Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP
Saturday, May 24, 2014 | 4:40 p.m.
SAN JOSE, Calif. — After 17 years on the force, San Jose Police officer Huan Nguyen had learned not to get emotionally involved in his work. But then one got through.
On May 6, a road rage slaying in his Little Saigon neighborhood, on the streets where he grew up and now patrols, took the life of a Vietnamese immigrant like himself. The victim was a 37-year-old bus driver who left behind a widow and two young children, one with severe autism.
"We try not to get emotional, but sometimes these things really affect me," Nguyen said. "It kind of hit the soft core of my body."
Nguyen and his colleagues sent texts to friends and family asking if they could help the widow. Then, at his friends' urging, he launched a website, hoping to raise a few thousand dollars. Word spread quickly: Now, less than three weeks since the murder, nearly $100,000 has poured in from the local Vietnamese community and far beyond, including Houston, Boston, New York, even London.
"I'm very thankful, and I'm very surprised," said widow Dieu Huynh, a limited English speaker whose husband's cremated remains were buried last weekend.
Sinking into her couch with her 4- and 7-year-old sons, she fought back tears, telling Nguyen in Vietnamese how her youngest son, Steven, keeps asking her to call his father. Her older son, Henry, can't talk, but hugs and kisses her. Unable to function independently, Henry dashes out the door into the street if left unattended, has seizures, and will need a lifetime of constant care.
"When I met this family, I could see they were going to need help," said Nguyen, himself a father of two. "It really, really got to me."
National Center for Victims of Crime Executive Director Mai Fernandez said online, crowd-sourced fundraisers are increasingly common for crime victims, but usually it's friends or family who launch them.
"I've never heard of a police officer stepping in like this. This sounds like a really special person," she said. "When there's a tragedy out there, there are a lot of heroes who step up. It's amazing to see the outpouring of generosity of the public. Humankind really does care about each other."
Nguyen, who sought approval before reaching out publicly and has the full support of San Jose Police Chief Larry Esquivel, said he's shy about being in the spotlight.
"But this isn't about me at all," he said. "My job is to help others. No amount of money can replace their dad, but this can help those boys as they grow up."
Nguyen also is keeping an eye out on his patrols for the suspect who shot Huynh's husband, Phuoc Lam. That morning, with a rare few hours free, Lam and Huynh were doing errands for her upcoming birthday party.
Suddenly Lam slammed on his brakes to avoid hitting two men in a Volkswagen Jetta who pulled out of a mobile home park driveway in front of him, police said. Lam climbed out of the driver's side to survey the scene. Words were exchanged, and as Huynh was stepping out to see what was going on, her husband was shot. Police said she told them she saw Lam fall.
Huynh doesn't speak of it in front of her children. But at that moment her life crumbled.
They had no savings, she says, and their rent for a shabby, two-bedroom apartment in a high crime neighborhood costs $1,200 a month. Her husband drove for a Vietnamese bus service, grueling shifts, seven days a week, up and down the state. On Saturday, when he had half a day free, they'd take the kids to Chuck E. Cheese for pizza.
Lam refused to apply for housing assistance or food stamps, assuring his wife he was young, diligent and could provide.
"I miss him, but I'm proud of how he lived his life," said Huynh, her hands clenched. "He was hard-working, he was honest, and he loved his family."
San Jose has the second largest Vietnamese population in the U.S., after Los Angeles. Many of the immigrants, including Nguyen, are boat people, Southeast Asian refugees who fled after the Vietnam War.
At Huynh's home, relatives and friends come and go. Incense will burn on a living room shrine for 49 days, around the clock, to support his spirit. Her husband's photo is surrounded by bouquets, religious crosses, a fruit platter. Huynh still serves her husband's daily 4 a.m. coffee and cigarettes, leaving them in front of his portrait for a few hours every morning.
Tidying up when guests arrived, she took the unsipped coffee to the kitchen, explaining how she and Lam married in Vietnam in 1998 but spent years apart while he worked in the U.S. She said she arrived in 2006, and soon their first son was born.
Nguyen patted her arm, listening thoughtfully, and then turned away.
"It's heartbreaking," he said.