It was said to be an urban legend.
The body of a teen found in 1981 on the roof of a building in the southwest corner of Tustin High School was treated as folklore by many in the city.
“I went to Tustin High around that time and we thought it was an urban myth,” said Tustin Lt. Jeff Blair. “Then when I became a cop (in 1989), I found out it was a true story.”
Little is known about the 15-year-old victim, but Tustin Det. David Nguyen is taking on the case and hoping to shed some light on a death that has long been labeled a mystery.
“With all cold cases, you always want a fresh set of eyes,” Nguyen said. “I might come across something that nobody investigated before.”
The case is one of 12 the Tustin Police Department has tasked its detectives with delving into in the hope that re-investigation could give way to new leads and solved cases.
At about 6:30 a.m. on Dec. 2, 1981, an officer responded to a single-car traffic collision near Tustin High School on Laguna Road (which is now El Camino Real).
A truck had hit a curb then smashed into a tree, knocking it down. The vehicle was abandoned in the street and it was investigated as a hit and run.
As police were on scene, a custodian at Tustin High School flagged one of the officers.
The worker had found the body of a 15-year-old on the roof of one of the buildings.
The teen was wearing blue pants, a blue jacket and a striped shirt. He was barefoot, Nguyen said.
Police said he had suffered trauma to his body, which was partially draped over the edge of the school building.
Detectives at the time didn’t know whether the death was related to the nearby traffic collision, so they included the crash in their investigation.
The truck was not registered to the victim’s family, Nguyen said.
Neighbors near the school told police their dogs started barking in the early morning hours and when they looked out their window, they saw several figures on the campus.
It was dark and they couldn’t provide much more detail, police said.
Like his death, the lifestyle of the high school student, who did not attend Tustin High, was also very much a mystery, Nguyen said.
His family had recently immigrated from Vietnam and the teen didn’t have many friends.
During the initial investigation, the teen’s parents told officers they didn’t believe he was involved in any kind of illegal activity. Their son didn’t have a job and wasn’t involved in any groups or clubs, either.
Investigators reported that the teen’s parents spoke broken English, and interviewing them proved difficult.
This is where Nguyen said he might be able to make a difference in the case.
“I am one of the certified Vietnamese translators here,” he said. “I think that’s why they assigned me to this case. Because of the language barrier, I want to re-interview the family.”
Nguyen’s parents immigrated from Vietnam as well, so he grew up hearing stories of the inherent distrust of law enforcement many Vietnamese natives have.
Police officers in Vietnam can be corrupt and often citizens are afraid to look for them for help, Nguyen said.
“They don’t look at officers as protectors over there,” he said. “Officers are not seen as the good guys.”
He said he wants to speak openly with the victim’s parents because it is possible that a lack of strong English skills coupled with their perception of law enforcement may mean they withheld some important information.
He will also re-interview witnesses and reinvestigate the traffic collision, all while being careful not to strongly cling to any ideas about what he believes might have happened.
“You have to look at the facts and you can’t (project a theory), otherwise all the evidence you have is going to lead to that theory,” he said. “You have to have an open mind.”
Anyone with any information on this case is urged to call Nguyen at 714-573-3372.