Jurors agreed with Baytieh. After guilty verdicts, Superior Court Judge William Froeberg sentenced Nguyen to 40 years to life in prison for his gang activities, including the shooting. He won't become a candidate for parole until 2040. He'll be in his middle 50s.

"I have no sympathy for someone, whether they are 15 or 55, if they take a handgun to a public park in the middle of the day and run around shooting at people," he said. "These gang members think there are no ramifications to their actions, but there are. By the time they get to 21, many of them are either dead or in prison. Before that, their lives are an endless cycle of violence."

*   *   *

Normally tranquil Mile Square Park, the site of a wild gang battle in August 2002. Photo by Tenaya Hills
Normally tranquil Mile Square Park, the site of a wild gang battle in August 2002. Photo by Tenaya Hills

Detective Walker says much of his work involves crime investigation and gang intelligence. He also works to form non-hostile relationships with gang members. His hope is that he can steer some of them away from crime. "It's really important to give them hope for a better life," he said.

The personal contact allows the detective to see the characters as well as trends. His subjects are typically between 15 and 18 years old, although authorities have identified an 11-year-old gangster in Little Saigon. The Natoma Boys Junior and Young Locs are allied, while there is little distinction between Dragon Family Junior and Nip Family Junior (NFJ), and both are closely tied to junior members of Tiny Rascal Gangsters (TRG) in Little Saigon. There are many other local Vietnamese gangs (including VNF or "Vietnam Forever"), and they're involved in everything from murder and graffiti to home invasion robberies, extortion and drug trafficking.

But Vietnamese gangs have unique characteristics in the underworld, according to Walker. They're extremely secretive (read: hard to infiltrate) but not territorial (like Southern California Hispanic gangs). They often use or instant messaging services to communicate with each other about their criminal activities. Like all gangs, though, their world revolves around a single word: respect. Any sign of disrespect—however slight or imagined—from a rival Asian gang member can mean death.

"Violence is a tool they use to enhance their gang reputations," Walker says. "The more violent the act, the more respect you get. Disrespect [from a rival gang] doesn't go unanswered because if you don't retaliate, you are looked upon as weak."

That valedictorian gang leader once unloaded 30 rounds of bullets inside a restaurant, wounding four people.

"They lead double lives," Walker said. "But don't be fooled. They have no problem killing."

*   *   *

The Orange County Sheriff's Department has primaryjurisdiction over Mile Square Park, but it's often county park rangers like Lorrie Zuczek who handle actual patrols, either in trucks or on horseback. On Aug. 23, 2002, Zuczek approached a large group of Vietnamese teenagers in the park. They assured her everything was cool.

But minutes later, five Vietnamese males between 15 and 16 years old—Nguyen's DFJ associates—ran to Zuczek. She'd later describe them as "frightened and agitated." One of them said, "Those guys are going to kill us. You've got to call the cops! We think they have guns."

Zuczek then saw the larger group of gangsters—the Natoma Boys Junior and Young Locs—flashing gang signs. While the ranger made an emergency call to police, the DFJ members hid behind her truck. Five minutes later, everyone heard gunfire in a different section of the park.

The day of the shooting, Silvia and her fiancé, David, (we're withholding their last names) went to Mile Square Park for a picnic. The 600-plus-acre, suburban park is normally tranquil. The couple found a spot on the grass with a view of a lake and spread a blanket for a picnic.

But they'd inadvertently chosen front-row seats for a shootout. Less than 50 feet away, a young Asian male with short, spiky hair, a white T-shirt and dark baggy pants climbed from the back seat of an Acura and began yelling at a crowd of Asian teenagers. Then the kid—he looked barely into his teen years—pulled a gun out of his waistband and started firing.

It was mayhem, and then it got worse.

"My fiancé told me to duck down and stay down," Silvia later testified. She watched screaming people scatter. One fleeing teen took off his sneakers in hopes of running away faster. He got hit anyway, and from her spot on the picnic blanket, Silvia watched as the victim tore off his shirt, moaning, held his gunshot wound with both hands and ran at her. The angry shooter was running right behind him, still firing.

*   *   *

Leon "Tommy" Tran claims he didn'tknow that he'd gone to the park that Friday afternoon with three carloads of Natoma Boys Junior and Young Locs. He says he'd merely wanted to go fishing with two of his friends, Kevin and John—admitted gangsters and sworn enemies of DFJ. Tran says he was retrieving his fishing pole from the trunk of his car when an Acura raced up and slammed on its brakes just a few feet away on Euclid, next to the park.

Tran remembers freezing when "an angry guy" emerged from the back seat of the car, walked in his direction and yelled, "DFJ! You got shit! DFJ! DFJ! DFJ!" The angry guy then pulled a pistol from his waistband and began firing.

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