Photo by Dave Maass
Tuan Nguyen meets me outside the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park with two things I've never seen with him before: his children and a great big smile.
The last time I saw him—more than five years earlier in San Diego—a family vacation would've seemed impossible for the Vietnamese immigrant. He was consumed by quiet rage and paranoia, estranged from his family, living in his van, and structuring his life around multiple trips a week to a dialysis clinic due to kidney failure.
I'd written a cover story for CityBeat on Nguyen's saga ["Tuan's Paradoxes," April 27, 2011]. He'd been a fixture in downtown San Diego; his giant signs railing against the CIA, which he equated to Satan, were taped all over his minivan, and he would picket wherever crowds were to be found.
What made Nguyen so compelling was his backstory: he holds advanced degrees in physics and computer science. He is an inventor, a musician in a Vietnamese party band and an election volunteer. Yet, despite his accomplishments, he had been pushed to the fringes of society. I'd meet with Nguyen weekly outside the county administrative building on Harbor Drive, where we'd pore through his medical records and legal documents, while he'd explain how they proved "Big Brother" was experimenting on his mind through his dialysis clinic.
I didn't arrive at the same conclusions, but as I dug deeper, I realized there was always a kernel of truth in his conspiracy theories. Medical records indicated he might have been denied kidney transplants because of his homelessness and mental state. Evidence pointed to police locking him up in a mental hospital because his protesting disturbed spectators at a parade. His dialysis clinic had an alarming inspection record. While an intern at SPAWAR, he had, in fact, witnessed military scientists plugging wires into the brains of dolphins.
As his children follow gently looping paths and bridges over the tea garden's koi ponds, Nguyen, now 51, fills me in on his life. He'd finally gotten a kidney transplant, freeing him from the blood-filtering machines.
"The kidney transplant gave me a second life," Nguyen writes later via email. "[The clinic staff's] ultimate purpose was to force me to become a real mentally ill person. I am proud of my strong brain to survive this kind of lethal torture technique."
His ideations of persecution haven't disappeared, but they seem to be less of a priority. He's living with his family again. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office granted him a patent for an alternative musical notation system. He'd also gotten his day in court against the government over a civil rights violation that was anything but delusional.
Years early, Nguyen lost his job as a community college teacher for ranting about the CIA on his faculty Web page. After that, Nguyen says he chose to become homeless to draw attention to his mistreatment by the whole system: CIA, FBI, NSA, dialysis clinicians, other homeless people and even a dog that he suspected to be government agents.
In 2015, he decided to end his street protest.
"Five years of living in front of public eyes is long enough to prove to the San Diegans that I was an innocent man; that I was a victim of [Big Brother] and the system was trying to cover up their evil on me."
Another motivation was to have a more active role in his children's lives.
"One of my responsibilities is to guide my children into a correct direction to a better future," he writes. "Another is to make my children proud of me. This is not an easy task to do because it takes a lot of discipline, but I think I have done a good job so far."
One of those tasks is clearing his name.
During the 2010 Big Bay Balloon Parade, police took Nguyen into custody after spectators and broadcast media workers complained his picket sign and anti-CIA chants were interfering with their enjoyment of the celebration. He was confined in a behavioral facility against his will for two days under what is called a "5150" mental health hold.
But people have a First Amendment right to protest, regardless of how aggravating or outside the mainstream those grievances may be. Nguyen filed an $11-million lawsuit against the San Diego Police Department in 2011 that would go all the way to trial.
"It was all his doing that he got it as far as he did," said attorney Robert Rexrode, who was eventually appointed to represent Nguyen pro-bono. "I find it miraculous."
Civil litigants, particularly those who represent themselves, rarely get far in cases against law enforcement. But the city attorney's office was up against the strength of Nguyen's will.
"The city really tried to bulldoze him to kick the case before trial," Rexrode said. "Motions to dismiss, motions for summary judgment, all these standard things to get it kicked out early on. He successfully fought against it by responding to each one."
Rexrode represented Nguyen during trial, arguing that Nguyen's First and Fourth Amendment rights were violated.
Testimony in the case indicates that the police who approached Nguyen at the parade escalated a situation that could have been peacefully resolved. Nguyen was on the sidewalk when police arrived, breaking no laws. When police called the mental health unit for advice, they were told, based on previous encounters, Nguyen did not present a threat. Nevertheless, police tried to move Nguyen from his protest spot. When he resisted, they handcuffed him. He became increasingly agitated, paving the way for him to be placed on a 5150 hold.
Rexrode said Nguyen handled himself magnificently on the stand. Unfortunately, courts grant broad deference to police, so it was no surprise that the court found in favor of the officers in Nguyen's case.
"I personally still believe that the officers arrested him and committed him just because they thought his speech was annoying to people at the holiday parade," Rexrode said. An unsolicited witness account provided to CityBeat after the first story was published unequivocally contradicted the police's version of events that Nguyen was yelling and cursing. However, investigators were unable to find the witness before trial, so a sworn letter was entered into evidence in place of testimony.
Nguyen is appealing the ruling.
"The number one country in the world does not have justice," Nguyen writes. "Where on this Earth can an innocent like me find justice?"
Later, we're walking along the fogged-in Golden Gate Bridge and Nguyen tells me he knows he needs to be careful. If he's locked up again, he may never get out.
"I was so lucky to have a current life with my family and to do things that I want to do," he writes. "After so many terrible things I had experienced from 2010 to present, I know for sure that if it were to happen again, I will be disappeared from the earth."
Now that he's patented his number-and-letter-based system for musical notation, he's looking at ways it can be used to send musical compositions via text messages. What he'd really like is a job. He says he's qualified to be a programmer, scientific researcher or a physics instructor, but most of all he would like to teach math. He wants to support his children's education and continue to guide their lives.
He cites a Vietnamese proverb: "Children without a father is like a home without a roof."