By Matt Coker
By R. Scott Moxley
By Charles Lam
By Nick Schou
By Gustavo Arellano
By Gustavo Arellano
By Steve Lowery
By R. Scott Moxley
Hate and Death
Was the murder of Thien Minh Ly actually a hate crime? His killer’s fate hangs on The answer
If Thien Minh Ly had looked up as he Rollerbladed in slow circles on the Tustin High School tennis courts, he would have seen a few stars flickering in the partly cloudy night sky over the nearby Santa Ana Mountains. The 5-foot-6, 117-pound immigrant with a gentle demeanor and a curiosity for discovery had been back in Orange County for a year after returning from graduate school at Georgetown University, and he was still mulling his next career move. Doctor? Lawyer? He’d even voiced a hope to one day serve as the first Vietnamese American ambassador to his birthplace.
The 24-year-old’s boyish looks belied his tenaciousness. With his family, Ly—born in Tuy Hoa, a coastal village in Central Vietnam—fled brutal conditions in communist Vietnam via boat in 1983 after his father, an officer in the South Vietnamese military, was released from a concentration camp. After a stint living in an Indonesian refugee camp, the family arrived in California. Only 12 years old at the time, Ly led his non-English-speaking parents and two younger siblings through the early difficulties of life in an alien country. The family eventually opened a video rental shop in Santa Ana. A few months before he went Rollerblading on that cool January 1996 night, he had used a blue-ink pen and a yellow Post-It note to memorialize a thought he’d stick to a page in his diary.
“I live in today and not very far into tomorrow,” he wrote. “I do my best every minute of the day, and when it’s over, I know there is more to come.”
But hazel-eyed death—dressed all in black, with Jack in the Box on his breath and carrying a butcher’s knife—appeared suddenly from the darkness, taunted Ly on the tennis courts, mocked his fear, showed him no mercy and robbed him of his dreams.
Time has a habit of letting us forget tragedies, even ones that spark outrage, like this one did in Little Saigon and in Asian communities across the nation. It’s been 12 years, but a key question about the murder is now the subject of a debate at the California Supreme Court. In coming weeks, the justices will finally announce if Ly really was the victim of a hate crime. For the killer, that decision is a matter of life or death.
“I guess if your [sic] not white your [sic] not right.”
—Ly’s murderer in a letter to a friend
Less than a quarter-mile from Ly’s home, on an apartment wall over a futon, was taped a big-toothed caricature of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with a gaping bullet hole between his eyebrows. The image came with a message: “If we could have killed four more, we would have had the rest of the week off.”
But that wasn’t enough for Gunner Jay Lindberg. The 21-year-old Orange County native had used a yellow crayon to add the word “DEATH” to the upper-left corner of the poster on his bedroom wall. A second, mass-produced poster on the same wall showed two young white girls playing joyously.
The room had a dirty white bedsheet for a curtain. On top of a small, cheap television and a cheaper VCR sat a plastic skull wearing a helmet with a swastika, two cross-country running trophies and miniature models of 1950s cars. A nightstand contained three bottles of Jack Daniels; books on violence; videos depicting gruesome real-life deaths; correspondence with the Aryan Nation, KKK groups, White Aryan Resistance, the New Order (a successor to the American Nazi Party) and National Association for the Advancement of White People; a folder with a list of people he wanted dead (mostly ex-friends and co-workers); a black notebook with thoughts on a coming intergalactic battle; an obnoxious spoof of an application to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); and a red-letter edition of the King James Bible, in which he had scrawled personal addresses for white supremacists in various states and this ominous note: “It’s not God’s will that everyone be healed in this life.”
A quick-tempered box stocker at a Tustin Kmart with a penchant for picking fights with Asians, African-Americans and Latinos—anyone, really—Lindberg didn’t graduate from high school and possessed few social skills but was artistically gifted. He’d converted both a white 2.5-pound Gourmet’s Choice fruit container and a cardboard San Francisco 49ers checkers box into storage for his marijuana stash after redecorating them with swirling, hand-drawn psychedelic images of anger, death and Hitler. If pot soothed other people’s minds, it only fueled Lindberg’s fantasies of becoming, he wrote, “the king of all evil and distruction [sic].”
Lindberg, who also took methamphetamines, never lived up to his narcissistic imagination. During an eight-year crime spree beginning at age 12, he proved himself to be little more than a thug who preyed on the defenseless. His victims included a cop’s 11-year-old son, whom he chased and shot in the throat with a BB gun; a day laborer, whom he attacked with a tree limb for the money in his pocket; a skateboarder, whom he repeatedly kicked in the stomach as he stole the board; the peers he angrily chased, firing a shotgun, over a perceived slight; an on-duty prison guard, whom he brutally ambushed; and an elderly woman, whom he pummeled during a home-invasion robbery for drug money.