Valley story: Vietnam refugee dies homeless in Canoga Park for decades

jolly-donuts-dn-crane.jpgTuan Nguyen slept and watched out for the shopkeepers around Roscoe Boulevard and Winnetka for the last three decades or so. He died October 4 when a driver plowed through the window of Jolly Donuts at DeSoto Avenue, hitting Nguyen as he sat in his favorite nightly seat, near the outlet where he could charge his cellphone. The phone had no contacts, no record of calls made. His family died at sea escaping from Vietnam. He used the phone for playing games. In his pockets were old lottery scratchers and $350 in cash.

A Daily News story by David Montero examines the coroner's challenge in identifying Nguyen, who's officially listed as a John Doe, and the connections people in Canoga Park felt to a man they got to know a little.

Complicating matters was the crime-free life Nguyen lived. In more than three decades living homeless in the Canoga Park area, he’d never been arrested. No arrests meant no fingerprint hits in the system. To the computers, the existence of a body without a name wasn’t proof a life was lived.

In the three weeks since he was killed when a 42-year-old driver ran her SUV through the front doors of Jolly Donuts on the corner of Roscoe Boulevard and DeSoto Avenue, no family has come to identify or claim him. Los Angeles Police Department authorities have said the investigation is ongoing and don’t believe the driver, Kristin Chang, was impaired by drugs or alcohol.

That he was still unidentified bothered Lori Huynh because she knew he was more than a blue toe tag on a body and a green sheet filed in a box at the medical examiner’s office.

He had a life. She’d seen it unfold over 20 years almost every day at the corner of Roscoe Boulevard and Winnetka Avenue. She knew it because she’d taken time to get to know him. And his story of coming to the United States as a refugee from Vietnam after the fall of Saigon resonated with her because it was a version of her story, too.

I noticed the story on Facebook, where it was getting rave reviews. "This is one of the best stories I"ve read in a long time, both for great detail and storytelling as well as for the fact that the reporter is clearly embedded locally - which is the way you find these kinds of stories," says Sam Quinones, the author and former LA Times reporter.

Adds Brent Hopkins, a former Daily News reporter who now patrols for the LAPD: "This is a great story-- an example of the good work newspapers still do and a reporter who cared to find a good story."

Daily News photo of Jolly Donuts damage, by David Crane

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