Duke Truong's Freedom Ride

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

During the confrontation, Barriga says, Duke seemed torn about what tact to take. At one point he put the gun to her head. Then a few seconds later he put the gun down. He asked about how her children were doing, and if there wasn't some way they could just talk this thing out.

"He'd say he wasn't going to hurt me, then turn around and say that if I called anyone he'd kill me," says Barriga. "It was kind of like he couldn't decide whether he wanted to be the bad guy or the good guy."

Barriga was scared and angry at the same time, and when Duke didn't have the gun on her she was screaming at him to get out of her house. When he finally did leave, Barriga called the police. Duke turned himself in the next day. Five months later he again pleaded guilty before Judge Shaver.

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

As with his earlier guilty plea, Duke now insists that he is innocent of the assault charges. He admits going to Barriga's home but says that he went there at her request. He claims that when Texas Special Olympics was relocating to another office in its building, Barriga asked him to help move some of the furniture. In exchange for moving the furniture, Duke says, Barriga promised him that she would tell his probation officer that he had completed his community service hours. (Duke told the Press that he needed only eight hours to fulfill his community service hours. Probation department records indicate that number was closer to 70.) A couple of days later, he says, Barriga asked him to stop by her house to sign papers that would show his community service work had been completed. But when he got there, he says, she reneged on the deal. Duke concedes that a heated argument ensued, but he denies pulling a gun on Barriga. However, he admits he did carry a pistol for protection -- protection from people who he says were jealous of his lifestyle.

"When I went out [on the town], not a lot of people like what I do," says Duke. "I had a lot of girlfriends. I was young, and I went out a lot. I partied a lot. I was 24 years old and on top of the world. I was making money, and I liked to celebrate."

The money, says Duke, came from a couple of sources. In addition to his studies and his community service work, he says, he had developed a little laptop computer sales business on the side. He bought Toshiba laptops wholesale and then jacked up the prices to his customers. "Toshibas are very user-friendly," he says, smiling ever so slightly.

What's more, he proudly and voluntarily boasts that he was involved in an "ambulance-chasing" scheme, apparently blissfully ignorant that rounding up accident victims for attorneys is illegal.

But while he may not have known the illegality of barratry, Duke insists he did not assault Barriga or force his way into her home. In fact, when he left her house that afternoon, Duke says, he told Barriga that he was going to report her to probation department officials. Unfortunately for Duke, she beat him to the punch, and a warrant was issued for his arrest. He says he pleaded guilty because his attorney convinced him that he could not beat the rap, and that he should take the best deal possible. Aggravated assault and burglary carry a combined maximum sentence of life in prison. When the Harris County district attorney's office offered an eight-year sentence in exchange for Duke's guilty plea, Duke says, his attorney urged him to take it.

Brian Coyne, the attorney who represented Duke, declined to comment on the case, explaining that he has a policy of not discussing his clients' affairs with the media. However, former assistant district attorney Brendan Gowing, now in private practice, says he never doubted Barriga's version of what happened at her house. He also says that just after Duke's arrest, Duke tried to convince him that Duke was the father of Barriga's child, but later admitted that was a lie.

Nor does Duke's portrayal of himself as a naive youth overmatched and victimized by the American justice system ring true, especially in light of the fact that he had beaten the system several years earlier. According to Harris County criminal court records, in September 1994, five months before his arrest for credit card abuse and computer theft, Duke was charged with the theft of an undisclosed item or items with a value of between $20 and $500, a class B misdemeanor. On that occasion, Duke elected to go to trial and was eventually acquitted.

It's hard to ignore three arrests in two years, but each time Duke gets in trouble he points the finger at someone else. He is either very persecuted or very troubled.

Duke Truong has been imprisoned since his last arrest, in March 1997, a fact he hid from his good friend Alice Freel until last summer, when he finally caved in to pressure from his sister, Victoria, who is now a pharmacist. For two years, when Freel would inquire about Duke, Victoria and the other Truong children would cover for their incarcerated brother by telling Freel that Duke was frequently out of town on business. Finally, however, Victoria told Duke that he had to come clean with Freel before it was too late.
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