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Mother of Hit-and-Run Victim Ran Out of Time : Tragedy: Thao Phan had planned to move her three children to a safer street--but then she briefly left them unattended. Police have impounded a car that might have been the one that fatally struck 2-year-old Karen Nguyen.

July 12, 1994|KEN ELLINGWOOD and LILY DIZON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WESTMINSTER — Thao Phan was in a hurry to move her three small children off 15th Street. She hated the noise and the traffic that forever raced past their tiny apartment. On Saturday, she'd be out of there.

When plans to borrow a car for the move fell through, Phan set her sights on Sunday instead.

It was one day too late.

Phan's 2-year-old daughter, Karen Nguyen, wandered into that traffic Saturday evening and was struck dead by a hit-and-run driver who police still were hunting on Monday.

Stepping up the search, police sought a warrant to comb through a car that was seized Sunday from a public parking lot nearby following a tip from a neighbor. Authorities hoped to find clues that might lead to the driver and to examine the car for any tissue residue that might be linked to the girl.

On Monday, Phan tearfully appealed for help to pay for the funeral and replayed her decision to leave Karen and the two other children at home with two neighbors, age 11 and 13, while she went to buy sweet rice at a restaurant.

Phan, 25, said she popped a videotape--"The He Tre," or "The Young Generation"--into the VCR, knowing Karen always laughed and danced along with the tape's images of young children dancing and singing.

"I gave them candy and told them to stay inside and not run outside," Phan recalled Monday as she asked for help on Vietnamese-language Little Saigon Radio.

Waiting for her restaurant order, Phan said, she went to get a newspaper and then felt a wave of inexplicable dread. She said she ran home--without the food--and found an ambulance parked in front of the apartment she had rented since splitting up with her husband last fall.

Phan said in an interview later that her two other children--Cathy, 5, and Jimmy, 6,--told her the children decided to go outside and play after she left for the food. All were playing in the front lawn in the 8300 block of 15th Street when Karen decided to cross the street.

"She picked up some dirt and was on her way back when the car hit her," Phan said. She said Karen had never played outside the house unsupervised before Saturday's accident.

Witnesses described a red "Corvette-type" car and on Sunday a neighbor who said he witnessed the accident called police to report a similar car parked in the lot of a senior citizens center a quarter-mile from the scene, said Sgt. James Waller.

He said police impounded a 1973 Plymouth Satellite, though it is not known if it is the same car. Authorities were having trouble determining its owner because records showed it had been reported sold but no buyer named, Waller said.

"At this point we don't know who it belongs to," Waller said.

He said police were seeking a warrant to pick through the car and perform tests that might indicate whether it was involved in the accident.

*

City Councilman Tony Lam said he plans to introduce a council motion tonight to install at least one speed bump on 15th Street in the area where the accident occurred. A school playground across the street from the Phan home is a popular draw for neighborhood children.

"Many families are very concerned about the traffic there, especially because so many children play in the area," Lam said. "Many children run across the street so they can get to the park."

Phan, who emigrated from Vietnam nine years ago under a special program for Amerasians, had put down $500 rent on a house in Garden Grove on Friday. She couldn't find transportation Saturday and decided to borrow her friend's car then.

By Monday, Phan was trying to come up with the $6,000 to $7,000 she said the funeral would cost. Her husband is in jail for attacking her with a meat cleaver in a drunken stupor two years ago, Phan said, and she has no job.

"Life here in the U.S. is just so sad that my life is centered around my children, especially the youngest, Baby Karen," Phan said. "I gave her all my love and pinned all my dreams and hope on her. I don't know what I'll do now."

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