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.
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.
To Hitchcock's consternation, Mills came to trial still wearing his hair in the badass mullet he had the night Nguyen was stomped. He wore a black suit. He still seemed detached.
Assistant State Attorney Peter Magrino prosecuted. After the jury watched the interrogation tape, Magrino told them to consider Mills' near-silence: that's a tacit admission of guilt, he said.
Hitchcock did not try to get the tape suppressed or edited. The jury watched the whole thing, even the part where Mills stood up and pantomimed throwing a punch into a melee.
Dr. Ronald Wright, the medical examiner, showed the jury photos of Nguyen's bruised corpse. Speaking unequivocally, and wearing a lopsided bowtie, Wright spent 30 minutes detailing the insults to the body of the five-foot, six-inch, 139-pound Nguyen. Each blow could have contributed to a stunning effect, Wright said; so when the final blow came, Nguyen was disoriented. His reflexes were gone. The cause of death, Wright said, was a subarachnoid hemorrhage due to a lacerated vertebral artery. In other words, someone whacked Nguyen so hard at the base of his skull that they split his artery, killing him. That's an extremely rare injury, Wright told the jury. Typically, someone felled that way is drunk. Disoriented. But not punch-drunk. And the toxicology report did not show any drugs or alcohol in Nguyen that night.
Jeff Sintay testified. He stood side by side with Magrino and told the jury he saw Mills punch Nguyen at the start of the brawl. Using Magrino as a stand-in for Nguyen, Sintay faked a jab, twice, to demonstrate. But this was almost just the opposite of what Sintay initially told police.
Asked by police if Mills hit Nguyen, Sintay had said "Er, I don't think so." Sintay told police that he'd met Mills before that night. Mills, he said, "was the one that was trying to keep anything from happening. He knew me and, you know, I guess he liked me or whatever. And he was telling me, you know, 'Something's gonna happen if you don't take your friends and go.'"
A few weeks later, Sintay told a jury that he'd never met Mills before the party at Springside Apartments, the night Nguyen was killed. He was adamant.
Mills has had plenty of time to think about this. "They're saying that by me calling these people down from the balcony, and knowing that they had a reputation for fighting, that I was putting the victim in harm's way," he says. But when "you really look at the situation, Jeff Sintay's the one that started this whole thing in motion."
Sintay, contacted recently, wanted no part of it. "It's over," he said. And then: "It was a long time ago."
Mills started the fire that night, Magrino told the jury. "The defendant is not a peacemaker. He's a murderer." On October 21, 1992, after deliberating for three hours, they found Brad Mills guilty of second-degree murder.
State guidelines for second-degree murder are seven to 22 years. Letters came for Judge Eade urging him to put Mills away for life, saying this was a hate crime. Make an example of him, they said.
"You can't do that to people," Eade says now.
On December 8, 1992, Eade cited the "savagery" of the crime, plus the fact that as young as he was, Mills already had a record for assault and stealing a car. Eade sentenced him to 50 years, with no hope of parole.
"You might as well give me the electric chair," Mills said in court.
After his son's conviction, Jerry Mills started taking Prozac. He needed to keep working to pay the lawyer's fees, and he couldn't stop crying.
It was around that time that he'd seen Brad cry, he says. That was rare. "Brad doesn't cry," Jerry says. But this time, Brad was saying, "People think I'm a monster." He'd been in prison for just five days at this point. There was this huge guy, a lifer, Korean, Jerry says; a guard told the Korean guy that Brad was a racist who killed a Vietnamese kid. So this huge Korean guy was going to kill Brad, Jerry says. "Now you've got an 18-year-old kid telling you, 'I may have to get a shiv or something to protect myself. Maybe I need to go after him first?' You're absolutely helpless. What do you do, as a parent? Do you break him out?"
Five years after Brad was sent away, Pam Mills started taking Prozac too, she says. The couple moved out of Broward a few years ago. They're in Palm Beach County now, in a pink stucco house in a gated community. They're both petite, both former gymnasts. Married for 39 years, they finish one another's sentences.
Brad was always a handful, they say. "He always had problems with authority, is how I look at it," Jerry says. "But we were always there, chasing," Pam says. "We tried to make him face the music."
The family was close, they say. They went to all of Brad's baseball games, even his practices, until Brad got shot. After that, he quit sports. But they still went camping and fishing together, and almost every night they had dinner together.
Pam and Jerry have been visiting Brad in prison for 15 years, at a half-dozen facilities around the state before he was put in South Bay in 2002. He calls them collect every night, they say; they won't go out in the evening until they hear he's safe. They say they've spent at least $100,000 on lawyers and investigators; their retirement savings are gone now.
Pam says that all her life she'd wanted to go whitewater rafting. She finally went after Brad was sent away, but she quit before the first rapids. She couldn't risk it. "I have to stay alive to fight for Brad," she says.
"If my son had done this, I'd be putting flowers on [Nguyen's] grave site every day. But he didn't kill that boy."
Maybe if Brad hadn't gone to trial first, or so quickly... Pam and Jerry have had plenty of time for second-guessing, too. Didn't each trial get easier after Brad's? Jerry wonders. Did the state stop caring as much? Was it the cost? Was it that public opinion was appeased, or people just forgot?
In subsequent trials, attorneys for three of the other accused would get their clients' statements to police suppressed. Judge Eade would rule that Detective Milford improperly used threats and promises to try to get confessions from the other teens. By 1995, when the last set of defendants were on trial, Milford wasn't called to testify. He'd been demoted that year for allegedly pushing a teenager's head against the wall after the youth insulted Milford's son. Milford, who was promoted this year to captain with the Coral Springs Police Department, declined to comment for this story.
Attorneys for later defendants also picked apart the medical examiner's testimony, forcing Dr. Wright to retreat from his theory that every blow contributed to a stunning effect that disoriented Nguyen. Since Nguyen was able to run from his assailants at one point during the fight, Wright said that the first few slaps and punches likely didn't stun him and contribute to his death. Wright also said that Nguyen may have had alcohol in his system at the time of the attack. That was new.
After Mills' trial, four men were prosecuted together in 1994. This time the jury was concerned about the impact of each individual blow on Nguyen. Still, the four were convicted. Jury foreman Michael Carroll later complained to the Sun-Sentinel that the defendants should not have been lumped together like co-conspirators. "We've got two kids that shouldn't be guilty of [second-degree murder], it should be manslaughter," he said. "It's very disturbing."
William Madalone, who had given a graphic confession to police, was sentenced by Judge Eade to life. Terry Jamerson, who admitted only to pushing Nguyen, got 22 years; he's been out since 2003. Chris Madalone, who pled guilty, got 16 years; he was released in 2000. And Chris Anderson, whose slap initiated the fight, got 13 years; he's been free since 1999.
The last two criminal defendants came before Eade in 1995. Derek Kozma's confession, in which he told police that he kicked Nguyen in the head four times, was thrown out; the jury acquitted him. A few months later, Kozma was charged with splitting the head of another teenager with a beer mug; he pled guilty to aggravated battery.
The last defendant, Michael Barychko, says he caved under police pressure and admitted to kicking Nguyen when he actually had only nudged the young man's still body with his foot, to see if he was OK. On the stand, Barychko looked straight at Luyen Nguyen's mother and said that another youth, Dave Michaelson, kicked her son in the head as he lay on the ground, helpless. Barychko had told police the same thing years earlier, but Michaelson was never criminally charged. Barychko was convicted of aggravated battery and sentenced to 18 months in prison. He served several years probation in lieu of jail time. In 1997, a jury found him not liable in a negligent death suit brought by the Nguyens. The young man he had fingered as possibly dealing the lethal blow, Dave Michaelson, settled a civil suit with the Nguyens for $100,000.
Barychko, now 34, still insists that he witnessed the killing blow. "I saw a kid lying on the grass, and people running from the body. I tapped him on the back to see if he was moving. I said, 'Hello? Are you OK? Hello?' I was standing over him when Dave Michaelson kicked him in the head. I said, 'What did you do that for?'"
Michaelson could not be reached to comment for this story.
Witnesses pegged the number of attackers at perhaps a dozen. "Today I still believe that there were others involved," says Magrino, the prosecutor. "Were we successful in getting the main players? Yes... If you see a wrong, you right it. Otherwise you become a part of it."
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Barychko says the police investigation was a clumsy witch hunt. Teens vouched for their friends and accused others that they didn't like, he says. "Justice wasn't done."
Brad Mills agrees. "This is Coral Springs: big money," he says. "Police had to make a move. I don't believe they cared one bit about getting the right people."
"What happened to [Nguyen] is terrible. For real, it is," Mills continues. "If I could change any of that, I would. But when you take him as a victim, and you victimize other people as well... How can I feel that bad when I've lost my life, too?"
Today, Chris Anderson and Terry Jamerson maintain lawns in South Florida. Brad Mills is due for release in early 2018, when he'll be 44.