"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.