Duke Truong's Freedom Ride

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

Duke dodged his first legal bullet in September 1994, but his felony problems began in February 1995 when he was charged with felony theft. According to court documents, approximately two months earlier Duke had convinced one of his associates, Arnold Febre, to take two credit cards belonging to Duke and purchase four computer printers, a monitor and a modem at an Office Max store on the Gulf Freeway. Duke explained to Febre that he would then report the cards as stolen to the credit card companies so that the equipment would not be billed to his account. Office Max, however, apparently got wise to the scam and contacted the authorities. The Houston Police Department then put the squeeze on Febre, although it's unclear how they caught up with him. With an officer listening in, Febre telephoned Duke, who proceeded to incriminate himself during the conversation.

In May 1995 state District Judge Doug Shaver sentenced Duke to two years' deferred adjudication, $5,000 restitution and 300 hours of community service work. The sentence was handed down after he pleaded guilty to the charges. Duke still insists he is innocent. However, his explanation of the events is downright nonsensical.

According to Duke, what actually happened was that Febre stole his credit cards and his checkbook during gym class a couple of months before the computer purchases. Duke says he didn't learn of the theft until the woman who lived next door to him told him about it the day before his own arrest. His neighbor learned of the theft, says Duke, because she just happened to be dating Febre. Although he had lived next door to the woman for several years, and had been in business with Febre for a couple of months, Duke says he had no idea the two were seeing each other. Additionally, he says, he didn't confront Febre when told of the credit card theft "out of respect for her."

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

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By the time he finishes the story, Duke is no longer making eye contact with the questioner and is damn near in the fetal position. As he continues his story about his brush with the law, each word seems to have less veracity than the one before it. His next tale also stretches credibility.

In early 1997 Duke was making good progress toward fulfilling the terms of his probation. He had completed more than 200 of his 300 hours of community service and had repaid the cost of the stolen computer equipment. He was well on his way to completing his deferred adjudication, which meant the crime would be removed from his record.

But in March 1997 the wheels came off when Duke was charged with burglary and aggravated assault. Amazingly, the incident involved the woman responsible for keeping track of Duke's community service hours at Texas Special Olympics.

By all accounts, during the previous two years Duke had been doing well in his role as clerical grunt at Texas Special Olympics: stuffing envelopes, answering phones or doing whatever needed to be done at the organization's Houston office on Fondren. Even the woman with whom he got crosswise, Heidi Barriga, says Duke had become a trusted and valued worker.

"When I told people at work what happened," says Barriga, "he was the last person anyone would have suspected to do it. It was a big shock."

In fact, says Barriga, Duke had been around the organization for so long, and was so highly thought of, that he was treated differently from other people sent there to do their community service work. For example, if Duke had homework, she says, he would be allowed to tend to his studies while answering the phone. This special treatment was apparently also the root of the problem. According to Barriga, Duke began taking advantage of his status. After Barriga became pregnant around the first part of the year, she was frequently at the doctor's office. She says others in the office told her that Duke took advantage of her absences by signing in when she was gone, then immediately leaving for the rest of the day. Around the same time, some of the petty cash in the office began to disappear.

Finally Barriga decided to confront Duke about the situation and left him a note informing him he was not going to get credit for the time he was not there, and that they needed to talk. But when they finally did talk, it was not under the circumstances Barriga expected.

On a weekday afternoon that March, Barriga pulled into the driveway of her Meyerland-area home with her two children, ages five and six. Since she badly needed to use the restroom, she hurriedly made her way inside. On her way to the bathroom, she realized she had left the door to the garage open. In order to keep her kids from wandering outside, she went back to close it. When she got there, she saw Duke standing in the doorway. He brandished a pistol and pushed his way inside.

"He started telling me that having to do these community service hours was ruining his life," says Barriga, "and that he wanted a letter saying that he had completed all of his hours."

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