Back to the Future

The past is catching up with the Vietnamese son of a black American soldier

On June 30, 1986, Catholic Social Services of Phoenix sought legal custody of Dung Chau at Maricopa County Superior Court.

Its petition said Mai Chau "is no longer willing or able to care for Dung Chau," and asked a judge to place him in foster care.

Dung Van Chau, November 2003
Jackie Mercandetti
Dung Van Chau, November 2003
Dung Chau came to the U.S. from Vietnam in 1984.
Dung Chau came to the U.S. from Vietnam in 1984.

Just 18 months had passed since the Chaus had immigrated. A Catholic Social Services caseworker wrote at the time that it was "apparent . . . that Dung was being neglected, unsupervised and emotionally abused."

The caseworker alleged Mai Chau often made Dung stay home to watch his little brother instead of attending school. She also said the state's Child Protective Services agency had responded to the Chau residence several times after complaints of neglect.

Chau, the caseworker wrote, often referred to himself as too stupid to attend school.

"I was not too stupid," he says now, "but I couldn't learn at school, didn't want to. I was mad at stuff. I learned English words on cartoons, that's all, not school."

Catholic Social Services soon became Dung's temporary guardian, and the boy, not yet 15, moved in with a Latino family in Chandler. It was his first of five foster-care placements over the next four years.

During that time, the Catholic Social Services caseworker contacted Mesa resident Bill Laurie, a veteran of three tours of Vietnam (1973-75) and a man who long has studied both the language and culture of that country.

Says Laurie, "She told me that Dung wasn't going to school, his mom was never around, he needed direction, and she thought I could help."

Laurie found a warm and enduring spot for Chau, with whom he spent many hours over the next few years, fishing, having him over for dinner with his family, just talking.

"Dung was totally overwhelmed by chaos of the greater Phoenix metroplex," Laurie recalls. "It was as if they'd stuck him on a different planet. When I met him, he was just immature, and displayed the curiosity and awe of an 8-year-old. My own son thought he was the nicest guy. Had that kid had any sort of a stable upbringing with structure around him, I'm convinced he has the ability to function as a normal human being. He didn't have that opportunity."

In early 1989, Chau dropped out of school for the final time, shortly after educators promoted him -- somehow -- to a 10th-grade level. By this time, he practically was living on the streets of west Phoenix, where he was prime fodder for gangs and drugs.

"These Amerasian kids were the definition of at-risk children when they got here, and it stayed that way for many of them," says Alex Feminia, the Phoenix detective. "The federal government enacted a law that was a good idea -- getting these kids out of Vietnam -- but with little infrastructure behind it, and little clue what to do when reality struck. It came down to us having to immediately deal with a whole bunch of Dung Chaus."

Tempe police arrested Chau four days before his 19th birthday in November 1990, after a young Latino man was stabbed at a teen-only club. Though the circumstances of the assault remain cloudy, Chau told a probation officer that he'd carried a knife that night "because I'm small."

He pleaded no-contest to aggravated assault, and normally would have been sentenced to a prison term because the victim was injured.

Then, Bill Laurie, the Viet vet who had befriended Chau, asked Phoenix private investigator Mary Durand to prepare a report about the young man's life.

Durand spent weeks piecing together a layered analysis of Chau's unfortunate life, which the young man's defense attorney submitted to Judge Robert Hertzberg along with letters asking for leniency.

"He was cast adrift when he came over here," Bill Laurie wrote in his letter. "He had trouble in school because he did not speak English and the kids picked on him. He has been through hell because of the discrimination against Amerasians. He was born and raised in an environment where he is considered an outcast, where he is trash."

If sent to prison, Laurie said, Dung Chau would again learn "that he is an impotent societal reject, having no rights or any reason to expect any from an external hostile world, beyond that which it might toss to a beggar."

Judge Hertzberg responded by placing Chau on probation in February 1992. Chau had spent 117 days in jail until the case was resolved.

That year, Chau's first child, a daughter named Amber, was born to a native Vietnamese woman with whom he'd been involved. But fatherhood didn't settle him down.

The courts revoked Chau's probation in early 1993 after he tested positive for crack cocaine and marijuana.

He was sent to prison in May 1993, and served about 18 months before being granted parole. A car theft in 1996 led to another prison term (and the completion of the assault sentence for which he'd been granted parole).

But even the Arizona Department of Corrections seemed better than what the U.S. government had in mind for him.

Dung Chau's second felony conviction came at a particularly bad time for immigrants to the United States.

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