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Late last month, a handcuffed Vu "Voodoo" Bui, 22, stood emotionless before an Orange County Superior Court judge and waited to hear his fate. The 5-foot-8-inch, 130-pound Vietnam native had immigrated with his family to California at the age of 6 in the early 1990s. He quickly learned English and showed promise in school and at his Buddhist temple. But in court that day, he faced a potential prison sentence that could keep him locked up until his 125th birthday.
Bui hoped Judge Richard Toohey would be lenient. If he received a five-year prison sentence, he told a court official, he would go straight. He'd return to Golden West community college and perhaps study to become an architect, he said.
But Toohey wasn't a sucker. He knew that Bui's geeky looks, soft voice and seemingly frail physique masked a violent street thug in the allied Little Saigon gangs Dragon Family Junior and Nip Family Junior. Nothing had prevented Bui from yelling his gang affiliation, aiming a 9mm Beretta handgun at the faces of unarmed people on the street and pulling the trigger.
Police say one trait that sets Vietnamese gangs apart from, say, Latino or white-supremacist outfits is that Vietnamese hoodlums often lead remarkably dissimilar double lives. In fact, one ruthless Little Saigon gangster was the valedictorian of his high school. In other cases, Vietnamese gangsters have been college graduates or gainfully employed. A Weekly article ("Phu Fighter," Feb. 2) highlighted a brutal parking-lot assault on a girl by a 22-year-old Viet Boys gang member who worked at a bank during the day.
Bui was such a chameleon. He enjoyed reading books, solving math problems and watching the Discovery Channel—especially any show about "Crocodile Hunter" Steve Irwin. He worked part-time as a cashier/waiter at a Vietnamese restaurant on Westminster near Brookhurst. He translated English for elderly Vietnamese. On some weekends at Hoa Nghiem Buddhist Temple, Bui collected clothes and food for the poor. He recycled newspapers and cans, habitually turned off lights when he left rooms and fed birds in his back yard, according to a family member. The 2002 Westminster High School graduate enjoyed fishing trips, afternoons at Mile Square Park and sketching in notebooks. He had entertained the idea of becoming an engineer, fireman or police officer.
But Bui was also attracted to easy girls, booze, quick cash and violence. He carried a gun at times, took the gang moniker "Voodoo," talked ghetto trash with his peers and burglarized the homes of fellow Vietnamese immigrants. When he was caught in the act, he told police he'd never screw up again. It was a lie.
After serving just 270 days in jail for his crimes, Bui—then 19—emerged and promptly defied a probation-department order to end his gang ties. Instead, he looked for ways to enhance his stature in Dragon Family and found street terrorism.
On two occasions in 2002 and 2003, he attempted to kill five people with his semiautomatic handgun. From close distances, he fired a hail of bullets in hopes of killing rival gangsters. Miraculously, none of his bullets struck the targets, though nearby vehicles and shop windows took some hits. Westminster police detective T. Walker, a Vietnamese-gang expert, eventually arrested Bui and his accomplices for the shootings.
During his two-week trial, Bui wore a mask of indifference. Every day, he'd sit at the defense table as if the proceedings had nothing to do with him. What was the link between the Buddhist Bui and Gangster Bui?
Like many teenagers of his era, Bui was addicted to Super Nintendo games. His favorite game character became Trowa Barton. Wikipedia describes the soldier this way: "quiet, though determined," "attacks his enemies with utter ruthlessness" and "seems passive about misfortune."
And get this: Trowa is a lethal character mostly because of his ability to conceal his true identity, according to the Web encyclopedia.
The character enthralled Bui. When he became a U.S. citizen, he changed his middle name from Nhat to Trowa. No one in his family understood the symbolism, although they called him by his new name.
Dust of Life, Le-Van Kiet's new 90-minute film playing soon at the popular Vietnamese International Film Festival, seeks to explain how the struggles of immigration caused youngsters to join Little Saigon gangs. "Growing up in America, Johnny—the main character—quickly finds the harsh reality of assimilation when his choices are limited in his new world," states the film's synopsis. Having lost his parents during the boat escape from Communism, Johnny chooses gang life, isn't afraid to use a gun, robs fellow Vietnamese immigrants and ultimately dies in a revenge killing just as he has accepted his mistakes.
Back in reality last month, Bui—who has a supportive, intact family—learned that he too had wrecked his life. He still refuses to admit his guilt in the shootings and is planning an appeal to overturn his convictions. He claims eyewitness testimony against him in court was faulty.
Judge Toohey wasn't impressed, but he didn't dole out the most severe available punishment of 103 years and eight months that prosecutor Brett Bryan had calculated. Toohey, in fact, gave the gangster the minimum sentence allowable, but it's still stiff.
If Bui survives California prison life, he'll spend his twenties, thirties, forties and the majority of his fifties locked in a tiny, malodorous cell with other male criminals. The soonest he can hope that a parole board grants him freedom is 2042. He'll be 58. Super Nintendo will be a relic.
But Bui doesn't seem destined to impress a parole board. Before he was sent to prison, he helped instigate a riot in the Orange County Jail, repeatedly flouted prisoner rules and was found in his cell with Pruno, the foul-tasting alcohol beverage concocted by inmates with aged fruit, ketchup, bread and sugar.