him.

Nguyen began asking detailed medical questions about the in-jury. The sergeant did not know the answers.

Nguyen asked to talk to a doctor.

"He died," Nguyen recounted the sergeant saying. "He didn't make it."

Family members were ini- tially angry, enraged that someone could gun down their loved one.

Then, they learned that the suspect was 16. Nguyen says it is wrong that the teen carried a gun and was willing to use it, but he cannot imagine the suspect was out to kill.

"It's almost like an accident," Nguyen said. "It is senseless. We were angry until we heard this kid is 16. He's a kid."

Bee staff writer Merrill Balassone can be reached at mbalassone@modbee.com or 578-2337.

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