HOUSTON, Texas (NV) – Phat Le, 47, dropped his two daughters, Linh Le, 11, and Nhi Le, 9, at his niece’s Houston-area house one mid-September afternoon, then left without a word.
“Every time Uncle Phat or Aunt Truc, Phat’s wife, came, they always called first, and it was usually on the weekend,” said Lan Nguyen, Phat’s niece, “because they both pay serious attention to the education of their two children.”
“I was really surprised,” Nguyen continued, “it was a weekday and he dropped them off in the late afternoon.”
Lan Nguyen thought perhaps her uncle and his wife had a fight, so she let her cousins stayed at her house. By 8 p.m., there was no sign of either her uncle or his wife to pick up their children.
Sensing something strange had happened, Lan called her father, Tai Le, who had been very close to his brother, Phat Le. She told him to go to Uncle Phat’s house.
Tai explained that he had taken the day off of work to try to fix his roof, which was damaged by Hurricane Harvey. After his daughter’s call, he tried to call both Phat and his wife. He then gathered his wife and his elderly aunt, who lives nearby, and they went to Phat’s house. They were hoping to find Phat, Truc or her mother, called Aunt Six.
“I knocked on the door; no one answered,” Tai said. “I turned the door’s knob and it was unlocked.
“I went into the dark house, looking for a light switch while calling out their name. ‘Auntie Six! Truc!’
“I went to the last room which is Aunt Six’s room ― Phat’s mother in-law’s ― and saw no one. I turned and was about to walk out. Then I saw a blanket rolled up next to Aunt Six’s bed. I thought Aunt Six’s blanket had fallen down so I wanted to pick it up and put it back on the bed.
“But when I picked the blanket up, I touched something hard. I examined and felt something like a skull. I thought right away, ‘Auntie Six was killed.’ I ran outside yelling and I called the police.”
Police came to the home and took Tai Le’s statement. Officers told him that besides the body of Phat’s mother in-law, there was another woman’s corpse behind the sofa in the living room. Truc, whose legal name was Thanh Nguyen, also was dead.
Because Tai Le was the one who reported the crime scene, he was taken to the police station for questioning.
“After taking my blood, finger prints and testimony, they released me around 4 a.m. My wife picked me up and told me that Phat had called my aunt and revealed that he was the one who killed Truc and Aunt Six,” Tai continued. “Phat told my aunt that he was really sleepy. Just let him sleep and he would turn himself in after he woke up.”
When he reached Phat’s home, Tai saw Phat’s car in the parking lot of his housing complex. Inside, Phat, 47, was deep in sleep.
“My brother usually slept like that, in the car, since his mother in-law came over [from Vietnam],” he said. “I let him sleep, I know he had been deprived of sleep for a long time. About 6 a.m., I called the police.”
The pain of the past
The Le brothers are of mixed culture: Filipino and Vietnamese.
“Before the fall of Saigon, April 30 1975, my mother took my two sisters for vacation in a foreign country and got stuck there. So my brother and I became orphans. We lived with an auntie at Mr. Ta’s three-way intersection. I had no education and lived like ‘dust of life’ kids, picking up plastic bags and recyclables for a living,” Tai remembered.
“Both of us are illiterate, especially Phat, who is completely illiterate, both in Vietnamese and in English.”
Dep Nguyen, called Aunt Six, was from the same hometown as the brothers. She bought the collected recyclables and was known to be a well-to-do woman in town.
Phat Le came to the United States in 1995 with a sponsorship. Tai Le came a year later with his wife and children.
“Around 2003-2004, Phat returned to Vietnam for a visit. My aunt said aunt Six had a daughter who had not married yet, whose name was Truc,” Tai said. ”Auntie wanted Phat to get to know, then to marry her, and to bring her to America so that she had a chance to help her family. That time, Aunt Six was bankrupt with her business, and things were going downhill.”
They married, and in 2007, Phat’s wife came to the United State, bringing with her one young daughter and pregnant with another, Tai said.
“Honestly, when Uncle Phat went to Vietnam to marry Aunt Truc, I was only 16, 17 years old,” said Lan Nguyen, who now is the guardian of Phat’s daughters. “And I remember telling my parents that this marriage was not for love but for a green card. I told my uncle that and said, ‘I say what I think. I’m sorry if that makes you sad.”
“Even though Phat knew that, he accepted the fact and loved the children every much,” Tai said. “They lived happily. Phat worked at an assembly company. Truc worked at a nail shop until Phat’s mother in-law came over from Vietnam in 2015. And to the day of tragedy, all of them lived in the same apartment that Phat had rented for years.”
Things began to change when Dep Nguyen came to Houston and when Phat lost his job.
Money at the roots of all problems
“I think my brother was stuck with a promise he made at the airport when he picked his wife up,” Tai said. “Something like, ‘When you come over, you just take your money and help your family. I will take care of everything else.’ And he kept his promise. All the rent, food, education, transportation, etc… Phat took care of everything, while his wife kept all the income from her work and sent it to Vietnam,” Tai said.
“About a year ago, Phat was laid off, and every month he came to me, my daughter, my aunt begging for money to pay the rent. I asked why his wife didn’t help him. He said, ‘I promised a long time ago. Now if I can’t do it, they will scold me and yell at me,” Tai said.
“More than a year ago already, Phat got so skinny because he couldn’t eat. And he got laid off, job after job. Since the day his mother in-law came, Phat was not fed well or got any good sleep,” Tai said. “The house has two bedrooms. His mother in-law took one room, his wife and children another. Phat slept on the sofa in the living room. And his mother in-law turned on the TV all day and night. Phat could not tell her. Even me and my aunt intervened, but nothing was done.
“I work from 4 p.m. to 4 a.m. Phat worked from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. But when I went to work, I already saw his car at the parking lot. I asked him why he came so early. Phat said he can only sleep there because at home his mother-in-law finds things to yell at him. Phat stayed at my house and my aunt’s house more than at his house. Sometimes he slept at my aunt’s, sometimes he slept in the car.
According to the ABC affiliate KTRK in Houston, citing court records, the couple had divorced a few months ago but still lived together.
“My brother told me that his mother in-law encouraged his wife to divorce him and take the child support money and send it to Vietnam, Tai continued. “He said his mother in-law would yell at him, ‘Lucky for you. You come back from America to marry my daughter. If you were from Vietnam you would not be worthy of carrying my daughter’s shoes.’”
Hien Le, Phat’s younger sister, lived across the street from Phat for many years.
“I witnessed everything,’” Hien said. “I saw his wife and his mother in-law scold him as if he was a dog and he didn’t leave them. I said, ‘You have already separated and divorced, why are you still staying with them? He said that house he rented and paid for it since forever. … I didn’t want to say too much because I thought everyone is an adult and knows how to take care of themselves.”
A moment of anger
Shortly after the deaths of the women, Tai Le went to the jail to visit his brother, Phat Le, to try to get a sense of what happened. Le has been charged with capital murder in the stabbing deaths of the two women.
That morning, Phat had called his aunt’s house, asking for help resolving a ticket he had gotten. Then, according to Tai, Phat went to the room Truc shared with her daughters to rest. Phat told his brother that Aunt Six kept knocking on the door with a baseball bat and said, “Why don’t you die already?”
“Maybe he had been oppressed for a long time; he couldn’t take it anymore,” Tai said. “He opened the door, went to the kitchen, took a knife and came in front of his mother-in-law.
The mother in-law said, “I dare you to kill me!’ After that, he said he couldn’t remember anything.”
Tai said Phat told him that Aunt Six had been babysitting a child in the house. Phat took the child outside, saw a mailman, and gave the child to the mailman. He provided the child’s address and asked the mail man to get the child home since the caretaker had suddenly taken ill.
Perhaps because of this strange happening, the child’s parents called Phat’s wife and she ran home to see what was going on, according to Tai.
Phat was still inside the house when his wife came home and asked, “Where is my mother?” according to an account provided by Tai. She yelled and threw everything within her reach at him when she heard him say, “I killed your mom already.”
“Phat said he didn’t want to stab, didn’t want to kill his wife,” Tai said. “But now he doesn’t remember anything. I asked him to retell what he did; he said he couldn’t remember.”
Thanh Nguyen is survived by her two daughters and relatives in Vietnam. Her mother is survived by her family in Vietnam, who have asked for her body to be returned there.
“I don’t have the capability to do that because the expense to bring the body to Vietnam is $14,000 per person,” Lan said. “Moreover, I really don’t have the responsibility to take care of this funeral. But I think I should do something for the kids, so I bared the funeral [costs] for Aunt Truc and Mrs. Six.”
Lan said she and her husband have filed the paperwork to adopt the children. She said two of their three children are the same age as Nhi and Linh. She and her husband are juggling having five children in three different schools. Tai is helping out.
“They play with each other and momentarily forget about their sadness,” Lan said of Aunt Truc’s children.
“God put me in this situation because he knows I can do it,” Lan said. “After all this ends, I will find a place to cry before I continue to go forward. The children will be my first priority. I will not give up nor let them see me in tears. Life is not easy. Really, I don’t have to do any of this or be responsible for anybody, but I chose this road, and it’s the right thing to do.” (Ngoc Lan/ Nguoi Viet Translation: Titi Mary Tran)