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Slain Trucker Had Left Vietnam for a Better Life

June 12, 2004|Nikki Usher | Times Staff writer

About 4:30 a.m. June 4, trucker Steve Nguyen, 31, made a frantic call to his dispatch center. He was driving on the Century Freeway and someone was firing on his tanker truck from a white sedan.

Nguyen told the dispatcher that someone was chasing him and firing a gun at him. He was stressed out and angry, unsure why he was under attack, said his brother, Phuong Nguyen. As he tried to evade the gunman by darting onto different freeways, the dispatcher kept on the line while getting a colleague to call 911.

About seven minutes later, when the dispatcher called Nguyen back on his cellphone, the trucker had gotten off the freeway and was standing outside his rig. The dispatcher heard a shot over the phone, and the line went dead.

A few hours later, Nguyen's body was found on the sidewalk near 118th Street and Wilmington Avenue, dead of a bullet wound to his upper body.

Sheriff's investigators started the case with few leads. Then they noticed damage to the body of the tanker truck. Detectives believe this was a case of road rage sparked by an accident involving Nguyen's truck and the assailant's white sedan.

On Friday morning, investigators, family members and Nguyen's friends at Beneto Bulk Transport canvassed the area around the Century Freeway in South Los Angeles about the same time Nguyen was shot, hoping to get more clues. The somber crew passed out fliers to motorists with the trucker's picture, information and the promise of a $50,000 reward.

Sheriff's investigators are hoping that someone -- a commuter driving home after the shift change at nearby Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center, perhaps -- might have seen something that could help the department find Nguyen's killer, said Lt. Gil Carrillo of the Sheriff's Homicide Bureau.

"We're leaving no stone unturned, but we don't know much at this point," Carillo said about the mystery gunman.

The shooting took place as Nguyen, a Westminster resident, was beginning a run from Long Beach to Sylmar.

The first shots were fired when Nguyen was driving west on the Gardena Freeway. He apparently tried to lose his assailant by merging onto the northbound Harbor Freeway and then the eastbound Century Freeway. The chase lasted about 30 minutes, until he got off at Wilmington Avenue, officials said.

After the shooting, officials closed the Harbor and Century freeways for almost two hours to search for shell casings and other evidence. The next key phase of the investigation will be finding witnesses.

Employees at the trucking company said they were traumatized and frustrated by what had happened to Nguyen, an employee for five years.

"This isn't supposed to happen to folks earning a living working to support their families," said Chet Friday, a friend and co-worker. "We don't understand why this happened."

Supervisor Craig Moore said Nguyen was quiet, professional and reliable. "He had a good reputation around the company and was very friendly and outgoing."

Friends and family said Nguyen was a devoted family man who adored his wife and his 23-month-old child.

Nguyen and his son almost had the same birthday, and the extended Vietnamese family was preparing for a joint celebration in two week.

Nguyen worked a schedule of six days on, and three days off. And when he wasn't working, he was sharing meals or going to the beach with the tightknit family.

"He was always calling everyone up and asking to spend time with them," said Nguyen's wife, Diann.

For the Nguyen family, the tragedy is a bitter end to their immigrant dream.

Nguyen, the youngest of five siblings, followed his oldest brother to the U.S. in 1990. He learned English, found a job that offered a decent living and started a family.

"We came here escaping communism in Vietnam for freedom, and this terrible thing happens," Phuong Nguyen said.

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