From refugee to beloved Cleveland police officer: Vu Nguyen remembered as ‘guardian’

July 11, 2018

From refugee to beloved Cleveland police officer: Vu Nguyen remembered as ‘guardian’

CLEVELAND, Ohio — Vu Nguyen was the guardian people looked to for help on problems big and small. Most of the time they never had to ask.

Whether it was his 15 brothers and sisters, 50 nieces and nephews, his fellow Cleveland police officers, or business owners throughout the city, Nguyen jumped at every chance to help the large number of friends and family members close to him, most notably his wife of nearly 18 years and his 8-year-old and 15-year-old daughters.

His death Friday — four days after he collapsed in the 90-degree heat during a training exercise for officers seeking to handle drug-sniffing dogs — shocked his family, who knew him for his strength, both physically and morally.

“This is my best way to describe him: if there was a zombie apocalypse, my first call would be to Uncle Vu,” his nephew, noted Cleveland restaurateur, Bac Nguyen said. “Everyone would say where’s Vu? And they’d go wherever he was because that would be the safest place to be. He just instilled this sense of guardianship over people. He was a natural guardian, a protector of people.”

There’s no shortage of stories about Nguyen for those who knew him: how he gave safety advice to business owners in Little Italy after a priest at Holy Rosary was violently attacked; how he booked vacations for his co-workers’ families when they didn’t have the time; or how he took the time to give people rides home when they had too much to drink in the downtown bars. 

“He was always happy and content and you never caught him down in the dumps. I never saw him lose his cool,” Bac Nguyen said. “In a lot of ways he was like a simple, old man, and I mean that in the best possible way. He wasn’t overly complicated with things. Things didn’t get him down. He didn’t get petty about stuff. He didn’t hold grudges, he was just always happy to help.”

Getting to Cleveland

Nguyen’s family came to America as refugees from Vietnam on April 30, 1975 as the Northern Vietnam military seized control of the South.

Tam Asher, the oldest of Nguyen’s siblings, left for America about a year prior.  Asher said she received an anonymous message the night before the rest of her family fled: Get them out of Vietnam.

She made dozens of calls, and finally heard from her family after they left the country, on the last possible flight, Asher said. Vu was 5.

“It was miracle,” Asher said. “When the tanks rolled in, I thought I’d never see my family again.”

The family settled in Lakewood, where Nguyen quickly became known for his mischief.

The Nguyen’s family house became the place where anyone could get authentic Vietnamese food. They became so busy, they started charging people. Cleveland police officers eventually went to the house because people spilled out of it at all hours of the day.

When the cops got there, they found no crime, just good cooking. 

The officers became regulars at the house. Vu Nguyen’s mother Minh Nguyen eventually partnered with a friend and opened Minh Anh on West 54th Street and Detroit Avenue and the officers kept coming in. She later opened a restaurant on Madison and Winchester avenues that now houses Thai Kitchen.

Vu Nguyen graduated from Lakewood High School and went to Ohio State University for two years. His father, the former police chief in Saigon, pushed his children to go to school and go into any other profession other than his own.

Vu didn’t listen. He took jobs as a security guard for Woolworth’s department store in Euclid and was a bouncer for several bars before he became a guard at the Cleveland city jail in 1994.

Four years later, he was hired as a police officer. He told his father only after he had been hired, Asher said.

“Once he found out, my dad told him: you’d be a good police officer. I’m proud of you,’” Asher said. “He was born to be a police officer.”

‘He embodied bravery’

Nguyen was a unifying force wherever he worked from the very beginning. Sgt. Jennifer Ciaccia, now the police spokeswoman, was in the same academy class as Nguyen and was assigned to the same district right out of the academy.

She said as soon as they were given their assignments, he took the group being assigned to the Third District to a nearby Vietnamese restaurant, where he made sure they all tried chicken feet.

“It sounded weird, but it was delicious,” Ciaccia said. “Everyone sort of came together around Vu.”

He became a lifelong friend and later a neighbor to Ciaccia. Nguyen’s and Ciaccia’s daughters became good friends and they went on family trips together to the zoo and Cedar Point.

“He was like a second father to my daughter,” Ciaccia said. “It was always good to know Mr. Vu was around.”

Nguyen worked in the city’s Third and Fourth districts, and the narcotics unit during his 20 years as a police officer.

His most recent partner, Patrolman Tony Tomaro, said Nguyen was always proud of making one of the largest marijuana trafficking busts in the city’s history.

And during a recent fight on West 6th Street, Tomaro said Nguyen saw another officer get attacked while trying to break up a large fight. Nguyen rushed into the fray and protected the officer.

“He wasn’t going to stand for that,” Tomaro said.

Tomaro and another of Nguyen’s partners, Det. Aaron Reese, relayed story after story of how Nguyen balanced being a hard-nosed cop who had a light touch with both his co-workers and citizens.

Reese said he and Nguyen pulled over a car with four people inside. Nguyen asked the driver for his license and the driver reached into a bag near his feet. A gun dropped out of the bag onto the center console. Before Reese knew what happened, Nguyen reached through the window and pulled the driver out.

“I still don’t know how he did it,” Reese said. “He embodied bravery.”

Reese, who asked Nguyen to be the godfather to his youngest son, said when Reese’s mother found out Nguyen was hospitalized, she insisted she see him. Reese said he tried to lightly dissuade her since Nguyen was in bad shape.

“She said she had to come and see him,” Reese said. “She said ‘I have to be there to thank him for making sure my son came home alive every day.’”

Community leaders react to death

Business owners across the city reached out the family to support them because of the impact Vu had on their lives.

Terry Tarantino, the owner of La Dolce Vita in Little Italy, said he was stunned to learn of Nguyen’s death. The two have been close for years and Nguyen and the daughter of Tarantino’s girlfriend forged a special relationship because she’s interested in law enforcement.

Tarantino quickly got together with several other Little Italy businesses and donated a dozen pizzas, pasta and other food so the dozens of family members who flew in from all corners of the country could eat.

“I can’t even believe he’s gone,” Tarantino said. “It’s just the weirdest thing. My girlfriend is really upset. I loved him. He formed many relationships like that in Little Italy.”

Mack Danzey, the owner of Tequila Ranch on West 6th Street is holding a fundraiser for the family this weekend, and Asher said the manager of the hotel they’re staying at on the city’s West Side relayed dozens of stories about how Nguyen helped her out from time to time.

Death shocks family, friends

Family members and his partners said Nguyen could have retired in August. He wanted to switch from the grind of patrol officer to something else. He took the test to become a sergeant and put in for a transfer to the K-9 unit in order to be in less danger and have more time with his family.

“The sad irony too, is that he was testing for the K-9 unit so that he could have a less physical job,” Bac Nguyen said. “He wanted to get off the streets and be safer for his family.”

Nguyen on June 30 was running a timed mile-and-a-half run, a requirement for the job.

He collapsed from rhabdomyolysis, a rapid deterioration of the muscles caused by extreme stress, Bac Nguyen said. The doctors couldn’t figure out what triggered that, his nephew said. The National Weather Service reported the high temperature that day in Cleveland was 93 degrees.

Asher said she heard her nephew was hospitalized, no one seemed worried at first because he was the toughest in their family. 

At MetroHealth, doctors told family members his kidney was failing. Then his liver failed. He seemed to bounce back on Tuesday and was approved Thursday to get a liver transplant at the Cleveland Clinic.

“Up until the moment he passed, I thought if I punched him hard enough, he’d wake up,” Bac Nguyen said. “It wasn’t real. Of all the people I know, he was just so healthy and strong. He didn’t drink, he didn’t smoke. The only thing he did was overeat a little bit. He was a tank to us.”

Within hours of getting to the Cleveland Clinic from an emergency helicopter, doctors discovered he had bleeding on his brain. He died on Friday.

“We’ve been shot at, got into car crashes, go into buildings when you don’t know who’s in there, chased guys down, the most dangerous stuff you can think of,” Reese, his former partner, said. “It’s bizarre. But he died doing something he loved. He pushed himself to the point his body failed.” 

Family man

Friends and family members stressed one thing: he was a family man first.

Asher and Nguyen said in a family of big eaters, he stuck out as the best — he was once asked to leave a Ponderosa for eating too much at the all-you-can-eat buffet.

He was also known as the big kid of the family. He was typically the uncle who took his nieces or nephews out for their first beer, or was the one playing with all the kids at the big family gatherings. Everyone gravitated towards him, Asher said. 

Nguyen met his wife, Holli, more than two decades ago through mutual friends. They went out on a date the next day. Sunday would have been their 18th wedding anniversary.

He coached his daughter’s youth soccer league teams and was always planning vacations for his kids.

As a child, the only vacation Nguyen’s family could afford was a trip to Cedar Point. All the kids put their names in the hat and the names that were chosen got to go.

As a father, he constantly traveled with his daughters, including a recent trip to Myrtle Beach and another planned vacation for later this summer to Sedona, Arizona.

“He wanted them to experience everything he didn’t,” Asher said.

Both Asher and Bac Nguyen said Vu Nguyen’s daughters are taking their father’s death hard, but mostly in stride.

Bac Nguyen said he told his uncle before he died that he’d look after the girls for him.

“They were at the center of his life,” Asher said. “He did everything for them. He probably spoiled them a little bit, but he loved them so much.”

During a Tuesday interview at Bac Nguyen’s not-yet-finished restaurant Ninja City in the Gordon Square neighborhood, Asher turned to her nephew and said: “He set an example for you guys. Do what he did. Be like him.”

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