Duke Truong's Freedom Ride

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

But even after confessing to Freel that he was in prison, Duke was still being evasive with her, as recently as March, about the events that sent him to jail.

"I am ashamed for being less than forthcoming about my credit card offense," wrote Duke in a letter to Freel, "but it is a greater shame to elaborate about [it] without a firm holding of the facts, documents and records. I cannot make clear of the credit card offense because I can't remember the facts -- and to elaborate on what I am not sure of will lead to more questions and speculations."

Despite Duke's obvious dodge of her questions, Alice Freel appears to be a very forgiving woman, and a very loyal friend. Overlooking the holes in his stories, his lack of candor and the fact that he has twice pled guilty to felonies, Freel insists that it is Duke who is the victim.

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

"I am convinced Duke was railroaded by [Barriga], who knew she had done the wrong thing and was afraid he would report her and she would get in trouble," says Freel. "She said to herself, 'Who would believe this little Asian boy who is already in a bit of trouble? They'll certainly believe me. They'll believe whatever I say.' That's the way I can see the whole situation. That's my view of it. Duke is my dear friend, and I want to help him any way I can."

In an attempt to help her friend, Freel decided in February to contact Gangelhoff, who wrote the Post article about Duke, in hopes that she might write another story. These days Gangelhoff is an editor at Southwest Art magazine, so she passed Freel's letter on to the Press. Several weeks after her inquiries, however, Freel suddenly had second thoughts about whether she wanted a story published, since the Truong family refused to be interviewed -- even after Duke encouraged them to cooperate.

From his cell in the Roach Unit, Duke Truong looks out a small window and watches small planes land and take off again from a distant airfield. Some of them spray pesticides on the cotton fields that seem to stretch forever.

When he first came to prison, Truong says, the boredom nearly drove him insane. Childress is almost 500 miles from Houston, and his family has been able to make the trip only once. To pass the time, he became a frequent visitor to the prison law library and filed numerous writs challenging his incarceration. In one Truong admits, although he doesn't concede guilt, that prescription pain medicine may have impaired his thinking during his confrontation with Heidi Barriga.

Truong also notes that ever since he informed Alice Freel about his situation, doing time has become a bit easier. The two write each other almost weekly. Her letters, he says, have inspired him to make the best of the situation. For the first time in a long time, perhaps since his days at Allen Parkway Village and the downtown library, he is reading for pleasure again. His reading list includes numerous books on art, a biography of Bill Gates and subscriptions to Newsweek, Time, Wired and, of course, Penthouse.

He also thinks about how his situation and Freel's are not that dissimilar, that in a sense they are both prisoners: he of the state, she of old age. Now, more than ever, he appreciates Freel's friendship.

"She is my spirit, and she gives me a reason to fight this," says Truong.

But there's also a parallel between Duke Truong and the two countries he has called home: Twenty-five years after the fact, the United States continues to grapple with its role in the only war it ever lost, never quite admitting to many of the offenses it has been accused of. Truong would appear to be in a similar situation. It has taken him two years to come clean with Freel about his crimes. Maybe he should come clean with himself.

E-mail Steve McVicker at steve.mcvicker@houstonpress.com .

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