By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
Si Tien Nguyen selected his gang nickname, Hitler, at the age of 12, after a family trip to the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. It was twisted and frightening and, he thought, funny, so funny that he bragged about it, even around cops.
Like his namesake, Nguyen is diminutive—just five and a half feet tall and 117 pounds. Despite that, police say Dragon Family Junior, the gang he helped lead, was Little Saigon's most active criminal street gang in 2002.
The most salient feature of his leadership profile might have been his hair-trigger temper. When he heard that a rival gang had surrounded his boys at Fountain Valley's Mile Sqaure Park, he rushed in with a semi-automatic pistol, announced his gang affiliation, and began firing. He hit one man in the shoulder and sent scores of people—allies, enemies, picnickers, a park ranger—fleeing. And then his gun jammed and the rest of his life was pretty much established: rival gang members were after him—armed with bats, hammers and guns. Police got him first, arrested Little Hitler and brought him to trial. He was convicted, he appealed and, last month, he lost. He'll get 40 years.
That's a lot of time, but he's got plenty of it.
The day he shot up Mile Square Park—Aug. 23, 2002—Hitler was just 15 and a junior at Westminster High School.
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Hitler lives with 5,000 other inmates in Kern Valley StatePrison, a maximum-security facility in central California. From all appearances (and limited correspondence, obtained by the Weekly) he seems very angry and hungry for revenge, blaming the Natoma Boys Junior and Young Locs for wrecking his young life. But it seems like the course of his life had been set long before. He abused alcohol and drugs and was prone to violent outbursts, once punching a middle school teacher in the face.
Westminster Police Detective T. Walker (he asked us not to print his first name), perhaps the top police expert on Vietnamese gangs in Orange County, says that many Vietnamese gangsters are polite, articulate, straight-A students—one convicted gang leader was valedictorian of his Orange County high school. Nguyen wasn't one of those. Three months before the Mile Square Park shooting, he used a large wrench to beat the head, face and body of an unarmed Vietnamese teenager with ties to the Asian Crip Boys. Doctors used staples to reattach the victim's scalp.
Nguyen and public defenders called his 40-year sentence "cruel and unusual" and asked the state court of appeal in Santa Ana to overturn it. They noted that people who've committed far worse crimes have received lighter sentences. They argued that nobody had been killed and that the defendant's youth should be taken into consideration; after all, the day of the shooting, he had to get his older sister to give him a ride to fellow DFJ gangster Eric "Sleazy" Pham's home because he was too young to drive. (Pham, a convicted methamphetamine dealer, gave Nguyen a ride to the park. He also gave him a Ruger 9 mm pistol.)
Last month, the three-member panel at the appeal court agreed with Nguyen—sort of: his prison sentence is severe, they concluded, but it was deserved. The justices also said the punishment did not violate sentencing guidelines. In fact, they pointed to a 2003 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that sanctioned a 25 years to life sentence for a man who'd stolen three golf clubs.
According to the panel, Nguyen had "demonstrated a continual pattern of criminal behavior . . . The defendant's sentence is unquestionably long and severe," wrote justices Eileen C. Moore, William W. Bedsworth and Kathleen O'Leary. "However, under the circumstances presented in this case [the beating and shooting cases had been combined], it is not out of proportion to his individual culpability and does not shock the conscience or offend fundamental notions of human dignity. . . . Defendant not only put his friends in further danger by escalating the situation, but he also put numerous uninvolved bystanders and a park ranger in harm's way."
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During his February 2005 trial, Nguyen portrayedhimself as a hero. He claimed he'd gone to the park after a cell phone call from fellow DFJ members. They'd been surrounded by two rival gangs, the Natoma Boys Junior and Young Locs. Nguyen insisted that he drew his weapon only after a rival gang member reached for a gun. Even when he didn't know deputies were recording him after his arrest, he told jail mates he had no intention of killing anyone.
But Nguyen's story was self-serving fiction, according to Deputy District Attorney Ebrahim Baytieh, who specialized in Asian gangs until he was recently promoted to the DA's homicide unit. In the last roughly 40 months, Baytieh won convictions against 22 gangsters, decapitating several of Little Saigon's toughest gangs. He boasts that many of those gangsters are now serving life sentences in a California prison, a fate he says Nguyen deserves too.
"Here's what happened: Hitler's sister was driving him past Mile Square Park that day," Baytieh told the Weekly. "He saw rival gang members there, decided with premeditation to kill some people and then went to get a gun to carry it out. He never got a call from the other DFJ because he didn't own a cell phone. . . . He is as vicious as they come. He has utter disregard for the value of human life."