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.
But worst of all, says Duc, is that nguy was also stamped on the official papers of his children, meaning they would be kept in the worst schools and would never be allowed to advance past the ninth grade.
"The only way we could get freedom for our children to learn and have opportunity to grow," says Duc, "was to leave the country."
While the Trans worked on leaving Vietnam, the woman who was to invade their lives in America was well on her way to becoming an award-winning teacher.
Ava Jorene Sayles grew up in New Mexico, graduated from New Mexico State University in the spring of 1981, and was married to Eli Owens that August. At the end of that same month, she began teaching in the Denver Public Schools, where she would remain for her entire career. She worked at a couple of different elementary schools before landing at Charlotte Godsman Elementary School in southwest Denver in the fall of 1987.
Other teachers and some students enthusiastically praised Owens's work as a teacher, especially in an inch-thick application package supporting her nomination in early 1994 to be named a DPS teacher of the year.
Owens was so good, apparently, that she moved her principal, Sandy Shane, to poetry:
Imagine a joyous face
A teacher holding paper rolled up like a cone
She puts the paper in the tub
Around and around it goes
Out she pulls COTTON CANDY
Students grab the product
They hurry calling
"COTTON CANDY for sale"
Money for a week long trip is the plan
Three hundred people file out
Fire trucks arrive
The COTTON CANDY machine set off the ALARM
AVA OWENS is the teacher
Everyday in her classroom is COTTON CANDY
Then the ALARM goes off in a child's head
Other letters in Ava Owens's nomination packet spoke in glowing terms about her dedication to students and the school. She served on various committees and was a coach for Odyssey of the Mind, a competition meant to stimulate creativity by having students write and perform a skit. It typically involves several months of after-school meetings for the team of eight students and the coach.
Parents also wrote in support of Owens, including one who said, "Mrs. Owens has my total trust and confidence as a teacher, which I might add I do not give freely, for me this must be earned."
Other teachers noted that she came to work early, stayed late and kept an extensive personal library of books that she lent out freely to other teachers and students. Some praised her ingenuity, citing examples such as the time during an astronomy lesson that she arranged the desks in her classroom as the planets revolving around the sun, with her own desk as the sun. And others marveled at her ability to mix topics such as geography and math by having students plan trips around the world and figure their costs.
The teacher's personal touch was especially appreciated. "Mrs. Owens calls each and every one of her students before the school year starts," one supporter enthused, "just to let them know how excited she is! Then throughout the year, she continues these phone calls. She is able to relate personally, socially and privately through this commitment! She spends a lot of time outside school hours with her students. She takes them all over the city of Denver. This gives her the time and privacy to share her inner self with her students. They share themselves in return. 'I'm myself in the classroom,' Mrs. Owens says. 'It's important that they get to know me. I'm one of them.'"
In April 1994, Ava Owens was selected as a teacher of the year, one of only eighteen educators honored among DPS's 115 schools.
It was only after her world fell apart that a counselor hired by Owens's defense team to analyze her behavior found fault with the teacher's hands-on approach.
"In her classroom, she would abandon the role of the teacher and became a 'mother,'" the counselor, Cynthia T. Jamison, wrote in an evaluation obtained by Westword. "She felt important, loved and also in control. Ava acted inappropriately in the classroom giving kisses on the cheeks of 'her family' as well as taking them outside the classroom to special activities."
The same document brands Ava Owens as a pedophile.
The Tran family arrived in America in late 1995 with relatively little trouble, compared with the harrowing escapes many of their friends had to make. Having qualified for a special U.S. program for refugees of the re-education camps, they came to Denver, where they heard there was a big population of families just like them.
U.S. immigration policy forced them to leave behind their older children--the ones born before Duc's imprisonment. The two younger ones, however, would have no chance at a future if they didn't leave, so the Trans said goodbye to their grown children and came to America.
They arrived in Denver with no money and no knowledge of English. However, they quickly made friends in the city's growing Vietnamese community on the west side. The Trans enrolled in English classes, and Duc got a job in construction. They say their first and most important goal was to get their two children into school.
Education was important to them, not only because it is highly valued in traditional Vietnamese families, but because they saw it as their key to success in America.
"The Vietnamese pretty much think that if you are not learning, you should do society a favor and get out of the way--you know, just die," Miller says.
She tells a story she says is typical: She once brought home a test with a score of 99. Rather than congratulate her on receiving the highest score in the class, her father grilled her for the entire night about why she had a point taken off, what she learned from it and how she could avoid having it happen in the future.
In her culture, Miller says, anything less than perfection reflects poorly on the family. "You can kind of resent it after a while," she says. "They are always telling you that you are going to bring shame on the parents, on the grandparents and on these other relatives that have been dead for a hundred years."
Young Dinh Tran was under the same pressure. His father is emphatic in saying that his is a traditional Vietnamese family, one that emphasizes obedience and education.
Dinh was twelve in the fall of 1995, but he was dwarfed by the other kids in Ava Owens's combined fourth- and fifth-grade class. Although he didn't speak the language well, his classwork was good and he was making friends, his family says.
Owens was not a bilingual teacher, but Dinh's English improved, and with the help of smiles and hand gestures, he was able to communicate with her. During the school year, she would take him to a movie or to Elitch Gardens, sometimes with other kids and sometimes alone. She also had students over to her house. The teacher, childless herself, later told authorities that she developed a special bond with a handful of male and female students who became like "family" to her and whom she escorted to various activities. According to Owens, Dinh became one of the "family."
The Trans were honored. Duc says that when he saw the teacher paying attention to his son, he was comforted. "Wow," he says his thoughts went at the time, "America is just exactly the same as Vietnam. People will reach out to help other people."
So because of their respect for the teacher and their excitement about what they saw as an honor for their son, they allowed the boy to stay out late--sometimes very late--with the teacher.
His mother says she told her son exactly how he should treat Owens: "I said to him, 'You are to think of her like your second mother. You listen to her and do whatever she says.'"
Things began to go wrong, Ava Owens later told police, while she was teaching sex education to her students. She told police that her "relationship" with Dinh began around that time, although they had no sexual contact until after school was out for the summer of 1996.
Maybe the classwork stirred old memories for the teacher. In a pre-sentence interview, she recalled childhood incidents of fondling other children and of simulating intercourse with her clothes on while she was an elementary-school pupil.
Owens also reported a strong sex drive. She was sexually active by the time she was in junior high, and in college, she sought out athletes and numerous other popular men on campus for her sexual pleasure. In the pre-sentence interview, Owens also recalled being sexually attracted to children while she was a college student but said that she never acted on those urges.
One evening after the school year ended, Owens later told police, she took Dinh out after getting permission from his parents. They went to a movie and then to Ruby Hill Park in southwest Denver. While sitting in the park, the teacher began kissing and rubbing her student, and she guided his hands to rub her. With her clothes still on, she straddled the 45-pound boy, rubbing herself on his midsection until she had an orgasm.
A few days later Owens took the boy to her apartment for lunch. They both removed all of their clothing except for their underwear and again had simulated intercourse. She says she reached orgasm and then got dressed and took him home.
In the next incident, Owens picked up the boy for what sounds a lot like a college date. They went to a movie at the Tivoli complex, then went to the parking lot, where she kissed him and rubbed his genitals while guiding his hands to do the same for her. Then she took him home to his unsuspecting parents.
Their next "date" was at the Cinderella Twin Drive-In Theater, where they watched a movie and engaged in more heavy petting. After that came a trip to the Cherry Creek Mall, where they had simulated sex with their underwear on in Owens's red 1995 Honda, which was parked in the mall parking lot.
Her last day with the boy--Saturday, July 6, 1996--was a long one. Owens picked Dinh up about noon, and the two went to several of the places they had been before, including Elitch's, the Tivoli and the Cinderella Twin Drive-In. On the way home they went to a Burger King. As the hour approached midnight, Owens drove the boy to Ruby Hill Park.
Ruby Hill offers a great view of the city and has a well-earned reputation as a makeout haven. More recently, it has become a park where cops can often bust a few curfew violators. On that night, officers were cruising the park shortly after midnight when they spotted a red Honda with someone inside.
When the police approached the car, Owens immediately sat upright in the driver's seat. She was wearing a white T-shirt. Her shorts and her underwear were down around her ankles. An officer then noticed what he described as a "small Asian boy" in the passenger seat.
The officer told both of them to get out of the car and told Owens to pull up her pants. Dinh explained, "We came here so we can go pee." The officer then told the boy to get his shorts and underwear out of the back seat and put them on.
In the police car a few minutes after being arrested, Ava Owens came clean: She told an officer that she had had a "sexual relationship" with the boy for about a month. She told him that she knew the boy's age--although she told them incorrectly that he was thirteen--and that she was his teacher. She also told them she had climaxed several times and then added that she didn't know if the boy had ever reached orgasm, "but apparently not."
Owens was arrested for sexual assault on a child and taken to jail. Her husband bailed her out the next day.
Dinh was not so lucky.
Dinh Tran believed that if you ever get arrested in America, you will immediately go to jail for at least five years and probably longer, depending on how serious the crime is. That's what his friends had told him. When he was riding in the back of the police cruiser, he later told his parents, he thought he had been arrested.
Whether because of the language barrier or because of Dinh's shame, he could not direct the police to his house. He later told his parents what had been running through his head as the cops circled the neighborhood, trying to figure out how to take him home. His father uses his finger to draw an oval on his furrowed forehead to illustrate the thoughts going through his son's mind: "I'm not going to see my family for twenty years, and I'm not going to be able to go back to school."
Diana Nga Miller, who is also a lawyer, says that what may have really happened was that the boy didn't want to shame his family and his ancestors by coming home in a police car.
She recalls representing a group of boys who were hassled by police in front of a Vietnamese grocery store. They were there because they were all driving their mothers to the market, and rather than go inside and shop, they remained outside and talked with one another. One officer came up and made them stand spread-eagled against a wall while several others conducted what was probably an illegal search.
"They told me they weren't worried about the illegal search or anything," says Miller. "They just didn't want their mothers to see because they would get in so much trouble with their mothers for bringing shame to the family."
In Dinh Tran's case, he may have just been reluctant to say anything because he thought he had been arrested. He never did make it home that night. The police took him to the Family Crisis Center, a 22-bed intake center operated by Denver Social Services in cooperation with the police, Denver Health and DPS. Most of the children taken to the center are victims of abuse at the hands of a parent or guardian, making it unsafe for them to go home. They may stay at the center for up to thirty days while social workers figure out if they can go home or if they need to go to permanent foster care.
Dinh Tran had not been abused by a parent, and his home was perfectly safe, but police couldn't figure out any other place to take him, so they took him there.
Once at the Family Crisis Center, he was likely treated the same as all other new arrivals, who are given a medical exam, some pajamas and a place to sleep.
By early Sunday morning, his parents were frantic. The Trans tried to call police, but because of language problems, they say, they couldn't find anything out. The tried to call Ava Owens but got no answer.
Nobody working at the Family Crisis Center was able to figure out how to get the boy home, either, so he ended up spending Sunday night in this place that he was convinced was prison.
On Monday a detective came by, accompanied by a translator, to interview the boy. Dinh confirmed what Owens had related concerning the time they had spent together. He added a few details, such as the time at the Cinderella Drive-In when he "fell asleep on [her] tummy." He also said that he had his eyes closed during most of the incidents.
The boy then told the detective that everything that happened was his fault. When he was told that it was Owens who was in trouble and could go to jail, the boy replied, according to police, that "he wants to take the suspect's place in jail because he loves her." He also told a detective that Owens had told him that what they did was bad but that she didn't stop. He then said that he "continued to do these things to make her happy so that she would love him."
The Trans, after talking to police through a translator, finally discovered where Dinh was. When Mai arrived at the Family Crisis Center, however, Dinh couldn't face her. "He told me he didn't want to see me because he did something wrong and now he was in prison," Mai Tran recalls. She still didn't know what had happened, and she thought her son may have been in trouble.
For reasons that are not at all clear, the Family Crisis Center would release the boy only to both parents. A spokeswoman for Denver Social Services and the director of the center both refuse to comment about the case, citing confidentiality rules. It wasn't until Tuesday afternoon before the parents were allowed to take their son home.
The Trans say it was only then that they received from a translator a brief account of what had happened to their boy. Duc says it was only then that they were able to tell their son that he was not in trouble. "You could see in his face the relief," Duc says.
Dinh spent the next month in his room, refusing to come out for meals or to play with friends. That fall he went back to school, but his work slid from the top of his class to the bottom.
Once friendly and unflappable, Dinh started throwing tantrums. He began to yell at his parents, something they say he never did before and would never have done in Vietnam. Miller says she is convinced that he has never really discussed with his parents what happened between him and Ava Owens because of a general taboo in Vietnamese families on talking about sex.
Now the family says they are just interested in doing whatever it takes to help their son regain whatever it was he lost in the clutches of Owens and during what Dinh thought of as his "detention."
"I want to make him whole again," his father says.
But for them, that does not include sending Ava Owens to an extended stretch in prison.
This became a major point of contention for the lawyers dealing with the criminal case. Owens agreed to plead guilty to a charge of a pattern of sexual assault on a child, which carries a mandatory minimum sentence of ten years, rather than go through a jury trial where she could have faced more than thirty years in prison. Stephanie Villafuerte, the deputy district attorney who handled the case, agreed to the deal because it meant certain prison time and eliminated the need to have the boy testify in court.
She refused the pleas of Owens's lawyer, Ed Harris, to sentence Owens to sexual assault on a child by a person in a position of trust--a violation that carries no mandatory minimum sentence. Harris asked for Owens to be charged in a "non-pattern" crime and let a judge make the decision on a sentence. When Harris didn't get the answer he wanted from Villafuerte, he appealed directly to District Attorney Bill Ritter. In a seven-page letter, Owens's attorney emphasized the Trans' unusually forgiving stance regarding Owens. "Although I have sent Ms. Villafuerte a copy of statements from the victim and his family which clearly express their desire for a non-prison sentence in the case," he wrote, "she has chosen somewhat paternalistically to trivialize their position by attributing it to cultural differences between the United States and Vietnam."
Villafuerte says that charge is a thinly veiled accusation of racism, something she says is outrageous. She argues that part of the family's reluctance to want Owens imprisoned is the father's experience in the re-education camps--he doesn't want to send anyone to prison.
Villafuerte also says she thinks that when the Trans asked for leniency, they didn't really know what had happened between Owens and their son. She decided to go to the family's home with a translator. "I read to them in Owens's own words what she did," Villafuerte said during the final sentencing hearing in June. "I looked into those faces and saw so much pain and so much anguish."
The father says he now understands that Owens must go to prison, but he still doesn't see how it will help his son. He was counting on some counseling or other help for Dinh but got nothing.
Miller says the Trans' understanding of the system is still lacking. "They thought the DA was their personal attorney," Miller says. She got in touch with the family only a couple of months ago, after a friend contacted her and told her of their plight. She immediately started intervening on their behalf, trying to get money through a victims' program for counseling for Dinh. She is also working with lawyer Jack Hyland in trying to file a suit against Owens, DPS and others. That suit may go nowhere, however, because the family did not file a notice to sue early enough. Hyland will argue that the language and cultural barriers were so high as to keep the family from exercising its rights, but he adds that governmental immunity laws are difficult to overcome and says he hopes he can just help the family get reimbursed for counseling costs.
Duc Tran says he is interested in suing simply because he wants a return to normalcy for his son, who still will not discuss the Owens episode with him. "He told me that if his friends find out he will kill himself," his mother says.
While the father agreed to be interviewed, he says it was only reluctantly--partly because of a concern for privacy, but also because of a concern about aggravating anti-American sentiments in Denver's Vietnamese community. When a Vietnamese woman was raped by a white man recently, he says, he heard a lot of hateful words by other immigrants toward America. "We love this country, and we want everything to be okay between the Vietnamese and the others," he says.
He also hopes things will be okay for Owens. "We believe in forgiveness," he says, "and we think that if she is forgiven, then our son can get better."
There is no evidence that Ava Owens sexually assaulted other students in the past. But the case of Dinh Tran was enough to cost Owens her career. "As far as we're concerned, we don't need a whole string of them," says Mary Ryder, supervisor of the licensing unit at the Colorado Department of Education.
Nothing in Ava Owens's personnel file indicated past indiscretions with students. That doesn't necessarily mean that nothing ever happened, however. Procedures agreed to by the school board and the Colorado Education Association make it difficult for administrators to put anything negative in a teacher's file, especially if the teacher protests.
But even if Dinh Tran was Owens's first victim, the question remains: Why was there even one?
The answer is not forthcoming from Ava Owens. She refuses Westword's requests for an interview. And her mother apparently does not have an answer, either. In a letter to the court, Georgia Sayles wrote: "I wonder, Ava, Ava, how or why did you do this thing you've done?" The letter also contains this response from daughter to mother: "Mom, I put the Lord on the back burner for a while, and Satan saw his chance."
Reports from counselors who interviewed her and reported to the court do not blame Satan. They do mention some contributing factors. Counselor Cynthia Jamison wrote that Owens began to feel neglected by her husband as he took up outside interests (she and her husband divorced in the months following her arrest). Owens also told Jamison that around the same time she initiated sex with Dinh, she began smoking marijuana again for the first time since her first year of teaching.
Psychological findings were that Owens has a "naive or unsophisticated self image" and that she has "ego deficits which allow her to blur boundaries and incorporate others' feelings and needs as her own." In plainer English, according to Jamison, Owens is a pedophile.
Jamison wrote that while Owens suffers from "a substantial amount of psychological disturbance," she could possibly learn how to control her pedophilia, although the counselor recommends that she not have unsupervised contact with children.
According to Jamison's report of last August 28, Owens "expresses remorse for her actions and claims now that she understands she has done a terrible thing, 'put this on herself' and 'has sinned' and 'caused a child to sin.'" The report also notes that Owens "expresses concern that Dinh's family does not understand the seriousness of the offense and wonders if they know the necessary steps to get Dinh help. She wonders how her inappropriate behavior will affect Dinh's future relationships."
Su Robinson, another therapist who interviewed Owens, won't discuss the case but points to an article she wrote for the newsletter of the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault outlining the differences between male and female sex offenders. Robinson's research of various studies found that while women make up a smaller percentage of those who commit sexual assault, it is still a significant number. And the story describes a "subtype" that seems to fit Owens: "The Teacher/lover offender is a woman who gets involved with latency and adolescent males. She relates to the male as a peer and confidant. Her motive is to teach the male about sexuality. The offender is often dissatisfied with a current relationship and there tend to be conflicts with peer-aged significant others." Robinson's article continues: "This offender's perception of the offending relationship is that it is a 'love affair.'"
But the article does not claim that these reasons should be an excuse. "Our society is hypocritical in the way it handles sex-offending behavior," Robinson writes. "We do not allow male offenders to use any prior victimization as an excuse for sexual offenses." She writes that the same should be true for women.
Owens has been punished, her lawyer says. She will never legally teach again. She lost her husband. She had to use her DPS pension to pay her legal bills, according to divorce documents. While out on bond, she took jobs cleaning hotel rooms and working at a Burger King. She is now serving a ten-year sentence, awaiting transfer to a state prison. Her lawyer, Harris, says there is a reasonable chance that he will be able to get her sentence reduced.
"She is ashamed of her actions," Harris said at her sentencing. "She has led, up to this point, an exemplary life and she has helped many more children than she has hurt."
Dinh Tran faces a long, difficult recovery, experts say, partly because of the prudish nature of his native culture and partly because of the attitude of American society toward women who commit sexual assault.
"Our society is just not ready to deal with this, which only makes it more difficult for the family," says Karin Jordan, clinical director of the Counseling and Family Therapy Center at the University of Colorado at Denver. She says the notion of a woman--and a teacher--committing this kind of crime is so taboo that any family just wouldn't have the words to talk about what happened. The hardest battle to fight, she adds, will be the natural inclination of the boy and his parents to blame themselves. "Does the child feel responsible? Yes," Jordan says. "But that absolutely doesn't make him responsible."
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And on top of the taboos involved in this crime, cultural differences again make the case more difficult. Many Asian cultures discourage any talk about feelings or emotions, says Frank Kim, a psychologist for the Asian Pacific Development Center, a Denver-based resource agency for Colorado's Asian immigrants. "It's seen as an imposition on the listener to talk about personal problems," Kim says. "Most young people don't have an ability to talk about their internal stages, but for an Asian kid it's also frowned on."
On this point of traditional culture, the boy's father hasn't seemed willing to bend.
"This incident was so outrageous that it is better not to talk about it directly," Duc Tran says. But after watching his son deteriorate steadily since he was sexually assaulted, his father decided to do what he could and has contacted the Asian Pacific Center.
"He changed so much," says Dinh's father. "He has so much anger now. We waited for help, but now we can't wait anymore.