At sunrise on the morning of Jan. 30, 1996, I walked out of my Laguna Beach home in my boxer shorts, holding a cup of coffee and staring appreciatively at the glittering Pacific Ocean. After a few moments, I leaned down and picked up that morning’s delivered Orange County Register. A headline caught my attention, “Body Found on Tennis Court.”
As a crime writer, I routinely read such breaking stories and tentatively decided whether I’d follow the case for hints of a fresh angle. But this article—one that involved a seemingly senseless attack on a Vietnamese American—paralyzed me. As I stared at the paper, my mind flashed a decade into the past.
Daily-newspaper editors, especially in Texas, love to assign rookie news reporters the grueling crime beat, and in 1986, I wasn’t spared. Outside Dallas one weekday morning, a sheriff’s deputy allowed me to accompany him on his shift. An emergency call from a Texas Highway Patrol officer came over the radio: A male, possibly armed and dangerous, had darted into the woods from a vehicle stopped on Interstate 75.
The deputy and I were the closest to the scene. We raced up the highway about two miles, turned abruptly and drove over a farmer’s vegetable field to the edge of a thick forest before exiting the patrol car. Armed with my reporter’s notebook and a pen, I tailed the deputy, who’d drawn his gun. We ran through the woods, over hills, down gullies, up and down more hills and into a sloping open field.
We spotted a ranch house about 200 yards away, and then we heard three rapid gunshots followed by chilling, guttural screams. We jogged the length of a football field and found an unarmed boy, perhaps 10 or 11 years old, squirming on his back in the dirt, holding bleeding bullet wounds in his stomach and chest.
In the distance, an elderly white man, a rancher who’d been monitoring police communications on his home CB radio during the pursuit, triumphantly held up his scoped rifle and shouted the word “Gook” over and over. The deputy yelled into his portable radio for an ambulance. I dropped to my knees. I looked at the shooter, the deputy and the boy—who looked into my eyes, cried and spoke what was then an alien language: Vietnamese. At some point, he grabbed my left hand and held it tightly as we waited, seemingly forever, for the ambulance.
It was the first time I wept on the job.
Later, I learned why the boy had fled his mother’s car after the Texas Highway Patrolman stopped them for an expired vehicle-registration violation. Months before, his family escaped communist Vietnam, where police or military officers routinely raped, robbed and assaulted people. He’d panicked. He hadn’t been a threat to anyone. Worse, the local district attorney refused to file a criminal charge against the shooter—who, I eventually discovered, was his pal.
“It wouldn’t do no good to file charges,” the DA told me. “It’s just one of life’s tragic but innocent mistakes. Nobody died. Let it go.”
I stewed, bitched to co-workers—who didn’t share my frustration—and contemplated changing careers. Who wants to hear the screams of innocent gunshot victims? Eventually, I buried the Texas incident beneath other harrowing crime-scene images I unfortunately accumulated on the job.
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But the killing of Thien Minh Ly 10 years later unleashed the memory. Still holding the Register article, I closed my eyes and saw vivid images of that Vietnamese boy’s pleading dark eyes.
I knew I’d be following this case to the end—all the way to Gunner Jay Lindberg’s day in the California Supreme Court.
Click here to read R. Scott Moxley's feature, "Hate & Death: Was the murder of Thien Minh Ly actually a hate crime? His killer's fate hangs on the answer."