By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
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By Angelica Leicht
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By Sean Pendergast
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In 1978 Duke Truong and his family risked their lives to flee their native Vietnam and avoid persecution from a ruling government that was none too kind to American sympathizers. Their plan was simple: set a course for the United States in search of the political freedom and economic opportunity unavailable to them in their home country. Now, 25 years after the fall of Saigon, Duke Truong would have you believe that freedom is a relative thing, no matter what country you call home. The 27-year-old finds himself incarcerated at the T.L. Roach Unit outside Childress after perhaps pursuing his American dreams too vigorously. During a two-year span, the quiet, well-mannered Truong was arrested three times: twice for theft and once for burglary and aggravated assault, and is serving an eight-year sentence. In each case, he claims that he was wrongly accused, that he was coerced into pleading guilty, as if he had lost his freedom in a complex American judicial system, one he used to hold in high regard.
Truong, it would seem, either is the victim of really bad luck, or is a really bad liar.
In a blue and white interview room in the Texas prison near the Red River, Truong looks like a teenager, and occasionally weeps like a baby. Stopping frequently to wipe away the tears from his eyes and blow his nose, he talks about his delayed, if not shattered, dream of becoming a business entrepreneur, about opportunities lost and friendships severed -- and about his own 15 minutes of fame.
At the age of 12, while living in the Allen Parkway Village housing project, Truong caught the interest of librarians as he led his three younger brothers and sister on their daily sojourn to the downtown library in a quest for knowledge. Their story was brought to the attention of a reporter from The Houston Post, and the paper put him on the cover of its Sunday magazine. The Truong family's saga intrigued several area educators, who pushed him to excel. He virtually became their cause. Truong was accepted into Houston Independent School District's magnet school for the engineering profession. At the University of Houston, he attended business classes; he also helped found a fraternity of Asian students and ran a T-shirt printing business on the side with the goal of qualifying for the university's entrepreneur program -- a fast track for the young would-be businessman.
But Truong came of age during a time known for its greed and in a city known for its conspicuous consumption; his love of quick money, fancy cars and attractive women made the boyishly handsome Truong a poster boy for the American male cruising in life's fast lane. Yet it still wasn't fast enough. Truong apparently decided to take a speedier, if not entirely legal, track in pursuit of his goals. In 1995 he received deferred adjudication, two years' probation and 300 hours of community service work after pleading guilty to credit card fraud involving the purchase of some computers. Less than two years later Truong was in even more serious trouble, this time after allegedly forcing his way into the home of the woman for whom he was doing his community service work and putting a pistol to her head. Once again Truong pleaded guilty. Although his family refuses to discuss his situation, at least one person truly believes, like Duke Truong himself, that the young man is innocent.
"It's just a gut feeling, but I am convinced Duke was railroaded," says Alice Freel, a retired English teacher who informally adopted the Truong family after reading about them in the Post.
Despite Freel's intuition about him, Truong is no longer on the fast track, and his runaway train of a life will remain derailed for some time to come. It will be another year at least -- he is eligible for parole in spring 2001 -- before he will be going home. For now, his dreams of a corner office and his own business remain on hold, as far away as his native Vietnam, while he does his time in a Texas Department of Criminal Justice prison cell.
After the fall of Saigon in 1975, the Truong family, fearing that anyone with ties to the United States would be placed in a concentration camp, fled to the countryside. Duke's father, a former soldier in the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese army, worked as a fisherman while searching for information about boats that took refugees out of the country and to the safety of United Nations camps in nearby Thailand. It would be three years before they would get their chance to slip away. They knew the escape was dangerous, that they would likely drown or be killed by either the Vietnamese military or floating groups of bandits.
It was sometime in 1978 -- he doesn't remember the month, but he was not yet six years old -- when Duke's mother awoke her children in the middle of the night and told them they were going to visit their grandmother in Saigon.