Duke Truong's Freedom Ride

A precocious refugee from Vietnam sought a fast track to the American Dream. He found prison instead.

That September Duke and Vinh hooked up with a friend of theirs, Minh (Duke says can't remember his last name), who was a couple of years older than the two engineering students and who had just purchased a 1965 Mustang. Up until then the boys had been able to see Houston only from the window of a Metro bus. Now, they were mobile.

"We had this little car," says Duke. "We could finally do things. Look at us! It was the greatest thing that ever happened to us."

Two weeks after the start of fall classes, according to Duke, Minh decided to drive to San Antonio, ostensibly to borrow some money to buy a sound system for his new car. Duke and Vinh went along for the ride. On the rainy evening, somewhere outside San Antonio on Interstate 10, the car went into a spin and slid off a bridge, landing in a stream. Only Duke made it out alive, suffering a few minor cuts. He says he was overwhelmed with survivor's guilt. Just like Duke, Vinh had been the oldest male in his family -- the person counted on to do something great, and to help his brothers and sisters.

The Houston Post story on Duke changed his life.
The Houston Post story on Duke changed his life.

"When Vinh passed away," says Duke, "it really crushed his family, and it put a lot of responsibility on me. I was still alive and enjoying life, but I felt so guilty. One time later I saw his mom at a mall, and she just looked at me and started crying. It was so painful to see her. I just said hello and disappeared."

After the accident, an HISD counselor was assigned to Duke, and he attended a special school for kids in crisis for a few weeks. But after returning to regular classes, Duke saw his grades decline. Then, in 1992, just a couple of months before his graduation from high school, Duke, along with the rest of his siblings, was dealt another setback when their father suffered a fatal heart attack. The death left both Duke and his mother stunned. Tony's control over the family's finances had been so total that no one else in the Truong home even knew how to pay a bill. When Duke took a bill and some cash and asked one of his teachers to pay the account for him, the instructor asked the boy if he had run away from home. Only then did school officials learn of the Truong family's private pain.

Tony Truong's death also jeopardized his dream of putting his children through college. Duke was mere months away from a post-secondary education, and his sister, Victoria, was just a year away from college herself.

"We didn't know how we were going to do it, or what was going to become of our family," says Duke.

Despite their fear and grief, the Truongs moved forward. Duke's mother, who had left the bakery, got a manicurist's license and went back to work. Duke had wanted to attend the University of Texas at Austin, but instead enrolled at the University of Houston-Downtown. His junior year he transferred to the university's central campus.

Although his parents wanted him to be an engineer, and although he attended a high school with an emphasis on engineering, Duke developed an interest in computers. He recalls an early trip to the downtown library, when a librarian told him that all those books he was reading would one day be on computers. The forecast made an impression on him.

With the hope of qualifying for UH's Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, Duke set up his own company, Zygon Marketing. One of the company's projects was the design and production of personalized T-shirts. Through Zygon, Duke became a sort of geek-gone-bad, dealing in the resale of computer software, a venture through which Duke apparently first began to push the boundaries of legality. Duke proudly admits that he and some other hackers -- his "associates" -- would take existing software, "improve" it and then resell it, in probable violation of copyright law. Duke saw Zygon Marketing as a quick ticket to a prosperous and limitless future. He applied for and received his own corporate American Express credit card, a sort of badge of honor for a U.S. businessman and the means to immediate purchasing power.

For a short time, life was apparently very good for Duke. He was making money. He drove an Acura coupe. He dated lots of women. He even helped found the University of Houston chapter of Lambda Phi Epsilon, an Asian fraternity. One of Duke's fraternity brothers, who asked not to be identified, says Duke was flashy.

"He liked to come off as a player, but he was also a gentleman," says the fraternity member. "But he also relied a lot on his charm."

His charm, however, was about to run dry.

During his prison interview with the Houston Press, Duke beams with pride while recalling his halcyon days as a mini-mogul of the software world, staying out late at after-hours clubs such as Tantra and Club Some. It is one of the few times during the interview he ever smiles. When it comes to answering hard questions about his arrests, Duke is less forthcoming. His answers to queries about the deeds that actually landed him in prison are vague or contradictory, and when pressed for clarification, he physically withdraws within himself, like a turtle into its shell.
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