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Trang Nguyen at the altar Trang Nguyen at the altar to her slain parents that she and her siblings have set up at their Berkeley home. (Photo by Peg Skorpinski)

Sister joins sister at UC Berkeley as police continue search for their parents' murderer

– A year ago, Trang Nguyen was in her studio apartment near the University of California, Berkeley, getting ready for work when her sister in Sacramento called with horrendous news: Their parents had been shot.

While driving for four hours on a congested Interstate 80 to the state capital, Trang frantically called the sheriff's department and hospitals all over Sacramento searching for her parents and information about their conditions.

When she arrived at the shopping mall where her parents worked in a relative's jewelry store, her brothers and sisters were sobbing. A deputy and a chaplain approached Trang, saying her mother and father were dead.

"At that moment, I just couldn't believe it," she said.

The Nguyen children returned to the family's south Sacramento home, locked themselves in their parents' bedroom, and cried for hours. "That night, we all slept in their bed," Trang recalled.

Since then, the Nguyen children have accomplished tasks that would be trying for the most experienced adult. They had to organize and pay for a double funeral, and just weeks ago staged a traditional Vietnamese prayer ceremony on the anniversary of the still-unsolved slayings of Hue Nguyen, 55, and Loi Thi Ngo, 51.

Yet, in the face of a host of financial, emotional and logistical challenges, the Nguyen family remains intact.

"When you get into a situation where you need to survive, you do whatever it takes," said 21-year-old Trang, a UC Berkeley junior majoring in American Studies.

The oldest of the Nguyen siblings, Trang is now a parent. She is the legal guardian of a 13-year-old brother and 15-year-old sister, both of whom live with her, and her 16-year-old sister and now18-year-old sister. The two older sisters have moved in with families of friends to finish high school in Sacramento.

Today, almost everything the once "cool sister" does is uncool, said Trang. She unwittingly sat on the opposition side of the gym when she went to her brother's basketball game. She drove the family's 1991 minivan in front of school, where her sister waited with friends, and actually honked the horn.

But she has moments that she is proud of, too.

Last fall, Trang helped her brother, Khang, now 19, get settled at UC Santa Cruz. This fall, she will lend a hand to her 18-year-old sister, Nhung, who will join Trang in attending UC Berkeley and who plans to study business.

Trang also will tutor her 16-year-old sister, preparing her for the SAT, in hopes of earning another Nguyen a spot in the UC system. "She wants to go to a UC also," Trang said. "I think that's going to be a family tradition, we're all going to go to UCs. So far, I've gotten half of us in!"

She hopes to ultimately replace her rented apartment with a three- to four-bedroom permanent residence that the entire family can call home while attending college, looking for work or just spending time together during summer breaks and holidays.

Trang said she wants her siblings "to grow up to be happy, healthy and successful. That's all any parent wants for their kids."

She and the two siblings currently living with her and her boyfriend have an altar at home. They pray daily to their parents, telling them about their lives and asking for help.

"Our parents are not here with us physically any more," Trang said, "but we believe they are watching over us in spirit, and they continue to guide us along our path."

Trang hopes that eventually investigators will find the man who killed her parents. Sacramento County Sheriff's Sgt. Craig Hill said three people remain assigned to the case.

The murderer, seen on a shop surveillance tape, is described as a slender Asian male between the ages of 17 and 25, and between 5-foot-2 and 5-foot-6. He wore a baseball cap and kept his face turned from other shoppers when they entered the jewelry store. After browsing around the store and chatting with the Nguyens, he went with them into a back room where he shot both of them and fled. Investigators recently announced that he left behind a size 3 diamond solitaire ring appraised at $5,600.

"The Asian community lives in a cloak of silence, we want to forget things that are bad, and we want to move on with our lives. I can't," said Trang. "I know people probably have information."

Hue Nguyenand Loi Thi Ngo immigrated to the United States from Vietnam a year after the fall of Saigon. Trang said her father paid his way through high school in Vietnam by tutoring other students. Although he dreamed of becoming a mathematics professor, the dream was cut short when he was drafted into the Vietnamese army. Her mother couldn't afford high school in her homeland, which lacked a public school system.

The couple did not leave their children a will, life insurance or great wealth; they left an intense respect for the value of education.

"We just couldn't imagine doing anything else but going to college," said Trang. "Our parents were so adamant about us getting an education."

To do that, the Nguyen children study and work hard. Trang works about 20 hours a week during the fall and spring semesters, and up to 40 hours a week in the summer. Her brother in Santa Cruz has late-night jobs and a paper route. The 18-year-old sister does babysitting and is a restaurant hostess. The 16-year-old has a retail job. The 15-year-old babysits to earn spending money. Only the 13-year-old doesn't work, yet.

Trang receives $20 a month in Social Security payments each for the 13-year-old and 15-year-old. Although she is the guardian of the 16-year-old, she gets no federal assistance for her because the girl does not live with Trang. The family gets $300 a month for each of the two minor children living with Trang, and she has divided the total among the four youngest siblings .

The family also relies on some student loans, scholarships and the Nguyen Memorial Fund established by C.K. McClatchy High School in Sacramento. "Honestly, without that (fund), I don't know how we would have gotten by," Trang said.

Big universities are often stereotyped as impersonal and uncaring, but Trang said UC Berkeley acted immediately to provide emotional and financial help. The library staff, hearing of her plight, chipped in $1,000 for emergency money for the children while the memorial fund was being established by the high school. The Office of Undergraduate Affairs helped guide Trang through those early days, and she was referred to the Tang Center for counseling.

"I gave up fun for a while," she said. "Those first few months were very hard."
Counselors advised Trang to ease up and take better care of herself in order to better tend to her siblings. Now Trang sets aside a few hours every week for herself. She said she arranges for a sitter and goes to the movies or bowling, "doing the regular things that college students do." But it's not easy, she said, because she doesn't have time for leisure like most of her peers.

Her young siblings stay with family friends on occasions when Trang sings in karaoke clubs in the Sacramento and Bay areas. She also writes her own songs and plans to release an introductory CD later this month, "Deep Inside." That is also the name of a song she wrote in memory of her parents, who introduced her to karaoke when she was just 7. Music, Trang said, is an important emotional outlet for her.

Asked where she sees herself in nine years, the time she estimates it will take for all her siblings to finish college, Trang smiled.

"Hopefully, I will be established in my career, I'll be more at peace," she said. "I want to travel the world - I've never been outside California." And she hopes that she and her brothers and sisters will occasionally meet for coffee and that "one day we'll all sit around the table and look at ourselves and be proud of what we've accomplished."

Contributions to the Nguyen Memorial Fund can be sent to the attention of Jennifer Cook, C.K. McClatchy High School, 3066 Freeport Blvd., Sacramento, CA 95818.

There is a $60,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the murderer of Trang's parents, thanks to $50,000 offered by the governor's office and $10,000 from the Sacramento Asian Community Police Officers Association. Anyone with information about the case can call the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department at (916) 874-5515.