Monday, May 12, 2008

Crack Murder

Kathyanna Nguyen awoke every morning for twenty years and went to work at the convenience store she owned: eighteen hours a day, seven days a week, three-hundred-sixty-five days a year. Then one fine morning a thug walked in and killed her. Kathyanna’s story is one of grit and heroism, and the senselessness of inner-city crack crimes. [Photo of Kathyanna Nguyen]

A few days before Johnny Ray Conner was executed for murdering Kathyanna, her daughter, Marie Nguyen, was interviewed by a reporter from the Houston Chronicle. “Growing up,” Marie said, “my mother always reminded me of how fortunate I was to be in a land where opportunity was everywhere. She told me stories of how she grew up on the streets of Vietnam since she had lost her family when her village was raided by soldiers...”

From the time she was five, Kathyanna had to work, first as a nanny and later as a farm-worker. She had Marie while she was still in Vietnam. After Saigon fell, Kathyanna and her daughter fled to this country. They were sponsored by a family in Fort Chafee, Arkansas who had lost their only son in the war. Her sponsors were “country” people who treated Kathyanna and Marie “just like family.”

Kathyanna moved to Houston because she thought it offered more opportunity. Over the years, she bought several businesses before settling in at the store where she was murdered.

“She enjoyed the neighborhoods she worked in,” Marie said. “She always made it a point to make friends with her neighbors...People would come by and sit for coffee. She knew most of her customers by name. She knew their kids and what everybody liked. She was very attentive to people’s needs and wants.”

Kathyanna studied hard to learn English. One of the happiest days of her life was when she became an American citizen.

She worked alone most of the time. Cops had recommended that she install a bulletproof window encasing the counter. She did, but she never liked it. She was a “people person” who enjoyed being on the floor where she could associate with her customers.

On the morning of May 17, 1998, a man rushed into the store waving a .32-caliber handgun. He shoved it under the opening in the glass and ordered Kathyanna to hand him the money. She opened the drawer, pulled out the cash, and tried to give it to him. But suddenly a customer walked in. The gunman turned and fired, hitting Julian Gutierrez in the shoulder. Gutierrez was not seriously injured. He fled.

The robber then shoved the gun under the glass and opened fire. Kathyanna never had a chance — she was hit three times in the head and was dead before she crumpled to the floor.

Several passersby saw the robber running from the scene. One man even wrestled with him in an attempt to hold him for police, but he got away.

Johnny Ray Conner was arrested and identified by three witnesses (including Gutierrez) as the killer. In addition, a fingerprint belonging to Conner was found on a soda bottle on the counter.

He had a violent past. By the time he was ten, he’d been arrested for criminal trespass. He was a crack addict by the time he was twelve. While being arrested for possession of crack, he attacked the officer who apprehended him. He was placed on probation and sent to a drug rehabilitation program. He refused to attend and also missed nineteen appointments with his probation officer.

Conner had gang tattoos on his face and arms but denied being a member of a gang. He also had anti-women tattoos. He assaulted at least two of his girlfriends while threatening to kill them.

Police theorized that he tried to rob the jiffy store to score money for his crack habit. He was tried and sentenced to death. Although he denied that he was the killer, on August 22, 2007, Conner became the 400th inmate executed by the state of Texas since 1982.

After her mother died, Marie went through her Kathyanna’s belongings and learned things she never knew. “I discovered her need to buy things in bulk and store them,” Marie said, “[was] because she was a child of war and poverty. She always lived in fear of having to uproot and run...When 9/11 happened, I was not totally surprised...My mother had told me to never be too secure anywhere, even in the United States. I always thought she was overreacting until September 11, 2001.”

Murder is far-reaching. Marie married and had two children, but she still grieves for her mother. She sold the convenience store and took a job with Continental Airlines. Like her mother, Marie comes across as intelligent, perceptive, and having a generous spirit. But there is a pain in her soul that won’t go away.

And in the crack alleys of America, life goes on. Like monsters in some horror flick that keep multiplying, there are thousands more crack-head robbers to replace Johnny Ray Conner. Only this ain’t no movie. They’re real, just like death is real.

1 comment:

D. G. Matt said...

"And in the crack alleys of America, life goes on. Like monsters in some horror flick that keep multiplying, there are thousands more crack-head robbers to replace Johnny Ray Conner..."

Absolutely true. However, there's a recent editorial in Newsday claiming "the crack epidemic has come and gone..."

I collect crack cocaine news stories at

Steve Madrid