By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
A rambunctious kid, Mills grew into a wounded teen who found trouble. He started fights and compiled a juvie record that included underage drinking, theft, and battery. He was in and out of school until J.P. Taravella High invited him to leave permanently. Around the time of that keg party at Springside Apartments, he had his GED and was thinking about taking a shot at junior college in Tallahassee.
Now he's earned the title "convict," he says, which is a mark of respect. New prisoners come to him for advice about things like the codes of life inside. One code he brought with him, he says: Brad Mills doesn't snitch. And he can't stand those who do.
In any case, he says he's not sure who hit Nguyen that night. After the first slap it was like Wrestlemania: fists flew but you couldn't tell who was punching. It went by so fast, he says, that "if this whole incident took two minutes, I'd be amazed."
As he was going to the party that night, Mills came upon Nguyen with Sintay and Guerra outside the apartment, he says: The three were agitated, talking loudly. He asked them to keep their voices down so they didn't bug the neighbors.
What's the problem? he asked.
Racial slurs, they said.
What do you want me to do about it? Mills says he asked.
Sintay, Mills says, suggested he call out the name-callers. To sort things out.
They were up on the balcony. Mills summoned them, he says.
Next, a bunch of folks from the party spilled onto the black-asphalt parking lot and milled around Nguyen, Sintay, and Guerra.
Mills says he doesn't remember exactly what Nguyen said to the party people, but Nguyen was confrontational. Others said Nguyen told them they were a bunch of drunks who would end up cutting his lawn.
"Everyone was looking to get in a fight, bottom-line," Mills says. Except Mills: he wanted to hit another party. Plus he'd met Sintay a few days earlier. Their moms knew one another. "The only reason I wasn't more gung-ho... I'm not thinking, like, national televised case out of this. I was thinking, This guy's mom is gonna tell my mom I was at this party fighting, and I'm gonna hear it from my mom."
Nguyen and his friends were outnumbered and outmuscled.
Bad things are fixin' to happen, Mills says he told Sintay. You guys better get out of here.
Somebody slapped Nguyen. It was a signal: guys pounced on Nguyen, and on Sintay and Guerra, Sintay said later.
Sintay declined to be interviewed for this story. He got away that night, as did Guerra.
It was 1 in the morning when Brad Mills got home, says his mother, Pam Mills. "He was so mad, and so angry at these kids," Pam says now. "He said, 'They hurt [Nguyen] so bad he had to be airlifted.'"
She sat with him in his bedroom for two hours early that morning, she says, the two of them talking, the phone ringing off the hook. She knew Brad was no angel, but she remembers looking at the flip-flops on his feet and wondering: Could he really have been part of what sounded like a mob-style beat-down while wearing such flimsy soles?
She looked him over for other signs. His hands weren't even red. "And Brad, believe me, when he hit somebody, they're red and swollen."
Police came to the Mills' home before dawn the next day. Pam says she heard guns cocking as she fetched her 18-year-old son.
Don't question him until he has a lawyer there, she says she told police as they led Brad away. She called Coral Springs police and repeated that message.
The interrogation of Brad Mills began at 7:30 that morning. He did not have a lawyer present. Dressed in cotton shorts and a T-shirt, he sat in a chair and fidgeted as three detectives took turns talking to him for two-and-a-half hours. At best he was guilty of simple battery on Nguyen, they said. Maybe they could help him — if he could just admit he threw a punch. And give up some names.
"I'm not asking you to tell me that you beat the shit outta this kid, because I know you didn't," Det. James Milford said.
Mills stared dejectedly at the ground. He looked evasive. Shifty. Detached.
"I know you hit him once or twice," Milford said, "and I know you went with the crowd and I know you're not the one who was sitting there and just wailing on this kid."
Mills snapped his head up. "I'm telling you, though, I didn't hit the kid," he said.
Later, as Mills wearied, he blurted at one point, "I guess you said if I want to talk to my attorney, that I can come back."
But the taped interrogation continued.
Mills admitted he punched Guerra.
We have witnesses who saw you hit Nguyen, the detectives said.
And they said: You're a streetwise kid. Don't play the martyr for your buddies.
Mills went before a jury a few weeks later. His attorney, Bo Hitchcock, had pressed for a speedy trial, hoping to catch prosecutors from the State Attorney's Office off-balance. Broward Circuit Judge Richard Eade presided. Eade would also preside over the trials of the six other young men charged with killing Nguyen. He was alarmed that Hitchcock was rushing it, Eade recalled recently. More than once, Eade pointed out, he asked Mills whether Mills understood that a speedy trial could mean an inadequate defense. Mills deferred to Hitchcock. Hitchcock pressed ahead.