The Forgotten Man

On Tuesday, his last free day in this country, Loi Nguyen frantically tries to salvage what he can of the rest of his life.

At the end of this week, the INS will revoke the bond that has kept him out of its Aurora detention center for the past year ("Out at Home," March 9). So if Nguyen wants to stay out of prison, if he wants to see the sun instead of being held in lockdown 23 hours a day, if he wants to enjoy a semblance of freedom, he has no choice other than this: Somehow, he must get to Vietnam -- the homeland he left when he was four -- by Friday.

"I feel like it's's over with," Nguyen says. "The only option they gave me was either you go back to Vietnam, or you go back to jail." He doesn't remember anything about his native country, doesn't know anyone there -- but he knows that living there has to be better than living behind bars here.

There's just one problem: Vietnam doesn't want Nguyen, either. The Vietnamese government refuses to permanently take back criminals -- even criminals who, like Nguyen, have done their time.

And then some.

Then-fifteen-year-old Nguyen was arrested in 1992 after leading Jefferson County cops on a high-speed chase while he drove a restaurant-robbery getaway car; charged as an adult, he was found guilty of aggravated robbery and sentenced to thirteen years. He served almost half that before his early release for good behavior in the summer of 1997. But Nguyen didn't have anywhere to go then, either: In 1996, President Bill Clinton had pushed through an immigration reform act that, among other things, requires the deportation of immigrants convicted of crimes ranging from manslaughter to domestic violence to aggravated robbery. (This same law recently fouled out Rockies pitcher Pedro Astacio, who'd confessed to domestic violence as part of a plea deal; two weeks ago he was allowed to withdraw his guilty plea and stay in the country pending a July trial.) And if those immigrants had nowhere to be deported to -- for example, if their homeland refused to take them back -- they could be held indefinitely by the INS. And so Nguyen went straight from the Colorado Department of Corrections to the INS facility in Aurora, where he remained until his lawyer, Jim Salvator, finally got him released on bond pending a hearing.

That was in April 1999. After being locked up seven years, Loi Nguyen enjoyed his life as a free, grown-up man for just eleven months before the INS again came calling.

On February 29, judges from the Tenth Circuit Court ruled that it was constitutional to deprive these noncitizens of their rights: Nguyen and thousands of others like him, immigrants convicted of crimes who'd served their sentences, could remain locked up for an indeterminate amount of time in INS prisons.

Since the bad news was handed down, Salvator has been working on an appeal. But time ran out last week, when the INS notified him that Nguyen's bond would soon be revoked. After almost a year of freedom, the doors were about to slam shut.

And so on Tuesday, Salvator works the phones in his office -- will Vietnam take his client long enough for this country's courts to consider Nguyen's appeal? Or can another country, such as Canada, grant Nguyen political asylum? -- while Nguyen drives around town, dialing his cell phone to make arrangements. He has to get that thirty-day tourist visa that will buy him a month of freedom and sell the car to cover the cost of a $1,500 one-way ticket to Hanoi. "I'm going by myself," he says. "I don't know anybody."

And he's leaving behind people he loves. His grandmother, who didn't learn the truth about his precarious situation until the very end. His aunt, who spent years and tens of thousands of dollars trying to win her nephew his brief taste of freedom. His nieces and nephews, some born while he was behind bars. His work colleagues and childhood friends. And his girlfriend, Kim.

She is in the car with Nguyen, holding the cell phone and crying. "He doesn't know anything about Vietnam, what is he going to do there?" she worries. "But what else can he do, run forever? We have no choice right now."

Kim and Nguyen were going to be married; they've known each other since they were kids. She's familiar with the older boys who got him in trouble eight years ago, waking him up early to go for a ride. "The thing is, even from the beginning, he was trying to help somebody else. He's always tried to help somebody else," she says. "He shouldn't care, but he does. That's his personality. He goes out of his way to help others."

And since he made that one colossal mistake back in 1992, a mistake that Nguyen blames on no one but himself, he's tried to do things by the book. On March 1, the day after the Tenth Circuit Court handed down its decision -- it "shocks my conscience," the dissenting judge said -- Nguyen kept his regular appointment with the INS. Although he could have been locked up right then, the INS waited to revoke his bail until this Friday.

By then he'll be in Hanoi, alone, but with thirty more days of freedom.

As the national media has been reminding us all week, the grand jury never handed down indictments in the JonBenét Ramsey case.

Make that the Boulder grand jury.

Jefferson County, however, has been handing them out like parking tickets in LoDo. Jeffco may not finish its report on the Columbine massacre by the one-year anniversary on April 20, but it's been quick to investigate allegations that the sticky fingers of the Ramsey case stretched across county lines on April 1, 1997, when an attempt was allegedly made to buy a copy of the Ramsey ransom note in Jeffco.

By the time the Jefferson County grand jury started considering the evidence, the note had already been published in Vanity Fair and Newsweek, posted on the Internet and mocked in late-night monologues. Still, Jeffco prosecutors went ahead with their case against Craig Lewis, an editor for the Globe (the supermarket tabloid that investigated the murder of JonBenét Ramsey more aggressively than did Boulder authorities), claiming he'd tried to buy a copy of the note for $30,000 from handwriting expert Don Vacca, who'd been hired to analyze it for the Ramseys; Lewis reportedly had been introduced to Vacca by Tom Miller, a former lawyer whose diary was taken during a raid on his Boulder home.

While most of the planet has given up on anyone ever being charged with JonBenét's murder, late last year both Lewis and Miller were indicted with violating the state's commercial bribery statute ("The Tab, Please," October 21, 1999). And while the Ramseys take their case to the court of public opinion, both Lewis and Miller have dates in Jeffco courtrooms.

In the next few weeks, the court will rule on attorney Gary Lozow's argument that Miller's diary was seized illegally. Jeff Pagliuca, Lewis's attorney, sent ten subpoenas to people with knowledge of the ransom note -- people ranging from the Ramseys' attorneys to former Boulder cop Steve Thomas to representatives of the Boulder DA's office, the Boulder sheriff's department and the Boulder Police Department; he's expecting documents from the Ramseys' attorneys any day. And on April 14 , Pagliuca will argue several motions, including "whether the grand jury was properly instructed and the constitutionality of all the statutes." For example, is it constitutional to apply the statute to a working journalist -- even if that journalist is working for a supermarket tabloid? "You can't characterize it as anything other than trying to do a job," says Pagliuca. Besides, by now anyone who's seen Perfect Murder, Perfect Town knows how buddy-buddy Boulder DA Alex Hunter got with a Globe reporter as they swapped information.

"It's an intriguing case," says Lozow, "and one with a long history."

A history getting longer by the second.


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