Tustin Stabbing Baffles Family, Friends


The 24-year-old skater mysteriously and brutally slain at Tustin High School was a UCLA graduate who recently earned his master’s degree from Georgetown University and had talked about one day becoming a doctor.

Baffled friends and relatives said Tuesday they didn’t know why anyone would want to harm Thien Minh Ly, who had returned from Washington earlier this month and was living with his parents in Tustin while looking for a job.

“I don’t know of a more devoted son,” said Ly’s 48-year-old father, who peered through the door of the family’s home with red-rimmed eyes. “No matter how busy he was at school, he always found time to help out his family when we needed him.

“He was very, very successful at everything he did.”

Ly, past president of the Vietnamese Students Assn. at UCLA, was slain on a tennis court at Tustin High School, where in 1989 he graduated eighth in his class with a 4.53 grade point average.

He had been stabbed more than a dozen times and was still wearing his in-line skates when a school janitor found the body early Monday. He was killed sometime between 11 p.m. Sunday and 7:45 a.m. Monday, authorities said.


“When you have somebody who was stabbed that many times, you know something else was involved rather than random violence or robbery,” Tustin Police Sgt. Brent Zicarelli said. “It could be anger or hatred or a sick person who enjoys plunging a knife into someone. We don’t know.”

Ly graduated from UCLA with a double-major degree in biology and English two years ago. In August, he earned a master’s degree at Georgetown University specializing in physiology and biophysics. Ly had a job interview scheduled for Monday.

“He had an interview at a courthouse in Santa Ana or something like that, I’m not quite sure,” said the victim’s father, who spoke on the condition that his name be withheld. “He had a lot of things planned, I couldn’t keep up with it all.”

On Tuesday, a single red rose tied with a green ribbon sat on the tennis court where Ly’s body was found.

The father said his son left the house alone about 9 p.m. Sunday to go skating, which Ly frequently did in the evenings for exercise. Ly did not bring his wallet so police were not immediately able to identify him.

Family members reported Ly missing Monday afternoon. Shortly afterward, investigators arrived at the home with a chaplain and a photo of the victim.

As relatives made plans for a funeral service, two detectives continued to work around the clock seeking clues in the case. They are interviewing friends and relatives, but no leads and no possible motives had turned up by Tuesday, Zicarelli said.

News of the killing stunned several of Ly’s former classmates at UCLA, who are planning a weekend vigil at the high school’s tennis courts.

Friends looked up to Ly and thought of him as “somebody whom everybody wanted to be,” said Tran Lieu, an English major who met Ly four years ago when both were involved in the Vietnamese Students Assn.

Ly was president of that group in the 1992-93 school year. As a leader, he was involved in many community activities, including working to improve conditions of Vietnamese refugee camps in Southeast Asia. Friends say Ly also made it a point to reach out to freshman students and make them feel comfortable at the Southern California school.

“I was lost when I got there,” Lieu said. “He was the link that opened all the doors for me there. He was everybody’s best friend.”

Lieu said the UCLA graduate had talked about attending medical school, and one day publishing a collection of poetry. During college, he had traveled to England, where he studied Shakespeare.

“He loved writing but didn’t think he could make a living in it,” said a friend of the family.

Amy Nguyen, 24, who has known Ly for about five years, said she could not fathom the killing.

“We were reminiscing about what it would be like to get together 10 years from now,” Nguyen said of recent conversations with Ly. “He was talking about showing his kids our VSA album, in which he collects photos of all of our activities.”

Nguyen said Ly loved teaching others about the Vietnamese culture, recalling how he would take out a guitar during beach parties and sing love songs in Vietnamese. He also helped to organize seminars that showcased his homeland’s culture.

Ly enjoyed swimming, basketball and volleyball and would often gather friends for trips to Yosemite National Park, Nguyen said.

“He was the type of person who was genuinely happy for his friends every time something good happens to them,” she said.

At UCLA, he concentrated on cell and molecular studies, a faculty member said. Nancy Purtill, a counselor for students majoring in biology, remembered Ly well because she thought it unusual for a student to be interested in both writing and medicine. Purtill described him as a “promising student.”

Ly “was extremely pleasant and intelligent,” Purtill said. “He was one of those persons you like to meet in this job.”

Staffers at Tustin High, where Ly was a junior varsity tennis player and honors student, also recalled his excellence in academics.

“He was good in so many areas,” said Pete Kellner, Ly’s former counselor. “He excelled in all the classes. He was an ideal student.”

A family friend said she met Ly about four years ago.

“He was one of those precious young people who was actually interested in what their elders have to say,” said the woman, who asked to remain anonymous out of consideration for the victim’s family. “He would talk and listen to me when others his age would never have done” that.

Ly left Vietnam in 1983 at about age 11 with his parents and younger sister and brother. The family settled in Tustin and has lived there ever since.

His mother works at a video store in Santa Ana and his father operates a family business, according to police and friends. His 22-year-old sister plans to graduate this year from UC Irvine with a degree in psychology and his 20-year-old brother is a biology and computer science student at UCLA.

Ly had completed his master’s at Georgetown last summer and moved home just a few weeks ago. Friends said he put off medical school while he tried to earn some money.

“A part of my life has been lost forever. . . . He has made me very proud,” his father said. “I wish I could trade my life for his.”

Times staff writers Tina Nguyen, Rebecca Trounson and Lee Romney, and correspondent Susan Steinberg, contributed to this report.