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."
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."
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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 MySpace.com 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."
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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 fianc√©, 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 fianc√© 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.
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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.
Tran says the first two shots "whizzed" past his head. He ran, pausing only to take off his sneakers for additional speed. It didn't help. A bullet hit his left shoulder, exiting through his armpit. He cried out in pain. With the shooter still in pursuit firing a half dozen more rounds, he ran directly at a couple lying on a blanket and jumped over them.
The surprise attack had originally thrown the Natoma Boys Junior and Young Locs into chaos. But as Nguyen chased people around the park, his rivals regrouped. They went to their vehicles and retrieved baseball bats, hammers and, according to at least one witness, guns. This did not escape Nguyen's notice. Adding to the drama, his gun was misfiring. Nguyen turned and ran back to Pham, his getaway driver. He made a chilling discovery.
After hearing gunshots, Pham had sped off.
Silvia and David, the couple on the blanket, remember seeing a panicked Nguyen sprinting down the street after the Acura. At some point, he stopped in the grassy center divide on Euclid, believing—praying?—that Pham would make a U-turn to pick him up. Instead, the Acura drove out of sight.
* * *
Little Hitler had a problem.
Armed, angry Young Locs advanced in his direction, and it's likely he heard the dopplering scream of police sirens. He hid his gun in the bushes of a house facing the park, ran through several yards and eventually crawled behind some bushes in a back yard. Fate was against him. The female homeowner spotted Nguyen and screamed until he fled. By this time, he could hear a police helicopter searching above. Minutes later, a Fountain Valley patrolman stopped him on the street. The gangster acted nonchalant, claiming he'd been shopping at a gaming store. The officer doubted the story. Nguyen was out of breath, his shirt and face were dirty, and dried leaves and twigs poked out of his hair.
Even in lockup, Nguyen stuck to his story.
But five days later, deputies put him in a bugged cell with Tony Van Nguyen, a DFJ member jailed on unrelated charges. They hoped Nguyen would confess and reveal the whereabouts of the hidden gun. He did. Nguyen bragged to his cellmate that the cops "don't have shit" and then gave a detailed account of events, including the precise location of the gun.
"We were set up," Nguyen explained in a mix of Vietnamese and English during the taped conversation. "I told my sister Han to take me to Sleazy's house, coming to pick up a piece. Let's do this! They got my homeboys trapped! I got out [of the Acura], shot [a guy]. Boom! Boom! Boom! I ran. I chased him!"
By the time he was done talking, prosecutors had a 40-page, self-incriminating transcript.
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If the events in Mile Square Park or SantaAna courthouse have changed Nguyen, it isn't showing. Before he was transported to prison, he sent a letter to Nigger Nam, his DFJ pal. It read:
"None of ya'll nikkas better let your guard down. I'm happy the war stopped, but I'd rather see them fuckers deceased or on their knees beggin' for mercy. I want them to pay for all the times my momma cried when she came to visit my ass. I want bloods [sic] running out their mouth [sic] and skin. I want them handicapped, crippled, missin' all fours. Fuck them, dog. I want to see them deceased, but that shit still won't make up or ease the pain I go through."
He signed the letter "Hitler." Next to his signature, he drew a swastika. The Dirty White Boys, Aryan Brotherhood and Nazi Low Riders at Nguyen's new home might be both thrilled and puzzled by the sentiment.