Shackled with three unrelated, new criminal defendants, Little Saigon's 24-year-old Sinh Vinh Ngo Nguyen stood this afternoon in front of a U.S. magistrate judge and firmly declared himself “not guilty” of federal charges that he lied on a passport application and sought to provide support to anti-American, al-Qaeda terrorists.
Nguyen–arrested early this morning by undercover FBI agents assigned to a Joint Terrorism Task Force as he reportedly attempted to board a Santa Ana bus en route to Mexico–faces a maximum of 40 years in prison if Assistant United States Attorney Judith Heinz ultimately wins her case.
A federal indictment against Nguyen is light on specifics, but veteran reporter Andrew Blankstein of NBC News reported the defendant traveled to Syria last year to fight for rebels against the oppressive Assad regime.
Blankstein, one of the nation's best investigative journalists, is also reporting that sources told him Nguyen returned to Orange County from the Middle East, planned to fake his death, applied for a U.S. passport under a fake name (Hasan Abu Omar Ghannoum), and made efforts to join al-Qaeda terrorists in Pakistan, but ran out of luck.
A person Nguyen contacted to aid him was an undercover federal agent, Blankstein reports.
Nguyen, a resident of Garden Grove born in the U.S. of parents who emigrated from Vietnam and a licensed security guard, appeared mostly expressionless in U.S. Magistrate Judge Arthur Nakazato's Santa Ana courtroom.
Though a Vietnamese American, Nguyen's physical appearance–goatee, mustache, long black hair with wire-rim glasses–could allow him to pass as a native on any Middle Eastern street.
He wore blue jeans and a blue, short-sleeved short and seemed relatively calm while he questioned his public defender in the courtroom that contained 13 observing federal law-enforcement agents.
Nakazato approved of the government's request to detain the terrorism suspect in the custody of U.S. marshals without bail and ordered an Oct. 18 scheduling hearing with U.S. District Court Judge John F. Walter in Los Angeles.
Because Nguyen claimed poverty, the judge assigned him a taxpayer-funded defense lawyer.
Heinz told Nakazato she expects a trial will last three to eight days.
The defendant's mother, father, brother and sister–a teenager who entered the courtroom holding an unopened, large bag of potato chips–attended the hearing.
“It [her son's arrest] surprised me,” a visibly worried Hieu Nguyen said before the hearing. “I don't know what's going on. It's all a surprise.”
According to the defendant's brother, the suspect converted to Islam “about a year ago,” but he claims he doesn't know why.
“He's been a better person [since becoming a Muslim],” said the brother, who declined to give his name.
In the wake of overly aggressive, late-arriving, interrupting questions from high-strung Associated Press and Los Angeles Times reporters who apparently have yet to discover elementary journalistic courtesy, the defendant's public defender heard the commotion, walked over and tersely advised the family to not answer any additional media questions.
(Nice job, my callous, self-important, mainstream brethren.)
Heinz, the prosecutor, looked like a confused, law school freshman Elle Woods at the outset of Legally Blonde when asked simple, procedural questions by the gathered print, TV and radio reporters after the hearing.
She ignored the questions, wore a terrified, deer-in-the-headlight facial expression, and darted onto an elevator inside Orange County's Ronald Reagan Federal Courthouse to flee.
Nguyen is being held inside the Santa Ana Jail.
Although agents say they believe Nguyen acted alone, FBI spokeswoman Laura Eimiller described the case as “an ongoing investigation.”
In a report by KTLA-TV's Orange County reporter Chip Yost, a neighbor of the Nguyen family said she considers them all normal, decent people.