At first glance, there’s nothing physically imposing about Viet Tran. In a blue T-shirt, dark blue denim jeans and black Chuck Taylor sneakers while sporting black, rectangular rimmed glasses, it’s not far-fetched to envision him as a college student working on his second degree while also repairing computers to keep a little spending money in his pocket.
What would probably not jump out to almost anyone is that the now 25-year-old who stands 5-6 and weighs all of 150 pounds had the most harrowing experience of his life two years ago when he was kidnapped – and then managed to escape.
Summer 2010, Tran was working for a long-time friend of his where he would fix customer’s computers in their home. On Thursday, Aug. 5, Tran gets a call from a gentleman named “Gary Underwood” asking Tran if he can fix his computers. Tran declined and told the man he’d have to go through his boss because he didn’t do work on the side out of respect. The next day, while having lunch with a friend at Jason’s Deli in Central Mall in Port Arthur, his phone rang. It was Underwood again, urging Tran to fix his computers.
Tran again declined and said he’d have to call his boss. Apparently, Underwood told Tran that Tran’s uncle “Charlie” had recommended him. Tran was convinced “Charlie” was his uncle, since it’s not uncommon for Vietnamese to have American names in addition to their Vietnamese names.
Sure enough, Underwood called Tran’s boss, who agreed to let Tran do the work on the man’s computer. A few hours later after a couple more phone calls, Tran made his way to an abandoned, run-down brick house at 3748 Proctor St. that Friday afternoon.
“I didn’t have a very good feeling when I got to the house,” said Tran. “The whole situation made me feel uneasy.”
But it was broad daylight, probably sometime around 2 p.m. and another hot day in Southeast Texas, so while the easy-going Tran had reservations – which would turn out to be correct – he was also still relatively new on the job, so he wanted to get the work over with.
In an exclusive interview with The Examiner, he said, “I sat there in my car and told myself, ‘Just man up and do it.’”
Tran pulled up and immediately noticed the house was in squalor, but “Gary Underwood,” whose real name is Patrick Chaney, immediately introduced himself and told Tran that he had bought the house at a good price and planned to fix it up. That made Tran feel a little better, but he was still ready to leave. There was a white van parked behind the house and Tran removed two computers from the van after Chaney told him he didn’t have to fix them at the house. Tran was relieved and ready to leave.
But Chaney asked Tran if he could help him get two more computers out of the house. Unsure, Tran went to the front door, peeked inside and saw a filthy mess — furniture covered in mold, the floor collapsed in and broken glass and ceramics littered everywhere.
Seeing his hesitation, Chaney insists Tran come inside.
“I finally go inside,” Tran said.
No sooner had he stepped inside the house than a Hispanic man later, identified as Rigoberto Valenzia, jumped out from behind the door wearing a blue bandana across his face and wielding a sawed-off, double-barrel 12-gauge shotgun.
“You better not look at me,” the man said to Tran after he instructed him to get down on the ground with his face on the dirty carpeted floor. “I thought the house was his or he was just going to rob us,” said Tran, not knowing at the time that Chaney was in on the deal, too.
He lay on the floor in silence for a few minutes – which he said felt like forever.
“I was freaking out; this guy’s got a shotgun to my head, he’s breathing heartily and I’m thinking I’m too young to die,” he said. “There’s just this rush of adrenaline, and all the cliché things you can think about rush through your head, and I’m lying there. I’m going to die.”
While he’s on the floor, Valenzia removes the contents of Tran’s pockets, duct tapes his wrists together behind his back, takes his glasses off, and duct tapes a bandana over his face. He then takes him to the van, puts him in the back and duct tapes his ankles together. While in the back of the van, however, Tran, lying on his back, could still see through the thin bandana and noticed through the passenger window that Valenzia and Chaney are talking to each other. At that point he knew the two were in on the kidnapping together and he’d been set up. Valenzia had also made mention about killing his family and made specific remarks only someone close to the family would know.
According to a release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the plan was for Valenzia to take Tran back to his apartment and meet up with Chaney and the mastermind behind the plan – Kevin Nguyen.
“Kevin didn’t think he was going to get caught,” said Paul Arvizo, a 26-year veteran of the Port Arthur Police Department who was working part-time with the ATF at the time of the kidnapping. “He put a lot of work into that kidnapping, and it was fairly well-thought out.”
Nguyen was convicted by a jury in federal court last Thursday, Aug. 2, for carjacking, conspiracy to commit carjacking and possession of a firearm in furtherance of a violent crime for his role in the kidnapping. While the feds couldn’t charge him with federal kidnapping charges because the kidnapping didn’t cross state lines, they were able to charge him with carjacking since Tran’s car was taken during the commissioning of the kidnapping.
Tran had known Nguyen previously and had worked for him at his computer repair shop in Port Arthur across from Christus St. Mary’s Hospital back in 2008. Business slowed, so after two months, Tran left, and the two never spoke again.
“He was a nice guy, but there was always something about him that I couldn’t trust,” said Tran. “He was always trying to come up with ways to get rich quick.”
The get-rich scheme in 2010 involved using two guys he’d known for only three months – Valenzia and Chaney – and doing about a month’s worth of surveillance and planning before going through with the kidnapping, according to Arvizo.
“They were going to hold him for ransom, but how many times have you ever heard of someone being released after the ransom’s been paid? I don’t know of any cases like that, but then again, this was my first kidnapping case,” said Arvizo.
Fortunately for Tran, it never came to a ransom being demanded or paid by his family because it never got that far. With Tran duct-taped in the back of the van, they had left the house and the van was moving. But Tran was actually able to feel around and grabbed the shotgun that had been placed on the floor by the passenger seat. Tran slid the gun underneath him, turned over – hands still taped behind him and the bandana still over his face – and had the gun’s barrel propped up against the driver’s seat.
He pulled the trigger.
It wasn’t loaded. Suddenly, another rush of adrenaline came over Tran and he realized that if was going to die, it wasn’t going to be from a shotgun blast. Valenzia, who was driving, heard the click. Energized, Tran was able to jump up on his feet, and when Valenzia turned around, Tran head-butted him. He then jumped into the front seat, wedging himself between the steering wheel and Valenzia. His shoe had fallen off, which freed his feet up, and he was pushing on the center console of the van while wedging himself, rocking violently back and forth against Valenzia the whole time.
“I don’t know why, I guess it’s because I’m an apologetic guy and I don’t really like confrontation, but I just kept saying, ‘I’m sorry,’ the whole time I’m slamming into him,” Tran said with a sheepish grin.
With a firm grip on Valenzia’s arm, he hears the driver’s door open. He falls out. The van speeds off.
“I jumped up and had no idea where I was at,” said Tran, who turned out to be in a cemetery, of all places. The Calvary Cemetery, to be exact, located at Ninth Avenue and 25th Street in Port Arthur, still in shock, Tran ran over to a washateria across the street and pleaded for help, which one woman was reluctant to give.
“I’m screaming at this woman for help, and she just looks at me,” said Tran, adding that his torn clothes, bloodied leg, duct-taped wrists and missing shoe apparently weren’t enough to signal that he was in distress. “She said she was going to call the police on me, and I told her to do it!”
Fortunately, a motorist driving by the cemetery noticed Tran fall out of the van and watched it speed off, and he called the police while following the van. It was quickly pulled over and Valenzia was arrested. Chaney turned himself into police the next day. As for Nguyen, he actually fled to Houston and hid out there for almost 18 months before he was arrested by police last December trying to pass counterfeit $20 bills.
“That speaks to his arrogance,” said Arvizo of Nguyen. “He thinks he’s smarter than everybody in the room and he’s going to smooth talk his way out of everything. Didn’t work this time.”
Arizo added that everybody that worked on the case did a phenomenal job and the convictions are a product of exceptional teamwork beginning with the investigation and ending with the prosecution.
“This thing was a like big jigsaw puzzle thrown on a table, and you had to put it together,” said Arvizo. “The amount of hours the U.S. Attorney’s Office put into this was just incredible.”
Arvizo was especially appreciative of the job done by Baylor Wortham, who was the lead prosecutor in the case. “He was aggressive, he was unrelenting, I mean, we really worked this case, the countless interviews… We worked hard on this case and it paid off.”
In fact, it took a jury less than an hour to come back with a guilty verdict after a four-day trial.
Nguyen still faces federal sentencing, which could be as far as three months away. He faces up to 25 years in federal prison. He also faces state charges for kidnapping. Last August, Chaney and Valenzia were sentenced to 97 and 116 months in federal prison, respectively for carjacking. They were also each convicted of aggravated kidnapping by the state of Texas and face five years in prison for that charge.
As for Tran, he said it’s taken time to get over what happened, but he’s extremely grateful for getting out alive. He said the experience certainly made him very untrusting for a time, and he’s careful not to trust or hang around anyone outside his close circle of friends.
“Mr. Tran is a very intelligent man,” said Arvizo. “He chose not to be a victim and was thinking the whole time, ‘What am I going to do?’ He did whatever he could, considering he was bound; he still decided to fight back and in the end. That’s what resulted in his freedom.”
Tran said he thinks about the situation from time to time, but moving forward he said he’s learned a valuable lesson.
“Don’t judge a book by its cover,” he said, “Kevin saw me and thought he could do whatever he wanted. He didn’t expect me to fight back. And I did.”