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Slain deputy who grew up in Modesto remembered at funeral

Pallbearers carry the casket of Sacramento County Sheriff's Detective Vu Nguyen into the Cathedral of The Blessed Sacrament Thursday morning, Dec. 27, 2007. (Sacramento Bee/Bryan Patrick)
Pallbearers carry the casket of Sacramento County Sheriff's Detective Vu Nguyen into the Cathedral of The Blessed Sacrament Thursday morning, Dec. 27, 2007. (Sacramento Bee/Bryan Patrick)

During a moving service in the serene setting of the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, detective Vu Nguyen was remembered Thursday as a brave police officer, a beloved husband and son, and a man of compassion and honor. An estimated 4,000 mourners attended the two-hour funeral Mass honoring the 37-year-old Sacramento County sheriff's deputy, who was gunned down Dec. 19 while on duty.

The detective was a man of of intellect, character, willingness and courage, Sheriff John McGinness told the gathering. He remembered Nguyen as an officer who wore his silver badge proudly, polished to a bright luster.

"Clearly, Detective Vu Nguyen put the safety of the persons he was sworn to protect and serve above his own," McGinness said. "In an instant, his valor cost him his life."

The cathedral was filled to capacity with uniformed police officers, Nguyen's family and leaders from the local Vietnamese community. Other mourners viewed the services at the Sacramento Convention Center, where the funeral was broadcast live. There, the huge exhibit hall was overflowing, with standing room only and some turned away.

Nguyen, a seven-year veteran of the department, was on a neighborhood gang detail in south Sacramento when he was shot while pursuing a fleeing youth on foot. Wounded by a bullet to the neck, Nguyen was taken to UC Davis Medical Center but died on the operating table.

As the funeral Mass began in the cathedral, bagpipers led the processional, followed by altar boys and clerics. A towering Christmas tree stood at the front of the church. The organ took up the strains of the opening hymn while a baby wailed in pews.

Still as statues, gloved deputies in full dress uniform flanked the altar.

Monsignor James Murphy spoke of Nguyen's loss -- a loss to his own family, to his community, to the Sheriff's Department and to his parish.

"The numbers here today are a testimony to the sadness we feel," Murphy said. "Christmas is an important family time for all of us. It was especially important for the Nguyen family. Our thoughts go especially to Vu's wife, Phanh, who is bearing an especially hard cross."

Last week, Murphy recalled, he asked the young widow what she'd like him to say at the service. Murphy said she turned to her mother-in-law and said: "Thank you for having him and for giving him to me."

"While today is sad," Murphy continued, "it's a proud day for law enforcement. You have lost a brother you can be proud of. He did dangerous work. The family worried about him. He said: 'My job is to keep the streets of Sacramento safe.' "

Murphy said the impressive gathering also marked a proud day for the immigrant community.

"Vu had brains; he could do anything in life," the priest said. "Vu chose a life of service to the community."

Nguyen's family was among the last to escape the fall of Saigon, Murphy told the gathering.

"There's a fierce determination in Vietnamese Catholics, and we have seen it in Vu's life and his work," Murphy said.

He spoke of the Nguyen family's compassion, as well.

"The family has insisted that today at this Mass we pray for the troubled teen who did this shooting. Today, we pray for Vu, that he is at peace. We pray for his assailant, that he will find peace."

The slain officer was sixth in a family of 10. Two of his brothers, Thang and Anh Nguyen, spoke at the service.

Older brother Thang said Vu lived an extraordinary life. At 5, young Vu was airlifted from the top of the American embassy in Saigon. The move to America was also traumatic.

"Vu grew up in Modesto, a small town, in a neighborhood divided by ethnic differences," Thang Nguyen said, suggesting that Vu's dedication to community service arose from his own early experiences of injustice.

As for his brother's death, Thang Nguyen was blunt: "We should make no mistake about it -- it was a sacrifice."

Several of Nguyen's comrades from the sheriff's department also gave eulogies. Deputy Chief Mark Iwasa spoke of the detective's commitment to law enforcement, particularly to his work on the gang detail.

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