A Lifer Goes Free

Lifer Goes Free

Tung Nguyen, of Santa Ana, is trying to create a program to help former Asian and Pacific Islander inmates re-enter society after being released from prison. Nguyen served 18 years in prison for first-degree murder but was approved for parole by Gov. Jerry Brown after he helped a group of civilians to safety during a prison riot. (Photo by Nick Agro, Orange County Register/SCNG)

This ‘Unsung Hero’ was a convicted murderer until Gov. Brown set him free immediately

He stared across the San Quentin State Prison yard at an old man, a lifer hopelessly sitting, white hair, slumped shoulders, blending into the gravel dust and beige brick.

It was 2003, 10 years into his own 25-to-life bid. That image – of an aging man eroding into his surroundings – changed everything.

“I can’t do this,” convicted murderer Tung Nguyen of Santa Ana said to himself. He was 26 at the time. “I’ve got to go home. I can’t end up like that.”

With that, Nguyen started, for the first time during his life sentence, to live. At San Quentin, he learned to speak English properly. He learned to play “Hotel California” and “Dust in the Wind” on guitar. He learned to pray, joining the Catholic Church. He signed up for seemingly every program the prison offered – self-help, life skills, piano, community outreach. He joined the San Quentin choir.

He let go of his anger.

A new life

Then, in 2006, the strangest thing happened. Nguyen committed an act of kindness inside those prison walls that made him a hero. Not just in the eyes of the people he helped, but in the eyes of his fellow prisoners, the guards, the parole board and, eventually, the governor.

Today, Nguyen considers himself a living miracle. His 25-to-life sentence suddenly and stunningly morphed into a second chance. He has become a Vietnamese Jimmy Stewart, living out a prison yard version of “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Today, Nguyen is married, working and a finalist for a Soros Justice Fellowship, which would pay him $58,000 to $110,000 for a year-plus project. If Nguyen’s proposal is selected, he would serve as a liaison helping newly released Asian prisoners re-establish their lives in Orange County.

“I really respect how he is trying to turn himself around,” said his wife, Annie Truong, who first met him when he was running the streets years ago.

His new life, however, has come at a price. When he shows up to events with victims of crime, he has been called an “animal” and “scumbag.” One person who met Nguyen in a support group told him he should be taken outside and shot.

“I am like a trash can,” he said with his new, ever-present smile.

“I can get dumped on. I can go through anything.”

A man without a country

Nguyen is the boogeyman we heard about in the presidential campaign.

Born in Vietnam, he is not an American citizen. He came to Orange County as a 13-year-old in 1991, his parents fleeing harsh conditions in Vietnam. His father, a military man, was thrown into a Vietnamese concentration camp after Saigon fell in 1975. His mother sold food on the street. They adopted a girl who was half-American, making them eligible to move to the United States.

The Nguyens spent six months in a refugee camp before arriving in Santa Ana in 1991.

Life was rough for immigrants from Vietnam in the 1990s.

The Nguyens lived in an apartment near Bristol and MacArthur.

While his parents were becoming naturalized U.S. citizens, Nguyen was committing crimes – breaking into homes, stealing from stores and worse.

Nguyen attended Saddleback High School, where he said he was bullied until he fought back. He got in too many fights. Once he stabbed another kid with a dart and did time in juvenile hall for assault with a deadly weapon. He was kicked out of high school.

Then, at 16, he was involved in a fatal stabbing at a Westminster hotel. He was tried and convicted as an adult.

He served 18 years in prison.

Upon Nguyen’s release, Immigration and Customs Enforcement immediately took him into custody and tried to deport him to Vietnam. But his home country refuses to take him back. His immigration status is in limbo.

So he exists as best he can, always waiting for ICE to take him away.

He lives in a house his in-laws gave him as a wedding present. He doesn’t have a work visa or permit, so he can’t get an official job. He does handyman work for a former prisoner who owns a general contracting business. He’s on probation, so he has to check in every two months.

He was offered a job in San Francisco, but family keeps him in Orange County.

“I’ve been locked away from my parents for too long,” Nguyen said. “How could I leave?”

Lifer Goes Free

Tung Nguyen prays at Our Lady of La Vang Catholic Church in Santa Ana. Raised Buddhist, Nguyen spent all his free time at San Quentin at the prison’s Catholic Church.

‘I put two knives on his neck’

He’s proud to say that he wasn’t ever in a street gang. He was too afraid to be “jumped in,” the gang initiation where the new guy gets beaten.

But he and his friends operated like a gang. They broke into houses. They stole whatever they could get away with. They ran the streets like tough guys.

And on the night of April 12, 1993, Nguyen overheard a heated phone conversation between his friend and a rival named Tuan Truong. When the call ended, Nguyen’s friend felt disrespected and vowed revenge.

Nguyen and his buddies grabbed a bunch of kitchen knives and drove to the Inn Cal Hotel (now the Morada Inn) in Garden Grove. They found Truong and his group of friends in a hotel room. Nguyen was first in the door. He grabbed the first guy he saw.

“I put two knives on his neck and told him not to move and nothing would happen,” Nguyen said.

Nguyen was on the perimeter of the fight between Duc Truong and Tuan Truong, who aren’t related.

The goal, Nguyen said, was for Nguyen’s friend to leave a scar on the disrespectful Truong. Duc Truong cut Tuan Truong’s leg.

The knife hit the femoral artery.

A scar became a murder.

The police arrived as Nguyen and his buddies were fleeing the hotel. They were all arrested.

Nguyen was at the police station when he found out Tuan Truong had died.

“My life was shattered,” he said. “I was done.”

Prison yard hero

On Feb. 26, 2006, a hip-hop group played a concert inside the walls of San Quentin.

Nguyen remembers 300 to 400 inmates attending in the yard adjacent to the baseball field and the basketball court. Nguyen was assigned to provide security for the band, their crew and other volunteers. About 50 civilians had come to the prison that day – at the end of Black History Month – to put on a show. Nguyen was stationed in front of the makeshift stage, between the band and crew and the inmates.

During the show, Nguyen noticed a couple of inmates getting angry. He saw punches thrown. Then he saw a full-on riot break out among dozens of inmates.

“My survival instincts took over,” Nguyen said.

The alarm sounded throughout the prison, a signal for all inmates to lie down.

Nguyen didn’t follow his orders. He and a couple of other inmates formed a human shield.

“We put a wall between the fight and the volunteers,” Nguyen said. “The guards let us go.”

While the fight raged around them, Nguyen guided the civilians to the chapel.

“These people had extended their kindness,” Nguyen said. “You don’t want them to see the ugliness inside the prison.”

They hunkered down inside the chapel until it was safe.

Nguyen knew he had done the right thing, but he had no idea how important his actions would become.

“I didn’t think the (parole) board would care,” Nguyen said.

They cared.

Governor’s rare decision

It took five years, but they cared. Lt. Sam Robinson, a San Quentin guard who had witnessed Nguyen guiding the civilians during the riot, wrote a letter to the parole board. The board agreed that Nguyen would be eligible for parole, which is the good news.

The bad news was that they set Nguyen’s parole date in 2023.

Gov. Jerry Brown reviewed all lifer parole cases in 2011. In 72 cases, he modified only one.

In his “Indeterminate Sentence Parole Release Review,” Brown wrote about the letter he received from Robinson. “The lieutenant made a point of commending Mr. Nguyen for his courage in protecting civilians in the face of possible retaliation by rioting inmates,” Brown wrote, “and concluded that this incident showed the ‘authentic change’ in his decision making that he had undergone since his incarceration.”

The last sentence of Brown’s review said: “The Board’s decision shall be hereby modified so as to grant Mr. Nguyen an immediate release on parole.” Deborah Hoffman, the governor’s deputy press secretary, said the case of Tung Nguyen is “the only time a governor has modified a term calculation by the board to an immediate release date.”

Since 2011, Brown has reviewed 3,517 grants of parole to lifers serving time for murder. He reversed 589 of those grants, modified four, and sent six cases for reconsideration by the full parole board. But only one lifer was sent home immediately: Tung Nguyen.

Lifer Goes Free

Tung Nguyen works on replacing the doors in his home with doors a homeowner grew away at his construction job.

A lifer goes free

Robinson was assigned to deliver the good news to Nguyen, who had no idea what was coming.

Nguyen and two other inmates met Robinson in the yard. Robinson told Nguyen he was being released. It was April 1, so Nguyen thought it was an April Fools’ Day joke.

It wasn’t.

Then Nguyen thought it was merely paperwork informing him about his release in 2023.

“Immediately,” Robinson said.

Nguyen stood still, his brain not computing immediately what the word meant.

His two inmate friends he brought started screaming. Within seconds, word whipped through the prison. A lifer was going free.

Robinson asked Nguyen to sign the release form. That’s when he believed.

Nguyen began to cry. Then he noticed something very strange. Several inmates were crying too.

“It gave them hope,” Nguyen said.

When he walked into the main housing area, a five-tiered cellblock, it felt like he had entered a cathedral. All the inmates were out of their cells, and they were cheering.

“I was numb,” he said.

Serving others

Since his release, Nguyen was given the Unsung Hero award by the Youth Law Center for his work on Senate Bill 260, which allows for sentencing reviews for youth who are tried as adults.

He has spoken at events for Human Rights Watch, the Inside Prison Project, and the Families and Friends of Murder Victims.

And he has said he is sorry.

In the spring of 2013, in a circle of the family members of murder victims at the Inside Prison Project conference, he found himself taking the hand of a grieving mother, Luz Ruiz. She wasn’t the mother of the victim in his case – the law prevents him from contacting that family.

Nguyen felt the need to apologize to her.

He knew it was his role, given what he had done, to absorb her pain.

“If I could take away a little bit of pain from someone, that would make my night,” Nguyen said.

Nguyen clasped her hand.

“In the name of the guy who murdered your son, I’m sorry,” Nguyen said.

Ruiz hugged Nguyen with all her might. Tears streamed down her face.

“I saw his good heart,” said Ruiz, whose 23-year-old son, Roberto, had been shot to death in the fall of 2005 while Nguyen was still in prison. “This was the first time I heard someone say sorry.”

Nguyen and Ruiz have become close friends. Every year on Nov. 20, Nguyen and his wife go to Ruiz’s La Puente home to honor her son on the day he died. Ruiz makes barbecued ribs, Roberto’s favorite.

“It takes a lot to ask forgiveness,” Ruiz said.

These days, Nguyen is working on his Soros fellowship proposal. He still takes time to hop the fence in a Westminster storm channel to give blankets to homeless people.

“They say I am an example,” he said.

“But I haven’t done enough.”

Keith Sharon
OC Register


  1. Jim Nasella says:

    That was a hell of an article. The experiences of many shown here is almost overwhelming. To understand only slightly what they have been through, the extreme immigration experience, being disrespected by gangs on the streets of O.C. and Nguyen apologizing to the mother of a murder victim, because he is not allowed to contact the mother of his own victim, opens up a new world to those of us shielded by our safe lives