Police weren’t convinced Than Nguyen’s murder was a hate crime, but killer later admitted targeting gay men because they were ‘weak’
Sunday, Oct. 26 commemorated the 17th anniversary of a Dallas murder that was almost refused a hate crime classification.
On Oct. 26, 1991, a man’s body lay face down in Reverchon Park with a leaf stuck to his left cheek, his eyes still open and his arms stretched before him like his body had been dragged. He was wearing no underwear. His Guess jeans were unzipped and slightly pulled down, his belt threaded through half the loops.
At the bottom of his yellow T-shirt, bloodstains emerged above his exposed crotch.
Only 29 years old, Thanh Nguyen (pronounced: Tan Win) died from a gunshot wound to the lower abdomen.
Earlier that evening, Nguyen and his friend Hugh Calloway, 35, had left The Wave (now Buddies II on Maple Avenue) and grabbed some McDonalds to go. At around 2:30 a.m., they made their way to Reverchon Park.
While walking through the brushy paths, they passed three African-American men: Frederick Eugene Kirby, 22; Freddie Earl Thorton, 23; and Corey Ardell Burley, 20.
Calloway and Nguyen sat down at a stone picnic table. As they unwrapped their food, Kirby, Thorton and Burley swooped down on them. They stuck a gun to Nguyen’s head and started pounding away on Callaway.
Then Burley pointed the gun at Calloway while they severely thrashed Nguyen and called him a "gook." The attackers also called the men "punks" and "queer."
And during the beatings, they ate the victims’ french fries and hamburgers and drank their Cokes.
At least three other Reverchon cruisers observed the bashing, but the attackers threatened them and they ran off.
At around 3:10 a.m., Calloway and Nguyen were led to a retaining wall and ordered to drop their pants. Then Thorton told Burley, "Shoot the faggots … go ahead and shoot ‘em. It’s not that hard to do."
As Burley fired at Nguyen’s stomach, blood sprayed onto Calloway. A second bullet grazed Calloway’s cheek, and a third bullet hit his femur.
Nguyen stood up and managed to run about 50 yards before falling again. The attackers chased after him, dragged his body through the grass and beat him some more before they finally fled.
Calloway tried to stand, but his injured leg snapped and he fell back to the ground, screaming for help. Nguyen was able to call Calloway’s name once before he died.
The assailants took their victims’ wallets, a gold chain, a silver ring, a leather baseball cap and a grey Pontiac Firebird.
At 3:53 a.m., someone discovered Calloway and Nguyen and called 911.
Calloway later spoke with reporters and compared the attack to a Nazi-like execution.
Despite the anti-gay language the three attackers used, officials in the Dallas Police Department disputed the hate crime designation. In 1992, former homicide detective Joe DeCorte told the Associated Press, "The motive for the crime was robbery. The individuals were there to steal the victims’ jewelry and money."
But Calloway produced a letter in which police Chief Bill Rathburn had written that he incident "appears to be a hate crime, and it appears that robbery also was a motivation." Subsequently, Rudy Diaz, executive assistant chief of police, told AP, "There is no question in my mind that this is a hate crime. Sgt. DeCorte apparently misunderstood the situation."
Burley attempted to sell Nguyen’s gold chain at a pawn shop. But the pawn shop operator was tipped off by Crime Stoppers and Burley was arrested.
In the 1997 documentary "License to Kill," filmmaker Arthur Dong interviewed Burley. Burley, who was raised in Dallas public housing, admitted in the film that robbery wasn’t the motive. He said that night, they were stalking gay men — men he considered "weak."
Burley said they targeted men cruising the parks for their robbery-and-bashing attacks. He said they could "snatch their clothes," and the victims would be too humiliated to report the incidents.
Burley’s defense attorney Paul Johnson argued that Burley’s gun accidentally went off, that Burley didn’t intentionally kill Nguyen. In "License to Kill," Burley detaches himself from the murder saying that the bullet killed Thanh — not Burley.
Johnson told jurors, "If Corey Burley wanted him dead, why didn’t he shoot him again?"
In hate crime murders, the killers often own most of the story. And in this killing, Burley often gets more attention than Nguyen, who’s almost been forgotten. Obtaining any pictures of Nguyen (other than images from the murder scene) for this article was not possible.
He was an immigrant who spent his boyhood years at a refugee camp before fleeing Vietnam and moving to Grand Prairie with family members.
In the U.S., he owned a commercial sewing machine and worked as a freelance tailor. In Dallas, Nguyen joined the gay social group Asians and Friends, which was organized by John Pielsticker.
Pielsticker works as a real estate appraiser and runs Pro Nails & Spa on Cedar Springs Road. In 1991, Pielsticker told Dallas Voice he watched a local TV news program that interviewed the female police officer who patrolled Reverchon and said she didn’t think the attack was a gay bashing — just a random act of violence.
Seventeen years later, Pielsticker puts the story in perspective again. He remembers talking about the gruesome details with Calloway and grieving with Asians and Friends members, who took a up collection for Nguyen family’s to pay for funeral expenses.
Why didn’t Burley shoot Nguyen again?
"My guess is that the attack and shooting were part of a gang initiation. That’s why [Thorton] told Burley — who was the youngest of the three — to shoot Thanh," Pielsticker says.
Pielsticker points out that Nguyen was shorter than Calloway. And because he was gay and Vietnamese, Nguyen was attacked much worse than Calloway.
During the 1992 murder trial, Burley said, "One of the dudes got hit and fell down. … Something went click in my head and told me to shoot the other one, ’cause I had already fucked up and shot one."
After the attack, Calloway did many TV and newspaper interviews. Pielsticker even remembers Calloway appearing on CNN once. In many stories, Calloway is depicted as Nguyen’s "partner," which Pielsticker debates, saying he thought the men were just platonic friends.
In 1991, Calloway identified as HIV positive. Since 1979, he was busted for multiple DUIs. In 1999, he was sentenced to Hutchins State Jail for aggravated assault and failure to stop and render aid. In 2001, he wrote to POZ magazine because his prescription meds were cut off during incarceration.
In 2004, Calloway was released and put on probation until April 18, 2009. Earlier this week, Dallas Voice spoke with his supervising officer in Longview, who said Calloway has an arrest warrant for absconding and failing to report to his supervisor for the past two months.
While Calloway’s reputation has tarnished over the years, in 1991 he bravely made police officials and the public recognize and acknowledge that the attack that killed his friend and left him crippled was indeed a hate crime — and not just a random act of violence motivated by robbery.
All three assailants were been found guilty of murder and are still behind bars.
Today, on the Katy Trail, look for a round green street sign that says "Your 911 location is KT 104." Follow the small path there, and behind the first row of bushes you’ll find a stone picnic table. That’s where three men with a loaded gun went to stalk park cruisers because they thought gay men were weak.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 31, 2008.