Little Boy Lust

How a Denver teacher of the year victimized a Vietnamese immigrant family.

When their son's teacher came into the room one day this spring, Duc and Mai Tran stood out of respect. They smiled an almost embarrassed smile, waved and bowed their heads.

Nothing unusual about that, says Diana Nga Miller, vice-president of a community support group for Vietnamese immigrants to Colorado. "We have an expression," says Miller, "that God is first, and then the teacher, then the parents, then the other family and community, and then you are on the bottom. The teacher has absolute power."

So because bowing and being respectful are expected, that is what the parents did. It did not matter to them that teacher Ava Owens was led into the room in shackles, or that the room was Courtroom 10 of Denver District Court. It did not even matter that the 38-year-old former DPS teacher of the year was there to be sentenced because she had admitted to a half-dozen sexual assaults on their son, who at the time was twelve years old and not yet four feet tall.

Owens responded in kind. She smiled and waved back. She wound up being sentenced to ten years in prison.

Before Saigon fell under communist control on April 30, 1975, the war between the north and the south in Vietnam was fought with friends and relatives on both sides of the battle.

Even so, the Tran family (their names have been changed at the family's request) was as unaffected by the war as possible for a family living within earshot of the bombings. Duc was a low-level civilian government employee, and Mai stayed home with the children. Their sympathies lay more or less with the government of the south, but they say they had no particular beef with the communists.

It soon became clear that Saigon would be taken over by the North Vietnamese government. The Trans had a chance to leave but decided to stay. "They asked us to stay and help rebuild the country," Duc Tran says through an interpreter. "Our thought was that this is our country and we should stay to help."

It didn't take long for them to realize that staying had been a mistake.
Everyone expected reprisals against the members of the conquered South Vietnamese army, but as a civilian, Duc figured he was more or less safe. He was not.

Shortly after the communist takeover, the family got word that because he was a former government employee, Duc would have to attend a "re-education camp" for two weeks. After that, he could get a job with the new government and his children could go back to school.

The first sign of trouble was Duc's entry to the re-education camp. Rather than wait for him to show up, armed soldiers came looking for him at his house. Soldiers rousted him out of bed, shackled him and took him off in a truck, leaving his wife and children behind.

He was taken to an island prison camp in the South China Sea known as Con Dao. Miller says many Vietnamese males over the age of forty in Denver today once spent time at Con Dao.

The French built Con Dao as a prison in 1862 to house those Vietnamese who didn't enjoy French rule. Later, the South Vietnamese government used it as a prison camp during the war with the north. After the communists took over the country in 1975, political prisoners were sent to Con Dao. Under communist rule, there were as many as 30,000 prisoners at a time on this small island, undergoing what was called, without irony, "re-education." Duc wants to make sure that the translator has not misinterpreted his words. "In reality, it is a prison," he says. "It is not a school."

To illustrate how big his "tiger cage" bamboo cell was, he spreads out his weathered hands, thumbs touching. The width of his space in the dirt was the span of his spread-out hands.

For food, he depended on his wife to come by boat and bring him pork and fish, cured in salt so that it wouldn't go bad in the stifling heat. "They did not allow us rice, because they thought it would somehow make it so we could escape," he says. He ate the bugs that wandered through his cell and whatever would grow out of the dirt floor.

Looking back on his time in prison, he says it could have been worse. He didn't die of dysentery or starvation, as many of his fellow inmates did. He was beaten, but not as severely as the Army of the Republic of Vietnam veterans. He knows many people who were no more "guilty" than he who spent ten years or more at Con Dao and other camps. He was released after having served less than seven years.

But after he was released, he faced a new set of problems.
Once Duc was out of the prison, officials stamped the word nguy ("traitor") on all of his documents. It meant that he couldn't get a job with the government, and because nearly all industry had been nationalized, almost all of the non-government jobs that were available were menial ones. He couldn't own property, and the traditionally tight-knit Vietnamese society made it impossible for him to meet new friends who were not also nguy. Whenever there would be a border skirmish with China or Cambodia, he would be taken in and detained for days or weeks.

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