THE DRIVE OF HIS LIFE

A taxi driver, his kid­nap­per, and the un­likely con­nec­tion that re­deemed them

Reader's Digest Asia Pacific - - Contents - PAUL KIX FROM GQ

Kid­napped by three dan­ger­ous fugi­tives, a taxi driver found an un­ex­pected ally.

“TAKE US TO WAL­MART,” said the man who set­tled into the pas­sen­ger seat. The driver, Long Ma, 71, recog­nised from his voice that he was the one who’d called for the taxi, telling Ma that he and his friends needed a ride home from a restau­rant. His name was Bac Duong. He spoke to Ma in Viet­namese – their shared na­tive lan­guage – and wore a salt-and- pep­per

goa­tee on his thin and weary face. It was 9.30 on a chilly Fri­day night in Santa Ana, Cal­i­for­nia. Now they want to go shop­ping? Ma thought. What hap­pened to go­ing home? Ma, a small man with short grey hair and a grey mous­tache, had been asleep when Duong called and hadn’t both­ered chang­ing out of his py­ja­mas.

In the rearview mir­ror, Ma could see Duong’s friends, quiet in the back seat: Jonathan Tieu, a pim­ply 20 year old, and Hos­sein Nay­eri, an ath­letic Per­sian with an air of in­dif­fer­ence.

Wal­mart didn’t have what the men needed, so they told Ma to drive them to a Tar­get store 45 min­utes away. Ma had no way of know­ing that they were des­per­ate for phones, for clothes, and for some sem­blance of a plan. They fi­nally emerged from Tar­get. “My mum’s place is right around here,” Duong lied. “Take us there, please.”

The streets were dark and quiet, and af ter a few min­utes, Duong mo­tioned to a mangy strip mall. “Pull in here,” he said. As Ma parked his Honda Civic, Tieu handed Duong a pis­tol, which Duong pointed at Ma. Ma’s mind raced as Nay­eri shouted, “Boom, boom, old man!”

The men placed Ma in the back seat, where Tieu now trained the gun on his stom­ach. Nay­eri jumped be­hind the wheel and set out for a nearby mo­tel.

By the time they ar­rived, Ma was con­vinced he was go­ing to die – he just didn’t know how or when. In­side a cramped room, he watched as ­Nay­eri, whom he sus­pected was the group’s ring­leader, splayed out on one of the two beds. Ma was or­dered to dou­ble up with Duong on the other as Tieu slept on the f loor near the door, the gun un­der his pil­low. For Ma, there was no es­cape and, with all the dread he felt, no easy way to fall asleep.

In the morn­ing, Duong turned on the TV. A re­port about a prison es­cape was on the news. “Hey,” Duong shouted, “that’s us!” Mug shots filled the screen. A mas­sive man­hunt, Ma now learned, was un­der way for his three room­mates.

THE JAIL­BREAK had oc­curred a day ear­lier, on Jan­uary 22, 2016. It be­gan af­ter Duong, sprawled on a bunk in the open-floor dor­mi­tory of the Or­ange County Jail’s Mod­ule F, watched a guard fin­ish his 5am head count.

Duong then gath­ered the tools that he’d been hoard­ing and shuff led to the rear of the hous­ing block, where Nay­eri and Tieu waited for him. There, hid­den be­hind a bunk bed, the three used their tools to work loose a metal grate. They bel­lied through the hole and, sur­rounded by pipes and wiring, crept along a metal walk­way un­til it dead­ended against a wall. Us­ing the pipes, they shim­mied sky­wards into a ven­ti­la­tion shaft that led to a trap­door, which they shoved open.

Now on the roof, they fas­tened a makeshift rope that they’d fash­ioned from bed­sheets and rap­pelled

MA WAS CON­VINCED HE WAS GO­ING TO DIE – HE JUST DIDN’T KNOW HOW OR WHEN

down four storeys to the ground. No alarms sounded; no l ights swept the ex ter ior. They’d done it. They were out.

The fugi­tives al­legedly first vis­ited friends, who gave them money. By 9pm, the es­capees were still in Santa Ana and needed to get away. Duong phoned a taxi ser­vice that ad­ver­tised in a lo­cal Viet­namese news­pa­per. Long Ma an­swered the call.

As the men in the mo­tel hooted and mar­velled at their im­ages on the TV, Ma was in­tro­duced to his cap­tors by their tele­vised rap sheets. The three men were in jail await ing trial. Tieu had al­legedly taken part in a drive-by shoot­ing that left one per­son dead; Duong had al­legedly shot a man in the chest af­ter an ar­gu­ment. And Nay­eri, well, he was plain no­to­ri­ous.

Four years ear­lier, act ing on a hunch that the owner of a mar­i­juana dis­pen­sary had buried $1 mil­lion in the Mo­jave Desert, Nay­eri had al­legedly snatched the guy and his room­mate and driven them to the spot where the loot was thought to be hid­den. There, Nay­eri and his crew were said to have shocked the man with a Taser, burned him with a bu­tane torch, and poured bleach on his wounds, among other abuses, all in a failed at­tempt to lo­cate the cash.

Af­ter the man as­sured Nay­eri there was no buried money, he was left out there to die. (His room­mate found help and saved his life.)

Spooked, per­haps, by the prospect that Ma’s dis­ap­pear­ance had been no­ticed, the es­capees de­cided they

needed a sec­ond ve­hi­cle. The next morn­ing, they found a van for sale on Craigslist. Duong took the ve­hi­cle for a test spin and then sim­ply drove away. He met up with the oth­ers again later, and the fugi­tives vis­ited a hair sa­lon and al­tered their ap­pear­ances, none more than Duong, who shaved his goa­tee and dyed his hair black.

When they left the sa­lon, Nay­eri and Tieu took the van. Duong and Ma got into the Civic, and there, alone in the car, Duong be­came re­laxed and even chatty, ask­ing about the taxi driver’s life in their na­tive Viet­namese. At one point, he even called Ma ‘Un­cle’, a term of en­dear­ment that im­plied re­spect for the old man. But Ma was leery. For all he knew, Duong was play­ing an an­gle. As al­ways in the US, Ma found his fel­low Viet­namese the hard­est peo­ple to read.

When Ma had landed in Cal­i­for­nia in 1992, with a wife and four kids, he’d strug­gled. A for­mer lieu­tenant colonel in the South Viet­namese Army dur­ing the Viet­nam War, he still had the phys­i­cal and emo­tional scars from seven pun­ish­ing years spent in a Com­mu­nist forced­labour camp. The war and his time in the camp had placed him nearly two decades be­hind the first wave of emi­grants who’d left Viet­nam for the US.

For years he took me­nial jobs. He would later say that his si­b­lings – ­who had ar­rived ear­lier and be­come den­tists and phar­ma­cists and white- col­lar suc­cess sto­ries – made him feel ashamed of the life he had made.

Money had al­ways been t ight, which ex­ac­er­bated the ar­gu­ments be­tween Ma and his wife. He knew she was los­ing re­spect for him and that ev­ery­one in the fam­ily had no­ticed it. Rather than suf­fer the in­dig­nity, Ma moved one day, with­out ex­pla­na­tion, from their home in San Diego. He found a lit­tle room in a board­ing house near Santa Ana, 90 min­utes to the north, and be­gan a soli­tary ex­is­tence as a taxi driver – a choice that seemed to have led to his cur­rent predica­ment.

DUONG STEERED the Civic to­wards a new mo­tel, the Flamingo Inn, where they would meet Nay­eri and Tieu. Deep into the night, the fugi­tives laughed and drank and smoked cig­a­rettes, while on tele­vi­sion the news an­chors said that the re­ward for in­for­ma­tion lead­ing to their ar­rest had in­creased from $20,000 to $50,000.

Sun­day dawned, and Nayer i seemed more dis­tant than usual. Ma’s cap­tors drank and talked in ur­gent tones. Nay­eri soon be­gan yelling at Duong. The room be­came loud and tense and small. Ma, with his lim­ited English, sensed that the ar­gu­ment con­cerned him. He’d be­gun to con­sider what the men must have re­alised them­selves: if they killed him

now, they could make a cleaner es­cape. Ma watched as Nay­eri pointed in his di­rec­tion and again shouted, “Boom, boom, old man!”

The es­capees de­cided they needed to move north, and on Tues­day morn­ing – ­day four of Ma’s cap­tiv­ity – they drove 560 stress­ful kilo­me­tres to a mo­tel in San Jose. The jour­ney ex­hausted Ma, and that night he snored so loudly that he woke Duong, who was ly­ing be­side him. But Duong didn’t el­bow him awake. In­stead, he slowly climbed out of bed, care­ful not to stir Ma, and curled up on the floor, so Un­cle might rest more peace­fully.

The next day, Nay­eri an­nounced that he and Tieu needed to take Ma out for a while in the van. By the time they parked near the ocean in Santa Cruz, Ma had fig­ured he’d been driven to the beach to be ex­e­cuted.

His stroll with Nay­eri and Tieu be­gan aim­lessly – and be­cause of that, it felt even more malev­o­lent to Ma. Nay­eri had them pose for pictures. With the ocean, the beach and the pier as their back­drop, Nay­eri acted as if they were friends. What is he do­ing? Ma thought. And then ... noth­ing. The three got in the van and drove back to the mo­tel.

Af­ter watch­ing another news re­port on them­selves, Nay­eri and Duong started shout­ing at each other. Sud­denly, Nay­eri glanced at Ma and ran his in­dex fin­ger across his throat. In an in­stant, days of anger and anx­i­ety broke, and Nay­eri and Duong fell into a rolling heap. Nay­eri ended up on top and landed a se­ries of clean shots to Duong’s nose and jaw, one af­ter ­another. Sat­is­fied, Nay­eri pulled him­self out of his rage. Each man gasped for air.

Ma was ter­ri­fied. But Nay­eri did not grab the gun and shoot the taxi driver. He did not haul the old man out­side and, in the shad­ows of the mo­tel, slit his throat. Nay­eri sim­ply re­treated to a cor­ner. For another night, the four watched one another and, as they went to bed, stewed in the frus­tra­tion that filled the room.

The news re­ports were no bet­ter the next morn­ing – their sev­enth day on the run. Law en­force­ment shared pho­tos of the stolen van the men were driv­ing. This rat­tled Nay­eri and Tieu, who told Duong that they were leav­ing to have the van’s win­dows tinted and its li­cence plates changed.

When the door closed be­hind them, Duong turned quickly to Ma. “Un­cle, we have to go,” he said in Viet­namese.

MA KNEW IF HIS KID­NAP­PERS KILLED HIM NOW, THEY COULD MAKE A CLEANER ES­CAPE

THE TWO MEN drove south in Ma’s Civic, with Duong be­hind the wheel. When Duong said to him, “Don’t be afraid; you’re not in dan­ger any­more,” Ma snick­ered to him­self. We’ll see, he thought. He had un­der­stood enough of the news to piece to­gether Duong’s crim­i­nal past: a 1995 bur­glary con­vic­tion in San ­Diego, four years af­ter he be­came a US res­i­dent; twice plead­ing guilty to sell­ing co­caine; stints in state prison; and then, in Novem­ber 2015, the al­leged at­tempted mur­der of a Santa Ana man af­ter an ar­gu­ment.

And yet, in spite of Duong’s past, there had been, this whole week, another com­pos­ite on view: that of a flawed but com­pas­sion­ate man. Ma had caught flashes of de­tails but not the full picture of Duong’s con­flicted life. He didn’t re­alise how chronic drug de­pen­dency and what Duong’s friends saw as men­tal dis­or­ders had pushed Duong down a crim­i­nal path – and he didn’t yet know that ­Duong was the fa­ther of two boys, Pe­ter and Benny.

Duong, his eyes fill­ing with tears, told Ma that he hated how his crimes had placed him out­side so­ci­ety. That was the most painful thing – not be­ing ac­cepted. His fa­ther wouldn’t speak to him, and his mother said she was ashamed.

A few years ear­lier, out of prison af­ter serv­ing a drug sen­tence, Duong had asked his friend Theresa Nguyen and her hus­band to go with him to his mother’s home – “Be­cause I want her to know that I have nor­mal friends, too,” he told Nguyen. He could never atone in his fam­ily’s eyes. Nguyen be­gan to get it, why Duong had been call­ing her ‘Sis­ter’. Why he’d phoned her the day her daugh­ter grad­u­ated from col­lege: “I’m proud of you, Sis­ter.” She was as close to fam­ily as he had.

Ma lis­tened, ret­i­cent but know­ing that some­times peo­ple need to be heard even more than con­soled.

Duong told Ma that Nay­eri’s plan had been to kill the driver on the beach. But for what­ever rea­son, Nay­eri hadn’t gone through with it. The bru­tal fight the night be­fore had been over Ma too. Duong couldn’t abide see­ing the taxi driver mur­dered for Duong’s mis­takes.

Ma said at last, “You should turn your­self in.”

Duong didn’t baulk at the sug­ges­tion. He was grate­ful for the way Ma hadn’t judged him. He didn’t want to call Ma ‘Un­cle’ any­more. Given the cir­cum­stances of the past week, Duong said he wanted to call Ma ‘Fa­ther’.

THEY BOTH FELT SO GRATE­FUL, SO SUR­PRISED BY THE POS­SI­BIL­ITY OF FRIEND­SHIP

The sug­ges­tion moved Ma, who un­der­stood the cul­tural obli­ga­tion that came with the moniker: to call Duong ‘Son’. To trust him, to love him, even. This scared Ma. Life had taught him to be cau­tious around love. And yet when he looked at the dam­aged man next to him, his face bruised from the fight with Nay­eri, his psy­che scarred, he saw the good that the rest of the world failed to see.

“Yes,” Ma said. “You can call me ‘Fa­ther,’ and I will call you ‘Son’.”

Af­ter hours on the road, they pulled up to a car-re­pair shop in Santa Ana. As in­structed, Ma slunk in­side while Duong sat in the car. Soon, the old man re­turned with a woman. Duong started to cry. “Sis­ter,” he said to Theresa Nguyen, his friend, “I’m tired.”

THE DAY AF­TER ­Duong turned him­self into the po­lice, Tieu and Nay­eri were cap­tured in San Fran­cisco af­ter po­lice were alerted to their van parked on a city street. Ma re­turned to his board­ing­house. No one had even re­ported him miss­ing.

Though Duong is back in jail now, Ma has stayed in touch. And while money is scarce for the taxi driver, he has put cash in Duong’s jail ac­count. Ma has even vis­ited the man who kid­napped him. The last time he went, Ma watched through a glass par­ti­tion as Duong, in an or­ange jump­suit, bowed when they met. “Daddy Long!” Duong said, greet­ing his friend.

Through­out their half-hour visit, the two men wept softly and spoke in their na­tive lan­guage of the bond they had nur­tured since their week on the run. They both felt so grate­ful, so sur­prised by the pos­si­bil­ity of friend­ship. Per­haps Ma es­pe­cially. What­ever he had ex­pected to ex­pe­ri­ence on that dark, cold night when he left his house in his py­ja­mas, it wasn’t this. Wher­ever he’d fig­ured that trip might lead, it wasn’t here.

As Ma grinned through the glass of the vis­i­tors’ room wall, he re­alised that Duong had saved his life, even re­deemed his soul.

“My son,” Ma said to Duong, “as long as you are still here, I will res­cue you like you res­cued me.”

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