Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal
Nhi Nguyen, 11, had just started at her first school in the United States. She didn’t speak English, but could understand everything, and she hated missing days when her mom and stepdad were arguing, according to a family friend.
Last weekend, her new life was cut short.
She was found shot to death, along with her 39-year-old mother, Cam Thi To, in their Northwest Albuquerque apartment Sunday.
Police believe To’s new husband, 45-year-old Trinh Tran Van, shot and killed them before killing himself.
Friends of the family and police say he had a history of abusing her.
To met Van while she was still living in Vietnam and he lived in the U.S. She wanted a better life for herself and her daughter, according to family friend Thu Doan.
To knew Doan’s mother from their village in Vietnam and, when she moved to Albuquerque, she began working in the woman’s nail salon in Grants. She worked seven days a week, commuting from Albuquerque, and sent a regular stream of money back to her family in Vietnam.
But her relationship with Van was rocky.
Police were called in April during an argument over money.
“Cam said that she became fearful for her safety after being pushed and ran out of the apartment with her daughter,” an officer wrote in the report. “Cam was in tears and … said that she wanted to file a restraining order against Trinh.”
It’s unclear if she filed that restraining order, but Van was arrested and charged with misdemeanor battery on a household member. That case was pending in Metropolitan Court and was scheduled to go to trial later this year.
Over the summer, the couple moved into an apartment at the Villas Hermosa complex near Coors and Ouray.
Doan said To’s daughter Nhi didn’t like Van. She stayed with her family because she didn’t want to live in the apartment with him. But when school started, she moved back in to attend S.R. Marmon in Northwest Albuquerque.
Nhi had been excited about starting school for weeks, Doan said.
“We got her a backpack. She would ask me, ‘How many more days until I start school?'” Doan said. “She loved to go to school, that’s what got her going.”
Her mom, meanwhile, was trying to get away from Van. After the April incident, she’d tried to stick it out, but it wasn’t working, Doan said.
“She felt bad. He got her over here,” Doan said. “She just couldn’t leave him like that.”
But Doan said they’d finally agreed to split in recent days.
On Sunday, Doan’s mother couldn’t get in touch with the family, so she went to the apartment to check on them. The door was unlocked.
When she opened it, she saw Nhi and Van dead on the floor.
She ran from the apartment screaming and officers were there in minutes.
Nhi is the second elementary-aged student to be killed, allegedly at the hands of relatives, in the past week.
On Wednesday, 10-year-old Victoria Martens was found dead in her Northwest Albuquerque apartment. Her mother and two others have been charged in her death.
Albuquerque Public Schools spokeswoman Monica Armenta said counselors will be at Nhi’s elementary school today.
Doan said since To was supporting her family back in Vietnam; they may lose their home there.
“She just wanted to go to America for a better life. She comes here to a nightmare,” Doan said. “She was doing this for her daughter, for a brighter and better future.”
This report has been modified based on new information about how To and Van met.