Two teens joined a woman to testify against Nghia Nguyen, who was convicted of charges including rape, unlawful imprisonment, promoting sexual abuse of a minor and promoting prostitution. The case is notable because sexual assaults in homeless camps are often difficult to prosecute.
In January 2017, a Seattle police detective got a tip: a teenage girl nicknamed “Vickie” was being held prisoner and had been raped by a then-47-year-old man, Nghia Nguyen, at in a homeless encampment on South Dearborn Street.
When police found her in the tent, she said she was 18. But police later identified her as a 16-year-old runaway from New Jersey, first reported missing two months earlier.
Investigators eventually connected Nguyen to assaults of two other people, including a runaway from Idaho, who was 14. The second teen told investigators that Nguyen raped her after she arrived in Seattle, and that several others also raped and sexually exploited her near and around Seattle’s notorious Jungle encampment.
On Friday, a King County Superior Court jury convicted Nguyen on all charges related to the three victims, including rape, unlawful imprisonment, promoting sexual abuse of a minor and promoting prostitution. Nguyen, who goes by the name “Asian Mike,” faces 20 to 27 years in prison.
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The case is notable because sexual assaults in homeless camps are often difficult to prosecute. Survivors may be dealing with addiction or fear being labeled a snitch in the camps. The transient nature of homelessness makes finding witnesses incredibly difficult.
But in Nguyen’s case, the two teens joined a third woman to testify, in what prosecutors described as incredibly emotional testimony. Jurors deliberated for about 24 hours before convicting him.
“That something is difficult or painful to remember hardly means it did not occur,” said senior deputy prosecuting attorney Paul Sewell in closing arguments Thursday.
A second man charged in the case, James J. Walker — referred to during Nguyen’s trial by his nickname, “JJ” — pleaded guilty in September 2017 to raping one of the teens. According to charges filed in the case, Walker was staying at a large encampment known as The Field, at Airport Way and South Royal Brougham Way in Sodo, when he lured the girl to his tent with the promise of drugs.
The Field was one of several encampments that ballooned in size after the Jungle was closed. At its height, The Field was home to over 30 tents. City authorities removed it in March 2017 after receiving a tip that the 14-year-old victim was being prostituted inside the camp.
Despite the cleanup of these larger camps, unsanctioned encampments continue to proliferate across the city. Seattle estimates there are 400 unsanctioned camps at any given time, and King County has the third largest homeless population in the U.S., behind Los Angeles and New York.
In the case of “Vickie,” the teen said she’d fled to Seattle because of problems at home, according to court records. She met several people after arriving, staying with some at tent encampments. She told detectives she was raped several times during that period, and was eventually forced into prostitution and passed from tent to tent.
The teen told investigators it was around Christmas 2016 when she first met Nguyen, who told her he was OK with the fact she didn’t want to be a prostitute. Needing a safe place to stay, she told investigators she decided to go with him to his tent.
It was there, the girl said, that Nguyen sexually assaulted her for the first time. She told detectives she later had consensual sex with Nguyen because “he was providing for her needs,” including drugs and food. People without homes, who are living day to day, often have no choice but to have sex for money or things like shelter, advocates say.
When she did try to leave, Nguyen held a pellet gun to her head and threatened to shoot her if she attempted to leave the tent, she said.