Shot to Hell

Duy Ngo, The Minneapolis police officer wounded by one of his own colleagues in a February drug stakeout, speaks out for the first time

This much is known about what took place during the early morning hours of February 25. Minneapolis police officer Duy Ngo, a five-year veteran of the force, was working surveillance by himself in south Minneapolis's Central neighborhood. Around 2:00 in the morning, he was parked at the south end of the alley between the 3500 blocks of Third and Clinton Avenues. He was observing a couple of houses that were suspected of being gang-run drug dens. Ngo was in plainclothes--jeans, black sweatshirt, and brown boots--and was driving an unmarked green Buick Century. He was packing three guns: a pistol in his back pocket and two Beretta 9mms, one on his hip and one in his vest. It was a bitter cold night, with the temperature hovering around zero degrees.

Ngo knew the neighborhood well. He grew up in Central, in a one-level rambler near McRae Park, after emigrating from Vietnam with his family when he was two years old. Most of his tenure as a cop had been spent patrolling the Third Precinct in south Minneapolis. In early January, however, in the wake of the gang shooting of 11-year-old Tyesha Edwards, Ngo and six other Minneapolis officers were reassigned to the Minnesota Gang Strike Force. It was a post he'd always coveted.

In roughly 36 hours Ngo was slated to report to Fort Snelling for active duty in the U.S. Army. For 13 years he'd served as a medic, and with war looming in Iraq he'd been called up for service. Earlier in the day he'd said his goodbyes to fellow officers.

Ngo was trying to tie up loose investigative ends before departing. He didn't plan on sleeping at all that night. Money was also on his mind: He wanted to pick up as much overtime pay as possible prior to taking leave. With his wife staying at home to care for their 14-month-old daughter, finances were tight.

Earlier in the evening Ngo had phoned in his coordinates to police dispatch so that officers would be aware of his presence. He had the window rolled down so that he could smoke a cigarette. Around 2:15, a man approached Ngo's vehicle from the rear. The stranger said something to Ngo and then pulled out a gun and shot him in the chest through the window. The officer's bulletproof vest prevented the round from piercing his skin, however, and the two men struggled for the gun. Several more shots were fired inside the car, filling it with smoke.

When the assailant finally bolted, Ngo attempted to pursue him on foot through the alley. He radioed for help as he ran: "Officer down, 36th and Third." Ngo opened fired on the assailant, but to no avail. The man slipped between two houses and was gone.

The shot to Ngo's chest had knocked the wind out of him. He was having trouble breathing. He hit the ground and waited for backup.

Minutes later officers Charles Storlie and Jamie Conway arrived on the scene. What happened in the next few moments is impossible to describe in exact detail. According to the police, Ngo had one gun in his hand and another by his side when the officers arrived. The police department also maintains that Storlie called out to the stricken man. He then opened fire. Ngo's body was riddled with bullets from an MP5 submachine gun. The number of hits reported has varied. Initially the count was four, then five, then six. Ngo's own tally is at least eight. Nobody seems to know for sure.

The original assailant has never been caught. Storlie was placed on paid leave for three days (standard policy for an officer involved in a shooting) and then went back to work. Ngo remains on medical leave, uncertain if he will ever recover sufficiently to return to the police force or the Army.

Because the shooting remains under investigation, the Minneapolis Police Department will not discuss it. "If the investigation's open we can't talk about the details of it," says Deputy Chief Lucy Gerold.

Ngo too refuses to talk on the record about what happened after the two officers arrived on the scene. He's afraid the police brass will use his words as a pretext to fire him. Ngo will only say this much about the fateful moments in the early morning hours of February 25: "What's been reported and what really happened are two different things."

Ngo is a cop's cop, fiercely proud of the badge and devoutly loyal to his fellow officers. "I've always gotten into heated debates with people who spoke ill of the police department or its officers," he says. "I put my heart and soul into this career."

But since the shooting his faith in the Minneapolis Police Department has been shaken. During the two weeks that Ngo was laid up in the hospital, Chief Robert Olson never paid a visit. "I had tremendous support from my fellow officers and none from the administration, and they're the people I would expect to be there," he says.

Ngo has also seen his reputation impugned in the media. He was criticized for working alone and labeled a racist. It's even been suggested that he may have shot himself.

He has little confidence in the investigation that is now underway. After all, it is being conducted by the Minneapolis Police Department. "It reeks of impropriety because they're investigating their own shooting," Ngo scoffs. "That seems like a total conflict of interest." In the past the force has shown little interest in disciplining its own officers or supporting minority employees who don't toe the line. Ngo's worried that the department is abandoning him in order to protect its own reputation. "Depending on how this goes, it can be considered a major black eye for the police department," he says. "It's a huge blunder to have a cop shoot another cop that severely."

The shooting has left him with a crippled left arm, two hobbled legs, and a butchered groin area. His most lasting scars, however, will be psychological and emotional. The rigidly ordered life he had built--cop, soldier, father--has vanished from beneath his feet.

 

As Duy Ngo was being wheeled into the operating room at Hennepin County Medical Center, he reached out to the cop who had shot him just a few hours earlier. "Please tell the officer it wasn't his fault," he reportedly said. "I'm not mad at him."

The media and the police department have not been as forgiving of Ngo. Even as he clung to his life at the hospital, the perception of what happened that night was being shaped in the public mind. Instead of questioning why Storlie had opened fire on a fellow officer with a submachine gun, Ngo's own police work came under scrutiny. He was criticized by Minnesota Gang Strike Force Commander Ron Ryan for working surveillance alone in a dangerous neighborhood, even though this is a fairly common--if frowned upon--practice for gang investigators. Then it was reported by the Star Tribune that in 2000 Ngo had been suspended for one day for allegedly making monkey noises while responding to a call at a Somali church. Although Ngo concedes that he behaved poorly, he says his actions were not race-inspired, noting that his partner at the time was black. "My goofing around had nothing to do with race," he says.

The cruelest blow, however, came in a report by Fox 9. After playing a tape of Ngo's 911 call from the night that he was shot, reporter Sue Turner stated that there was a rumor that the officer had turned his gun on himself in order to avoid reporting for military duty. Although the report subsequently noted that the police department refused to put any credence to these rumors, the damage had already been done. In the public's eye, Ngo worried that he had been transformed into a shoddy, racist cop and an unpatriotic coward.

At the time that Ngo made his statement of support for his fellow officer he believed that he was going to die. "I wanted to make it very clear that if I was going to die that he knew I wasn't angry at him," Ngo says.

The two officers are acquaintances. Storlie instructed Ngo in marksmanship last year at the Fourth Precinct police shooting range. They had shared at least one meal together, a Christmas gathering at the Ukrainian-American Event Center. The two had occasionally responded to the same police calls. Despite these ties, Ngo is no longer as diplomatic about Storlie's culpability in what happened. "It's totally his fault," he says flatly. "He had no business shooting at me."

It's not the first time that Storlie has been involved in a controversial shooting. In 1997 he shot 15-year-old Lawrence Miles Jr. in the back. Miles had been playing with a BB gun in the early morning hours and Storlie claimed that he pointed the toy gun at his partner. The incident inspired outrage and protests in Minneapolis. Storlie was exonerated by the Police Department, however, and last year a federal jury declined to award damages to Miles in a civil lawsuit.

Ngo is seated at a booth in the Perkins restaurant in the Seward neighborhood during the weekday lunch rush. His intense brown eyes are focused straight ahead as he talks about the shooting and its aftermath. Ngo ticks off the parts of his anatomy that were struck by bullets: arm, leg, groin, butt, chest, back. "The only place I wasn't hit was in the head," he notes. Ngo speaks in an emotionless monotone, as if he were reciting the bus schedule. His closely cropped black hair shows a few flecks of gray. "No human being should take that amount of pain," he continues. "I have 14 holes in my body, entry and exit wounds."

Ngo then gingerly removes the sling that holds his left arm in place and pulls up the sleeve of a navy blue sweatshirt. His forearm is a gnarled, misshapen mess. On one side is a massive purplish wound with a texture reminiscent of snakeskin. The other side of his arm features a foot-long, railroad-track scar where it was sliced open so that doctors could replace the shattered bone with two metal rods. "I'm in constant pain, pain so bad that I don't sleep," he says. "My livelihood's been literally ruined by this."

Ngo's left hand is all but useless. He can't make a fist. Nor can he button his shirt or tie his shoes. "It's demoralizing for a 30-year-old man to ask his wife to tie his shoe," he says.

Dean Ngo, his younger brother, says the transformation has been psychological as well as physical. "I look at my brother now and he's not even the same person," he laments. "He doesn't have the confidence that he once had. He seems diminished. He seems weaker, mentally and emotionally. His body is healing. I don't know about the rest of him yet. He survived that incident but he still lost his whole life."

Ron Ryan, commander of the Minnesota Gang Strike Force, has noticed the same downward spiral. "The kid's terribly depressed," says Ryan. "I can't say I know how he feels because I'm not in his dilemma, but this has got to be killing him."

Ryan says that Ngo made a mistake by going out on his own that night, but one that is not uncommon or in violation of written policies. "When I was younger I probably did the same thing," he notes. "It's not the proper thing. Does it happen? It does."

Ryan says that Ngo would be welcome back at the gang strike force anytime, but his injuries may prevent him from ever working as a cop again. Even if he is able to return to the job, Ngo worries that his ability to work undercover has been compromised by having his picture plastered all over television screens and newspapers. He's upset that the police department released his photo to the media. With his initial assailant still on the loose he is also concerned about the safety of himself and his family. "If the suspect didn't know who I was that night he sure knows who I am now," he says.

 

Duy Ngo limps to the podium at Minneapolis Community and Technical College. Roughly 30 people are assembled on this weekday afternoon in late April for a forum on "Violence and Victim Awareness" sponsored by the school's Asian American Multicultural Association.

Ngo completed a nursing degree at the college last year and two former professors have just finished heaping accolades on him. The wounded officer keeps his comments brief. He warns of the dangers of gangs and violence. He refers only obliquely to his own shooting. "If it happened to me it could happen to any of you," he says.

Only when the forum is opened to questions, and Ngo is pressed to explain exactly what happened to him, does he provide some details about the shooting. When asked if he thinks the police department has been supportive, his reply is curt: "Personally, no." He also expresses little faith in the internal investigation that is examining the shooting. "My guess is that they're going to be cleared of this and nothing will happen," he postulates.

The modest event is an indication of a small groundswell of support for Ngo, primarily in the Asian community. A couple of weeks after the community college forum, he spoke at the annual dinner of the Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans. He has also discussed his situation with Senator Mark Dayton. On June 7 a fundraiser will be held in Ngo's honor. The forum also highlights two concerns that have come to the fore in the wake of his shooting: the police department's treatment of Asian officers and its ability--or lack thereof--to investigate its own employees.

Ngo is a somewhat unlikely figure to become a symbolic spokesman for the Asian-American immigrant community. Despite being born in Vietnam, he betrays no unease or accent in speaking English. After growing up in south Minneapolis, his family moved to Plymouth prior to his ninth grade year. Ngo was a standout high school wrestler, despite only competing for one season. He was also a champion power lifter and tae kwon do connoisseur. Ngo enlisted in the Army while he was still in school and attended boot camp between his junior and senior years at Armstrong High School. "He was always a guy's guy," says his brother, Dean Ngo. "Growing up with the guy he just always liked playing with knives and guns."

Ilean Her, executive director of the Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans, met Ngo after the shooting. "He's very earnest about what he does and very serious about it," she says. "He definitely has a passion for it."

Larry Reed, an attorney who has often represented plaintiffs suing the Minneapolis Police Department for civil rights violations, says that his judgment in dealing with Ngo was that he was a loyal cop. "He seemed to be, at least up until the shooting, one of the boys," assesses Reed. "Obviously they have abandoned him now that one of the boys shot him."

Ngo's case has raised concerns among many in the Asian community. "There are questions that haven't been answered about that night," Her notes. "What words were exchanged? Did Officer Ngo identify himself to the other officers? The community isn't anti-Storlie, but we just want to know what happened that night and I don't think we've gotten that answer yet."

It is not the first time that the Minneapolis Police Department's treatment of an Asian-American officer has been criticized. "They're good at hiring, to be honest with you, but the atmosphere is so oppressive that [Asian-Americans] leave," Her says.

Perhaps the most prominent example of discontent among Asian police officers on the MPD is that of Frank Nelson. Nelson's troubles began when he tried to start an Asian police officers' association, similar to other groups representing blacks and Hispanics. Soon afterward Nelson began receiving harassing phone calls, and the tires on his car were slashed. He also claimed to have received a threatening letter, and to have found a bullet taped to his mailbox. An internal police investigation, however, concluded that Nelson had written the threatening note himself and that he'd lied to officers during the inquiry. He was then terminated.

After battling the department in the courts for four years, Nelson was finally reinstated to his post with back pay in February of last year. Marshall Tanick, Nelson's lawyer, says that his client has continued to suffer retaliation since returning to work. "He's still the subject of some harassment and discrimination, and I think he's trying to keep a low profile these days," says Tanick.

Moreover, Tanick claims the mistreatment of Asian officers isn't limited to this isolated case. "I have found that there tends to be an old boy and old girl network, and the Asian officers have not penetrated the club," he states. "My experience in representing Asian-American officers has left me with the belief that they're not getting a fair shake generally."

Steve Young, a lawyer and former dean of Hamline Law School, arranged to meet with Ngo after hearing concerns voiced about the incident by Vietnamese acquaintances. He too fears that the officer is being abandoned. "When bureaucracies behave this way, experience over the decades has shown that they don't want to face up to a harsh truth," argues Young. "They're ducking something."

Ngo himself doesn't want to make race an issue. He refuses to believe that it could be a factor in why he was shot or the subsequent response from the police department and the media. But he has his own concerns about the way the investigation is being carried out. Rather than farm the inquiry out to a neighboring police department, the Minneapolis homicide unit is conducting the investigation.

Ngo is not alone in being troubled by this incestuous relationship. "What do they say? It's like the fox guarding the henhouse," notes Larry Reed. "They're investigating themselves is what's happening. It would seem to be a clear conflict."

Steve Simon, a clinical law professor at the University of Minnesota, shares this assessment. He says that even if Minneapolis cops are capable of fairly investigating their fellow officers, such cases should be handled by an outside agency to avoid the possible perception of bias.

Deputy Chief Lucy Gerold maintains that the police department is perfectly capable of investigating its own officers. She says that outside law enforcement agencies are only brought in when an officer is involved in a fatality. "We have the best, most experienced investigators, so I don't see a problem with them investigating this case at all," she says.

 

Mary Soto-Ngo had a premonition that something might be wrong on the night that her husband was shot. She had tried to reach him at two different cell phone numbers, but there was no answer at either one. It was well after midnight and the couple's then-14-month-old daughter was fast asleep. Rather than fret about her husband's well-being, Soto-Ngo decided to try and get some shut-eye herself. "I literally had one foot in the bed when the doorbell rang," she recalls.

As Soto-Ngo approached the front door, she could see a squad car through the blinds and knew that something was wrong. "Even before I opened the door my heart was racing," she recalls. "My whole body was shaking when they gave me the news."

The two officers at the door informed her that her husband had been shot. Soto-Ngo's first instinct was to go and hold her daughter. One of the officers stayed behind with the baby. Soto-Ngo was ferried to Hennepin County Medical Center. "I still didn't know the extent of his injuries," she says of arriving at the hospital. "I didn't know how many times he had been shot."

Soto-Ngo is reluctant to share her story. Seated at the kitchen table of the couple's modest, cozy, brick and stucco home just north of Minneapolis, she echoes her husband's opinion that the media has not treated them well. Shortly after the shooting, she was talking on the phone on the back deck when she noticed a Star Tribune reporter peering through the fence at her. "We're very private people," she says.

Asked how the shooting has changed their lives, Soto-Ngo walks over to a hutch in the living room and opens the doors. It's stuffed with bandages, gauze, tape, and other medical supplies. "But wait, that's not all," she says, walking over to a closet to display more of the pharmaceutical goods that have become a staple of everyday life. Soto-Ngo quit her job at United Hospital so that she could devote her time to raising their daughter. Now she must look after her husband as well. "I'm exhausted all the time," she sighs. "I don't sleep very well. I haven't slept very well since the night this happened."

When Ngo first returned from his two-week stay in the hospital, he had to sleep on the couch in the living room. The various fluids that continued to ooze from his body made sharing a bed with anyone impossible. Even now his bandages need to be replaced constantly. Ngo, who is also seated at the kitchen table, points out the bottles of pills next to the refrigerator, what he refers to as his "drug cocktail." There are eight different containers: painkillers, muscle relaxants, nerve pills. Despite the heavy medication, he too has trouble sleeping. "Being tired and being able to sleep are two different things," he says. When Ngo does manage to get some shut-eye it is plagued by nightmares. "Anybody who gets shot at point-blank range that many times is going to have nightmares."

Ngo has lost 20 pounds since the accident, reducing his once muscular frame to 140 pounds. He attends physical therapy three times a week and does daily exercises to rebuild his strength and mobility. Ngo's gait is marked by a pronounced, stiff limp, his weight disproportionately falling on the right leg. He can no longer lift up his baby daughter in his arms. "She puts her arms out," Mary laments, "but he can't pick her up and she doesn't know why."

Mary has dropped 15 pounds herself. There's no physical explanation for her weight loss.

The pain is financial as well. Ngo estimates that he was making $2,000 to $3,000 per month by picking up overtime and off-duty work prior to the accident. He had planned to return to Vietnam this summer for the first time since leaving as a toddler, but now there's no money for the trip. The injuries have put his military career in jeopardy as well. With 13 years of service in the Army reserves, he was only seven more away from being eligible for a pension.

Ngo has not decided if he will pursue legal action. "I don't have any plans right now," he says. "I'm not going to make any decisions too hastily. Right now I have every reason to go forward with one, but I'm still going to give them the opportunity to make this right."

Soto-Ngo is hurt by what she feels has been a lack of support shown for them by the police department brass, particularly in the days when her husband was still hospitalized. "I just find it very strange that nobody came to see him," she says. "I question why. It would have really lifted his spirits. As the days went by, reading the newspapers, it was kind of like Duy was a lamb they put out to slaughter."

Even so, she won't stop her husband from returning to the force--if he is ever physically able. "I think that it's Duy's choice. Duy went into the police because he loved it. I've never been opposed to it. I'll be a little more frightened this time around."

At some point Ngo will be free to tell his version of exactly what transpired that night when the two officers arrived on the scene. He believes the facts will ultimately vindicate him. "They'd be better off if I died that night," he says. "Dead men don't tell tales."

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