Fallen Cleveland officer remembered as 'policeman's-policeman'

By Adam Ferrise
Advance Ohio Media, Cleveland

CLEVELAND, Ohio — Vu Nguyen’s family, friends and fellow police officers remembered the veteran officer as a role model for how to be a family man, dedicated police officer and compassionate friend.

Hundreds packed Our Lady of Angels Church to honor Nguyen, who died on July 6 — four days after collapsing in 90-degree heat during a training exercise for officers trying to become handlers for drug-sniffing dogs.

Cleveland Police Chief Calvin Williams during the funeral service called Nguyen, 50, “a policeman’s policeman.”

“He was the kind of guy that a lot of us looked up to,” Williams said. “He kept us laughing and would do anything and everything for us.”

Residents and blue ribbons tied on utility poles lined the streets outside the church, as the standing-room only crowd filtered out. Nguyen was a police officer since 1998 and a guard in the city jail for four years.

Nguyen was then taken to Lakewood Park Cemetery where he was laid to rest. He leaves behind a wife, Holli, and two daughters– Kayla, 15, and Maya, 8.

“It’s always difficult in these times but especially difficult with someone of with his character, especially when it’s someone you know did everything possible for everyone in his life,” Williams said.

Common themes ran through the speeches from family and friends: Nguyen spent his time on everyone but himself, including family, friends and his fellow officers.

He was one of 15 siblings in a refugee family that fled Vietnam the day North Vietnamese troops rolled into the South.

His father was a former police chief in Saigon, and his mother owned several Vietnamese restaurants after the family settled in Cleveland, including Minh Anh on Detroit Avenue and West 54th Street.  

Nguyen’s sister, Truc Sulaiman, said the word that most defined her brother was “selfless.”

She said as a child she wanted nothing more than a bike, but their family didn’t have the money to buy her one. Nguyen collected parts from broken bikes he found in the Lakewood neighborhood where they grew up and made his sister a bike from scratch.

“He taught us all how important it is to be a giver,” Sulaiman said. “He taught us all how to be a giver with a willing and happy heart, without expecting anything in return.”

One of his older brothers, Son Nguyen, said it more bluntly: “You are our family’s hero.”

Timothy Potter, the pastor of Grace Church in Mentor, said Nguyen embodied what it’s like to be a father.

“Your ability to balance love of work and love of family is an example for all fathers,” Potter said.

His two former partners — Det. Aaron Reese, and Patrolman Tony Tomaro — along with family friend and neighbor Sgt. Jennifer Ciaccia, all gave tributes to Nguyen during the service.

Ciaccia said Nguyen was a second father to her daughters. She Nguyen was a people-person who loved helping everyone.

“There just isn’t a way to remember Vu without having a smile on your face,” she said.

Tomaro, his most recent partner in the city’s Third District, said Nguyen, after getting home from a family wedding in South Carolina, booked a vacation and airfare for Tomaro and Tomaro’s sons.

“When any member of our division needed anything, Vu would do it for them,” Tomaro said.

Reese, who calculated that he worked 12,480 hours with Nguyen as his partner, said Nguyen was an first-class officer, father and friend.

He said Nguyen once helped him move into his house at 2 a.m. after their shift ended. As an officer, he said Nguyen was a “voice of reason.”

“I got a lot of credit for what we did as a team,” Reese said. “I was bigger, but he was stronger. I had a higher amount of education, but he was smarter. I was a police officer longer, but he was wiser.”

He also said Nguyen’s highest priority was his wife and daughters.

“The four words he said the most were ‘Holli and the girls,'” Reese said. “What he looked forward to most was during the school year when he’d wake up after getting off at 2 a.m. and getting to talk with his daughters. Those were his favorite conversations.”

Reese said the 10 days since Nguyen’s death have been the most difficult of his life. He, Tomaro and Ciaccia were charged with helping the family out in any way possible.

“It’s been bittersweet,” Reese said. “It’s been the most difficult 10 days of my life. But I’m honored to do it. Family first.”  

©2018 Advance Ohio Media, Cleveland

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