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3 Vietnamese Brothers in Shoot-Out Led Troubled Lives : Crime: They had problems in school and apparently felt like failures. Some teachers express surprise at violence of siege at Sacramento store.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

In retrospect, it seems the three Nguyen brothers led dual lives.

In keeping with Vietnamese tradition, they were well-behaved boys at home who bowed their heads to their parents, according to their father, Bim Khac Nguyen. Loi, 21, Pham, 19, and Long, 17, always listened to him, he recalled sadly.

Away from home, however, some saw them as troubled young men. Immigrants from Vietnam, they had difficulty adapting in American society and all had problems in school. Long Nguyen, the youngest, was expelled in March with his friend, Cuong Tran, after they were caught trying to set fire to their high school, officials said.

But no one expected their lives to erupt in the violence of 11 days ago when the Nguyen brothers and Tran seized a Good Guys electronics store near their south Sacramento home, taking 41 hostages.

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As sheriff’s deputies stormed the store, at least two of the youths began shooting the hostages, killing two employees and a customer and wounding 11 others, authorities said.

Pham and Long Nguyen, along with their friend Tran, 17, died in shooting it out with deputies. Loi Nguyen, who was seriously wounded but survived, is charged with three counts of murder and 51 other felonies.

Those who knew the young gunmen are still groping to understand why they threw away their lives in such a desperate act. Their parents are struggling to come to terms with the charge that their boys became killers.

“I wanted them to finish school, become successful and still keep the Vietnamese traditions,” Nguyen said last week in Vietnamese. “Now there are no words left to say. I never envisioned something like this would happen.”

Sacramento County Sheriff Glen Craig said the Good Guys siege was motivated in part by the youths’ frustration with their lives in America and the problems they faced as refugees seeking to adapt.

Craig said the youths were members of a violent, loose-knit Asian gang, the Oriental Boys. Apparently they were trying to make some sort of statement, not rob the store, he said.

During negotiations with sheriff’s deputies, the youths demanded such things as tea made from 1,000-year-old ginger roots and a helicopter to fly them to Thailand so they could fight the “Viet Cong.”

“It was dissatisfaction with the life that they had here in this country, a frustration,” the sheriff said after the shooting. “They were very, very unhappy people.”

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Others who know the youths are not so sure about the sheriff’s explanation. Teachers and relatives, for example, say they knew of no gang activity by the Nguyens. However, leaders of the Vietnamese community and academic experts say the problem of acculturation can be especially acute for children whose parents--like the Nguyens--have not learned English or found jobs since arriving in this country.

The Nguyen family left Vietnam 12 years ago, believing their lives could not get any worse. “I knew my family and I would rather die at sea than to be under Communist rule,” said Bim Nguyen, 54.

The former South Vietnamese soldier, his wife and six children escaped with 51 other people cramped together in a small fishing boat. They spent seven months at sea and at anchor off the coast of Malaysia, where they repeatedly were raided by pirates. Hungry and penniless, they spent four more months in a refugee camp in Indonesia waiting to come to the United States.

Since arriving in California in 1980, the Nguyens said, they have survived on welfare. In Sacramento, they live in a two-bedroom unit of a run-down apartment building half a mile from the Good Guys store. Before the shoot-out, two young daughters slept in one room with their parents, while four sons, Loi, Pham, Long and Phu, 15, shared the second bedroom and the living room.

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Cuong Tran also was born in Vietnam. But unlike the Nguyens, his family was relatively affluent. His parents, Trong Van and Hoa Thi Tran, bought a house 15 months ago in a newly built, middle-class neighborhood in nearby Elk Grove. Hoa Thi Tran helps operate a manicure shop. But little more is known about the family because the Trans have declined to talk publicly since the siege.

Cuong Tran and Long Nguyen were classmates at Florin High School until they were expelled for stealing athletic equipment and trying to set fire to the school, said principal Bill Huyett.

The pair also had been arrested on a separate criminal offense and were due in juvenile court for a restitution hearing on the day after the shoot-out. Juvenile authorities would not discuss the case or whether other criminal charges were ever filed against them.

None of the four youths were successful in school, a factor that likely contributed to their alienation, some former teachers and family friends said.

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Loi Nguyen, the eldest, dropped out of Valley High in his senior year. Thanh Nguyen, a family spokesman but no relation, said Loi was “slow” and did poorly in school. “His mind is always elsewhere, never to what’s at hand,” he said in Vietnamese, adding, “He didn’t have very many friends.”

Loi also had trouble finding a job. Though unemployed, he was able to afford a car and--weeks before the shooting--bought three handguns at $300 each, authorities said.

Pham, the only one of the gunmen still in school, was attending Daylor William High School, a continuation school, taking three classes a day. He was transfered from Valley High because of attendance problems, officials said, but was expected to graduate in June.

“When Asians feel they are succeeding academically in the school, they feel all the difficulty of the new society can be compensated for,” said Song Hahn, himself a Korean immigrant and one of Pham Nguyen’s former teachers. “When they fail academically, they feel their life has ended. Pham felt he had failed.”

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Hahn described Pham as a loner.

But even with the youths’ later troubles, some teachers remembered Pham, Long and Cuong Tram as obedient and pleasant students.

Jay Tinsman, one of Pham’s teachers at Daylor, said the 19-year-old seemed more comfortable at the smaller school and with a more limited class program. “He was a quiet kid,” Tinsman said. “I considered him very bright. He did very well in his school work. He never missed a day.”

On the morning of the shooting, he said, Pham came to school and asked to be excused from class, saying he had a toothache and wanted to go to the dentist.

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“I think it’s ironic,” Tinsman said, “that he came and asked permission to be out of school that day, the day of the crime.”

Despite Tran’s expulsion from school, former teachers also recalled him fondly and were shocked most of all that he was involved in the Good Guys siege.

Florin High School teacher Bob Saari said that during the previous school year, Tran came to his classroom early every day to play chess and visit with other students.

“He was a good-natured kid, a funny kid, a giving kid,” Saari said. “It’s hard to put in perspective that what happened was the same kid I saw in my room.”

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Long Nguyen also came with Tran to Saari’s “Breakfast Club,” but was quieter and attracted less notice. “He was always polite to me, a pleasant kid from my experience,” Saari recalled.

Even now, Bim and Sao Thi Nguyen, 47, have trouble believing Sheriff Craig’s conclusion that their sons belonged to a gang. But they declined to discuss any details of the boys’ lives or the shoot-out.

The brothers often went with them to Mass and occasionally helped out at the Vietnamese Catholic Martyrs’ Church, where their parents worshiped. They all enjoyed fishing along the Sacramento River, Bim Nguyen said.

On the morning of the siege, the brothers asked their parents for permission to go fishing on their own.

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“That’s what we do for fun; I always drive my sons to the river to fish,” the father said, as he wiped tears from his eyes. “The last time I saw them, they asked if they could go fishing.”

The family fishing rods now hang over the Nguyens’ kitchen window, a sad reminder of April 4.

In the living room of the $400-a-month apartment stands a three-tier wooden mantle with candles and a crucifix. On one wall are two miniature South Vietnamese flags; on the other are pictures of the family’s ancestors.

The Nguyens’ home in a predominantly Vietnamese neighborhood is a far cry from the refugee camp in Indonesia where the family languished 11 years ago.

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The Nguyens vividly remember standing in line with their children waiting for their rations. When they arrived in California, they were completely unprepared for their new lives.

“We didn’t even know how to go about looking for housing,” recalled Bim Nguyen. “But, right away, we knew education was important so we put all of our children into school. . . . It was so frustrating for me because they would come home asking me for help with school work and I wouldn’t know what to say.”

Academics who did not know the gunmen but are expert in the assimilation of Vietnamese immigrants said it has been most difficult for the boat people, the wave of refugees that left Vietnam between 1978 and 1980. Usually, these people had few possessions and spent months or years in refugee camps before arriving in the United States.

“These camps could be brutal and could be dehumanizing,” said Larry Engelmann, professor of history at San Jose State. “The children learned at an early age that people at these camps will do anything to survive.”

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Since the Good Guys siege, some members of Sacramento’s Vietnamese community have reported a sharp increase in the harassment of their children by students of other races. In high schools, a number of fights have broken out between Vietnamese and other students, they said.

“All who are Vietnamese are sad because of this tragedy,” said Viet Le, former chairman of the state Forum on Refugee Affairs and himself one of the boat people. “Something of this magnitude has never happened to our people before. It could’ve happened to any community, any ethnic group, but unfortunately it happened in our community and now we are in the spotlight.”

The Nguyens spend their days holed up in their apartment, their curtains drawn, replaying the siege over and over in their minds. They leave home only to visit Loi at the hospital, where he remains under armed guard.

“This is a very sad time for all of us,” said Sao Nguyen. “My husband and I are sorry for everything. My family is very troubled right now. . . . I just don’t know what to say.”

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