In an instant before the sun rose on a winter’s day, the lives of Liem Tran and his family were forever changed.
That morning in February had started like an ordinary one for the 69-year-old Vietnamese immigrant: By 4:30 a.m., he was out the door of his vanilla-colored Quincy bungalow, making the near mile-long walk in the dark to the North Quincy Red Line station to catch a northbound train. Tran always allowed plenty of time so he wouldn’t be late for the 6:45 shift at the foam factory in Somerville where he has worked for more than two decades.
Just as he approached the station, he heard a shout from behind him: “F------g money!”
And just as suddenly, he was punched in the left temple, the brute force knocking his 110-pound, 5-foot-4-inch frame to the sidewalk. His head was cut open and spinal cord severely damaged. A passerby found Tran crumpled and unconscious, mistaking him at first in the dark for a trash bag. Police said there was a large amount of blood at the scene.
The mugger fled with Tran’s backpack. But all he got was Tran’s lunch: a serving of rice and caramelized pork. Tran’s wallet, containing $58, remained on him.
Police would later arrest 34-year-old Brian Kenney of Quincy and charge him with the attack. Kenney allegedly mugged a second person that same day snatching the handbag of an Asian American woman outside the same T station. She was unharmed.
Six months later, long after the headlines of the attacks have faded, Tran continues to replay that moment in his head, ricocheting between anger that it happened to him and gratitude that he is alive.
Despite a wave of assaults against elderly Asian Americans across the country, authorities have ruled that Tran’s attack was not a hate crime but one of opportunity. Kenney, who is white, has been indicted on two counts of unarmed robbery and one count of assault and battery on a person over 60 causing serious bodily injury. He has entered a plea of not guilty and sits in the Norfolk County jail as his case wends its way through the criminal justice system.
Tran, through a translator, argued his robbery should be classified as a hate crime because the suspect appears to have targeted Asian Americans. It’s also the only way he can explain the viciousness of what happened.
“I believe the added element of violence is because of anti-Asian hate,” he said.
Tran’s family would like to pursue a hate crime charge, but Quincy police and the Norfolk County District Attorney’s office say they could not find evidence that race was a motivating factor in the attacks.
“It’s a little disheartening,” said Tran’s son, Dennis, 26, who has moved back home to help take care of his father. “We had to change everything in our lifestyle. I want to guarantee that people don’t get off lightly so it doesn’t happen to anyone else.”
By the time Liem Tran could come home from the hospital, spring had arrived ― two months of surgeries, recovery, and rehab. He arrived in a neck brace and wheelchair. Still, it was an improvement. His wife, Trang, recalled that in the days immediately following the attack, he suffered from agonizing pain, and was given so much medication it was hard for her to keep track.
Today, Tran can walk on his own, but he remains frail. His family is too scared to leave him home alone for long stretches, fearing a fall would leave him helpless on the floor.
“The doctor said if he hits his neck one more time, he can’t move,” Trang said in a recent interview at the couple’s Quincy home.
The attack affected nerves that control the right side of Tran’s body. His right shoulder is rigid. His right arm dangles awkwardly. His right hand is non-functional. His sense of balance is off. He cannot dress or bathe himself, and he only recently is able to use the bathroom unaided.
While he’s made a lot of progress, doctors have told his family not to expect much more.
Trang, a nail technician, and Dennis take turns staying home. The family has installed web cameras throughout the house for the times they can’t be there. More recently, Tran has been going out three times a week, picked up by a bus to spend the day at a senior care center in Boston. So far, he doesn’t much like it, his wife said, because he has difficulty participating in some of the activities such tai chi and yoga. But having him out of the house gives a much-needed break to the rest of the family
“It has been an exhausting process doing the caretaking,” said Dennis.
Before the attack, Tran was not one to sit still. He was supposed to retire two years ago from Rogers Foam Corp., where he did assembly work that included operating a saw machine and lifting heavy cases. But he kept going. Instead of working 60 to 70 hours a week, including overtime on weekends, he pulled back to 40. Tran put in those many marathon days so he could send money to Vietnam to help his mother ― who has since died ― and later to fund the education of Dennis and his other son, Jessie.
Even on weekends, he used to be out of the home by 7 a.m., his family said. He doesn’t drive and would walk to most places. Sometimes, he took the subway to shop at Asian grocery stores in Dorchester. He especially liked to prepare sweet-and-sour soup, curries, and steamed fish.
Tran came to the United States because he didn’t have much of a future in Vietnam after serving in the South Vietnamese military and siding with the Americans to fight the Communist North. After the United States withdrew and Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese in 1975, Tran and others like him were imprisoned. He spent at least five years in confinement, at times under grueling conditions. After his release, he moved to Malaysia and later resettled in Boston in 1989.
“He’s very simple. He didn’t bother nobody,” said Luat Nguyen, a close friend who is also his supervisor at work.
These days, Tran spends most of his time watching Vietnamese TV shows and listening to music. His eyes lit up when asked to tick off favorite artists, among them Mariah Carey and Celine Dion, and eagerly showed off his collection of DVDs of concerts and performances.
It’s not the life he and his family had expected for him before the violence of that February morning, but they know the outcome could have been worse.
Dennis recalled doctors telling the family that “if he had fallen an inch off in a different direction, he could have died.”
Kenney was apprehended in March after his wife called police to say he had a drug problem and had trashed their Quincy apartment. Officers arrived to find Kenney incomprehensible, swaying from side to side. He then became unresponsive and had to be administered Narcan, according to the police report.
The Kenneys live near where Tran was robbed, and Quincy detectives wondered if there was a connection. After the overdose episode, officers put him under surveillance and observed how Kenney wore a gray winter jacket and a pair of Saucony sneakers that matched those of the suspect from the robberies.
Last week a Norfolk County Superior Court judge set a court date in October for Kenney. If convicted, he faces up to 15 years in prison on the assault and battery charge alone.
Meanwhile, Tran’s medical bills pile up. He remains on a dizzying array of drugs, about 17 pills a day. Tran has health insurance, but his care still costs about $4,200 a month. The family is burning through savings, but also has been buoyed by the generosity of friends, teachers, and alumni of Boston College High School, which both sons attended, in helping to raise about $34,000 through a GoFundMe campaign.
Throughout his months-long ordeal, Tran has seldom complained about his plight. But when a court document arrives in the mail, the feelings can be hard to contain. The reminder of a slow motion legal process unleashes his frustration.
This humble man who survived prison, raised a family in a new land, and lived a peaceful, productive life until being brutally struck down can’t help but ask: “Why did this happen?”
Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com.