It was a humid late-summer Saturday evening in South Florida in 1992, a few days before Hurricane Andrew barreled through. A group of teens gathered around a keg in a Coral Springs apartment. They played the drinking game Quarters and tried to hook up with the opposite sex.
There were about 30 kids in unit 203 of Springside Apartments that night. The group comprised honors students and gangbanger wannabes, metal-heads and hicks, stoners and boozers. Grunge was at its peak, so there were a few people in flannel shirts despite the weather. Kids spilled onto the second-story balcony. A bottle of Jim Beam was passed.
Shortly after 11 p.m., 19-year-old Luyen Nguyen, a pre-med student at the University of Miami, showed up with two friends, Jeff Sintay and Ryan Guerra. The trio hardly knew anyone at the apartment. They tried to mingle. Instead, they got into a heated discussion with other partygoers about whether it was better to be in the Army or the Marines. Feeling unwelcome, Nguyen, Sintay, and Guerra left. On their way out, Sintay thought he heard someone say "chink" and "sayonara."
The three stopped outside the apartment. Nguyen (pronounced "win") was Vietnamese-American; he'd emigrated to the U.S. with his family when he was six. Had he heard the insults? Sintay asked.
No, Nguyen said. But learning of them, the slightly-built youth was full of bravado. He wanted to confront his taunters.
He did. And a pack of young men punched and kicked him until he was unconscious. Nguyen escaped from the crowd only to be chased down and pummeled again. One blow landed behind his right ear, at the base of his skull, fracturing his second cervical vertebra and lacerating the vertebral artery. This single blow to the neck killed him almost instantly, the coroner would later find, adding that such an injury is rare.
The attack grabbed national headlines for its brutality, and also for the contrast it presented with the picturesque town where it took place. Coral Springs was a seemingly successful experiment in suburban utopia, carved out of marshland in 1964 and marketed as the perfect place to raise a family. Strict aesthetic codes — grass must be eight inches or less! — compelled tidiness. All the buildings were painted pastel tones and the streets were supposed to be quiet and safe. More often than not the parents were affluent; their children, college-bound. Coral Springs was a privileged, sanitized, middle class milieu. It was also a place where packs of teens sometimes drifted in search of alcohol, drugs, and mischief.
And now a promising kid had been cut down there. Nguyen had been stalked like "a wounded deer," police said. Asian-American organizations called for harsh punishment; for them, at least, this was a classic hate crime, an open-and-shut case. There was just one catch: Who did it? Or rather, which one?
With the world over its shoulder, Coral Springs police gathered statements from teen witnesses who waffled. When one suspect stood trial first, alone, Court TV broadcasted his trial live.
Ultimately, five young men who were at Springside Apartments that night would be found guilty of second-degree murder for their roles in a singular blow. (A sixth was convicted of aggravated battery.) They were sentenced, respectively, to 13 years, 16 years, 22 years, 50 years, and life.
The fatal beating seemed to transpire very quickly, witnesses said, in a blur of punches and kicks; any one could have been the last to land on Nguyen alive. They also said that at least a dozen kids took part.
Brad Mills went to trial first. Now he's 34 and alone again, sitting in what could be a high school cafeteria — white linoleum floor, plastic chairs, windowpanes embedded with fine, crisscrossed wires. Sugarcane stalks undulate in a breeze outside as storm clouds sweep across the Everglades. Inside, prisoners meet visitors at South Bay Correctional Facility, a state prison near Lake Okeechobee. Mills has just completed 15 years of his 50-year sentence for the beating death of Luyen Nguyen — a kid he still swears he never touched.
Mills doesn't look like a smartass from the suburbs anymore. He spent his first few years inside lifting weights and playing the tough guy, he says, but now his five-foot-eight frame has some extra padding and he's more focused on developing vocational skills such as plumbing. He wears baby-blue prison scrubs with a gold wedding band and a gold chain necklace. His head is shaved. His left eye droops, a souvenir from the time he was shot in the face.
That bullet nearly snuffed Mills' young life. He was 15, the victim of a neighbor playing with a loaded gun. He was hospitalized for five weeks, and when he got out, he had a speech impediment, a bad one, owing to the paralysis of parts of his esophagus and tongue. "I talked like [Marlon Brando in] The Godfather. It gave me a bad complex. So I just stayed quiet." He also was treated for post-traumatic stress disorder. Doctors told him that was likely the result of a different accident: While riding his bike when he was 12, he was hit by a car.