Unfriendly Fire

More than two dozen surgeries—skin grafts, tendon transfers, ligament extensions, and bone grafts—have worked wonders for Duy Ngo, who was shot at least six times
Michael Dvorak

On the surface there is scant evidence of the grievous wounds suffered by Duy Ngo. Seated at a table in the bowels of the Hennepin County Government Center, wearing a black polo shirt and khaki pants, he looks like just another bureaucrat on lunch break.

Even the Minneapolis police officer's left arm, which four years ago resembled a mound of raw meat, looks healed. More than two dozen surgeries—skin grafts, tendon transfers, ligament extensions, bone grafts—have worked wonders. Just a couple of long, jagged scars remain as immediate evidence that he was shot at least six times while working undercover gang surveillance in February 2003 ("Shot to Hell," 5/21/03).

But beneath the surgically altered surface, Ngo is a man still wrestling with demons. Migraine headaches hammer his brain. Nightmares continue to plague his sleep. He takes pills to dull the constant pain. He takes pills to quell his chronic gastrointestinal problems. He takes pills to help him sleep at night and pills to stem the vomiting. Three times a week he attends physical therapy. Once a week he sees a therapist.

"The physical pain, although at times intolerable, that's not the real pain," he says. "The real pain is the psychological and the emotional pain that I've suffered. The fear, the depression, the anxiety. All the negative emotions that come with abandonment, betrayal, and even persecution by certain people."

It should be a happy day for Ngo. After a four-year legal battle, the Minneapolis City Council approved, by an 11-1 margin, a record $4.5 million payout to settle his federal civil rights lawsuit. But the windfall can't give the 10-year MPD veteran back what he lost.

"It gives me a modicum of financial security," he says. "It ensures certain things will be taken care of, like my daughter's education. But the amount is totally irrelevant. I'd rather have my health and my body and my life back than trade it for any amount of money."

ON FEBRUARY 23, shortly after 2:00 a.m., Duy Ngo was working plainclothes surveillance. The gang investigator was parked in the alley on the 3500 block of Third and Clinton Avenues in an unmarked green Buick Century. He was wearing jeans, a bulletproof vest, a black sweatshirt, and a wig. Ngo was packing three guns: a pistol and two Beretta 9 mms. Earlier that night he'd called in his coordinates to dispatch so that other officers would know he was working in the area. Ngo was monitoring a residence that was suspected of being a gang-run drug operation.

The then-30-year-old officer was less than a week away from reporting for active duty as a medic with the Army reserves. There was a decent chance he'd be headed to Iraq or Afghanistan.

Around 2:15, a man approached his vehicle from the rear, Ngo recounts. The man wanted to know what Ngo was doing there. "Get the fuck out of here," Ngo responded. The man pulled a pistol. A struggle for the gun ensued. Ngo was shot once in chest, but his bulletproof vest stopped the bullet from piercing his skin. Four other bullets went through Ngo's car.

The assailant eventually bolted southward. Ngo pursued him on foot, firing off several rounds in the perpetrator's direction. But the blow to the chest had knocked the wind out of him. He radioed for backup. "Emergency, officer shot, 36th and Third," he told the dispatcher. All available squad cars were ordered to the scene.

Officers Charles "Chip" Storlie and Jamie Conway responded to the call. In a cruiser headed north on 35W at approximately 100 miles per hour with siren screaming, Storlie loaded an MP5 submachine gun.

When the officers arrived at the scene, Ngo was on his knees in the street waving his arms over his head. The pistol was in his right hand. He'd stripped the sweatshirt off his shoulder, displaying the vest emblazoned with the word, "Police." Ngo fell forward, dropping the pistol in the process.

Almost immediately after exiting the car, from a distance of roughly 12 feet, Storlie opened fire with the machine gun. At least six bullets riddled Ngo's body. All told, 15 entry and exit wounds were tallied.

Even as Ngo lay in critical condition in the hospital, rumors began circulating through the police department about what had transpired. The most galling and persistent tale was that he'd shot himself to avoid reporting for military duty.

The investigation into what exactly occurred on that night was a debacle from the outset. The crime scene wasn't properly secured. A thorough canvas of the neighborhood wasn't initially conducted. Evidence was lost or improperly handled. Of the four bullets that pierced Ngo's vehicle, only one was ever recovered. Storlie wasn't interviewed until eight days after the shooting.

Then-Lt. Mike Carlson laid out the investigation's shortcomings in a withering June 2003 memo: "Any defense attorney would be able to make the [Bureau of Investigations] as a whole look incompetent and disorganized," he concluded ("MPD Scandals, Continued: A Primer," 3/1/04).

Ngo felt betrayed by the department that he'd served for six years. Then-police chief Robert Olson never visited him in the hospital. Storlie was cleared of any wrongdoing after serving a standard three-day suspension. The Hennepin County Attorney's Office investigated the shooting, but declined to press criminal charges. Ngo's original assailant was never found. Four months after he was shot, Ngo sued the city and Storlie, seeking $22 million in damages.

THREE YEARS AGO, incoming Chief William McManus called a press conference to apologize to Ngo and squelch the rumor that he had shot himself to avoid military duty.

Ngo has been further vindicated by the courts. Earlier this year the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the case was worthy of a jury trial. "Storlie exited his squad car and opened fire with a semi-automatic machine gun on a kneeling, unarmed man," the court determined. "The totality of the circumstances shows that Storlie's actions were not objectively reasonable."

Ngo's attorney, Robert Bennett, says that anyone who still believes his client shot himself is willfully ignorant. "They don't want to know the facts," he says. "Any cursory look at the facts would show you that's bunk."

But these successes have done little to placate Ngo. He believes that the damage to his reputation is irreparable. "Do I feel vindicated?" he asks. "No. People will always say, 'That's a cop who shot himself and got paid for it.'"

Ngo continues to be employed by the MPD, but is limited to part-time clerical work owing to his continuing physical and psychological impairments. He can't carry a gun. He can't wear a uniform. He can't take enforcement action. In essence, he's a cop in name only.

Ngo's anger has hardly abated in the nearly five years since the shooting occurred. He's withering in his assessment of Mayor R.T. Rybak, believing that he was complicit in spreading the rumor that Ngo shot himself.

"Mayor Rybak is a liar," Ngo says. "He's a dirty politician. He was one of the key players and was directly involved in spreading these rumors."

Rybak strongly disputes this characterization. "At no time did the mayor ever publicly or privately say that he believed Duy Ngo shot himself," says mayoral spokesman Jeremy Hanson.

Ngo is equally scornful in his appraisal of the Minneapolis Police Federation, accusing the union of trying to protect Storlie at Ngo's expense. "The role that they played was the enemy, the antagonist," Ngo says. "They chose sides. They were involved in politicking against me."

John Delmonico, head of the Minneapolis Police Federation, takes umbrage at this description. "That really disappoints me," he says. "That's totally not true." Delmonico adds that the union ensured that Ngo's medical expenses were covered and that he continued to receive a steady paycheck while on disability leave.

Ngo also strongly believes that race was a contributing factor in how the shooting was handled. "They wouldn't have treated me that way if I was one of the boys, if I was a white officer," he says. "Do I believe that race was a primary motivator in this? No. But by accident or by design it became one of the only logical reasons that they would treat someone this way."

Storlie left the department earlier this year, reportedly to pursue security work in the Middle East. But he's applied to return to the force, according to assistant chief Sharon Lubinski. "If Chip wants to come back, then yes, we would certainly take him back," she says. "It's a sad event for both of these cops." (Storlie could not be reached for comment. His lawyer did not return calls from City Pages.)

Ngo's wife, Mary Soto-Ngo, has watched her husband deal with the fallout from the shooting over the past five years. She still has to be careful when waking him from sleep because of the nightmares. She worries about his safety every time he leaves the house.

The settlement money will undoubtedly help the family move forward, but Soto-Ngo wants a different form of vindication for her husband. "My question to the mayor of Minneapolis is: Where is my husband's medal?" she asks. "To me that would bring closure."

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