At 18, Michael "Mini Mike" Vu may have few positive accomplishments to report, but last month the violence-prone Little Saigon gangster accidentally performed a public service.
During the trial of Vu "Voodoo" Bui, a member of the street gangs Dragon Family Junior (DFJ) and Nip Family Junior (NFJ), Mini Mike gave us a rare glimpse into the ironic world of these baby-faced hoodlums, some of whom are straight-A high school students from conservative, middle-class families.
Where do Vietnamese gangsters hunt for their rivals?
According to Mini Mike, it's Orange County's Buddhist temples.
He should know: that's where you can find Mini Mike. On the witness stand, he said it's not unusual for him to interrupt gang activities to attend temple. Afterward, seemingly oblivious to karma, he'd rejoin his Tiny Rascal gang (TRG).
* * *
Mini Mike—a pudgy 5 feet, 4 inches tall, peering through thick, black-rimmed glasses—strutted into a Santa Ana courtroom on July 19 with his button-down shirt untucked and his shoelaces untied. He was there under a prosecution subpoena to testify against Bui, a 21-year-old, trigger-happy, studious looking gangster who faced 12 felonies, including five attempted murder counts for shootings in Garden Grove and Westminster.
Mini Mike's frustration was palpable: it's not cool to snitch on other gangsters. He gave curt answers, sighed often and repeatedly claimed amnesia. Deputy District Attorney Brett Brian got answers only after confronting him with statements he'd previously made to police detectives.
"Does that refresh your recollection [about the attempted murders]?" Brian asked over and over again as he built his case against Bui, a rising star in the Dragon Family gang. Facing potential perjury charges if he lied, Mini Mike stared at Brian, tilted his head to the right, sigh and finally, lethargically said, "Yes" many times.
* * *
Here's what Mini Mike reluctantly helped reveal: at noon on March 16, 2003, Bui and two other DFJ and NFJ members, both of them Pacifica High School students, were playing pool at Players Lounge in Westminster when a large group of Young Locs (YL)—rival Vietnamese teenage gangsters—entered, yelled their gang affiliation and attacked with pool sticks. DFJ member Phan Nguyen, 15, was severely beaten on his head and face, and escaped from the pool hall bloody and dazed.
Bui took Nguyen to his apartment, where "pissed" DFJ members discussed "payback." Though then-14-year-old Mini Mike and his pal Albert Loc Nguyen, 15, were members of TRG, they attended the meeting as Phan Nguyen's lifelong friends. Eventually, the gangsters piled into two vehicles, a Honda Accord and an SUV, to exact revenge. Among the first stops each group made separately: local Catholic churches and Buddhist temples. No rivals were found.
At about 6 p.m. that day—Brian Nguyen, 14, and a member of the gang Vietnam Forever (VNF), and two other minor gangsters—left a cyber cafe at the corner of Westminster Avenue and Euclid Street. Still underage, they paid a homeless man to buy them cigarettes from a liquor store, and were walking through a strip mall's parking lot when a green Honda Accord pulled up. The driver was DFJ member Quoc Huynh Pham, 18. His girlfriend, Margaret Nguyen, a minor, was in the front passenger seat and Bui sat in the back—gripping a black semiautomatic handgun in his gloved right hand. Unable to find any YL members, they'd decided to attack any rival gang members they could find, even those with no connection to the pool hall beating.
Bui rolled down his window and, to get the three to say their gang affiliation, said, "Ya'll bangin'?" They said nothing. Bui repeated his question. Nothing. He then asked what they thought of DFJ. They replied, "Fuck DFJ! We're VNF!"
According to Brian Nguyen, Bui yelled, "Fuck VNF," held the gun out of the window and began firing at them from a distance of less than 10 feet. The trio ran, ducking behind cars as Bui fired five rounds. Incredibly, he didn't hit anyone but left a parked Toyota Highlander bullet riddled.
Thirty minutes later, police found Pham's Honda parked less than half a mile away. Inside, the gun had been hidden in a white sock. The occupants were gone. Cops stopped and questioned three gangsters—including Mini Mike—who were walking down the street near the shooting. They all lied about their activities.
Months later, detectives learned that the SUV driver had picked up the shooters after kicking Mini Mike and two others out of his vehicle to make room. Police eventually arrested all the occupants of both vehicles—except Bui, whose identity the gangsters kept secret—and charged them with attempted murder.
* * *
The legendary Italian mafia lived by omerta, a vow of silence. They didn't seek publicity for their crime families. In fact, they denied their existence even under threat of prison. And they certainly didn't snitch on each other.
Today, Orange County gangs spray paint their signs throughout neighborhoods. They wear clothing accessories to publicize their affiliation, and they shout their gang names from passing cars. And they even cooperate with prosecutors.
No one knows this new reality better than Bui. His identity as the shooter in the Westminster case (as well as in an earlier shooting outside Billiards 2000, a Garden Grove pool hall) remained a mystery until fellow DFJ members and Mini Mike squealed. Faced with their own prosecutions, they hoped the information would afford them leniency. Prosecutors suddenly had a parade of witnesses against Bui—including three members of his own gang: Anh Pham, Quoc "Ducky" Pham (no relation), Andy Dinh—and TRG's Mini Mike.
* * *
In last month's trial, Bui defense attorney Joanne Harrold, a former Westminster judge, claimed that prosecution witnesses had fingered her client to protect the identity of the real shooter. But DNA evidence coupled with an incriminating letter Bui sent from jail, the witnesses and expert gang testimony by Westminster police detective T. Walker proved too much. On July 27, a court clerk spent 20 minutes reading 37 guilty findings.
While two female friends wailed in the courtroom's public seating section, Bui showed no trace of emotion. At his September sentencing, it's likely he'll be sent to a maximum security prison for the rest of his life.
When Judge Richard Toohey asked him if he understood the verdicts, he politely said, "Yes, your honor," and was then escorted away in handcuffs.
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Earlier this year, Quoc Pham, who drove Bui to the shooting, was also found guilty of attempted murder. His sentencing was delayed until after he testified against Bui. Pham's girlfriend cooperated with police too. She received an unknown juvenile disposition and has since moved out of California.
None of them was as lucky as TRG's Albert Nguyen and Mini Mike. Prosecutor Ebrahim Baytieh had convicted them for their roles in Bui's shooting and Superior Court Judge Frank Fasel sentenced them to 29 years in the California Youth Authority. They were both serving that sentence last October when the Santa Ana-based state court of appeal reversed Fasel's attempted murder verdicts. The justices determined that the pair could not be held responsible for Bui's actions.
Today, Mini Mike—the kid who claims he assaults people to gain the respect of fellow gangsters, who dreams of someday leading TRG, and who once bragged to police, "I don't care about anybody . . . I don't have any mercy"—is free and living in Little Saigon.