By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
Linda’s face is drooping. Binh’s is tight. The two sisters, sitting in the back of a car, looking into the screen of a Zoom call, are grieving in different ways. Linda, 25, tells a story of how her brother, John Huynh, taught her how to ride a bike. “Just keep pedaling,” he would tell her. Binh, 27, talks about breaking down at the open casket of her dead brother.
“How do you prepare for something like that?” she asks.
The Asian American community is asking the same question, but on a larger scale.
Since the death of Huynh, 29, on April 25, the entire community has been collectively wringing its hands and contracting its brow in a tumult of grief, fear, and unease.
Their fears center on the fact that Huynh, a health insurance salesman and Amway entrepreneur, was murdered in an apparently unprovoked attack in the space of a little over a minute outside his apartment in Bothell.
They also fear that the crime was motivated by the same kind of hatefulness that has been sweeping the nation and making thousands of Asian Americans (some reports say millions) the target of violent attacks and racial slurs.
In response to the murder, a coalition of AAPI groups has formed to demand that the King County Prosecutor investigate the murder as a hate crime. At present, the defendant is being charged with second-degree murder—which means it was not premeditated.
The coalition, organized by AAPI Against Hate, a group of nonprofits and individuals, is demanding the additional investigation after authorities seemed reluctant to investigate that possibility.
In fact, the King County Prosecutor’s office seemed to dismiss the designation even before the initial investigation was complete.
According to Nathan Duong, a co-organizer of AAPI Against Hate, who sat in on a conference call with King County Prosecutor Jennifer Peterson and the Huynh family, police have seized the defendant’s cell phone and other items to look into any incriminating activity.
But at the same time, a spokesperson for the prosecutor’s office told KOMO News that it was hard to establish the killing as a hate crime because there weren’t any apparent racial slurs involved, according to witnesses.
“If we got additional evidence from police that showed there was a racial statement or any type of hate crime beyond a reasonable doubt, we could charge that, but we don’t have that,” said Casey McNerthney, with the King County Prosecutor’s office.
A hate crime sentence would be shorter than a murder conviction, and it would not add more time to a murder conviction.
The prosecuting attorney’s case summary, obtained by the Asian Weekly, simply describes the alleged murder in a brief paragraph, but states that “based on the investigation so far, it does not appear that the defendant or victim knew each other or had any prior altercations.”
Huynh was with friends who were people of color when he left his apartment, according to Duong.
The defendant, Ian Patrick Williams, was described as having “flipped off” Hunyh in the case summary. When Huynh questioned him about the action, Williams allegedly drew a knife, plunged forward, and rammed it once into his heart, according to witnesses cited in news reports.
Video surveillance, according to the court documents, captured some of the encounter.
Hunyh died at the scene.
A family in grief
Huynh’s father had emigrated from southern China to Vietnam and then immigrated to Pennsylvania in 1991, when he was in his 20s. There he met his wife. He worked in a furniture factory and his wife was a seamstress.
Although the family had only one TV and later one dial-up internet connection over which they competed, Huynh was something of a surrogate father to his sisters.
Linda, who is now a dental hygienist in Philadelphia, remembers being afraid to ride a bike. She did not learn until she was 16, and it was all due to her brother’s help. He was already a serious mountain biker, but he took an entire day to teach her at a nearby park.
“He was like a mentor and role model to Binh and me,” said Linda.
Binh, who is in the tech industry in Jersey City, remembers him more as an older brother, teasing her.
With his friends, he was devoted to their entire families, sleeping over at their houses and befriending their parents, siblings, and, in some cases, kids.
“He was always the person to reach out to others, he knew how to connect with people, even to people on the street,” said Binh.
That was why, when his best friend invited him to move out to Seattle to live with him, he jumped at the idea.
“He was like that, always ready and open to try something new,” said Linda.
In one week, he packed up his stuff and moved out. He soon fell in love with the scenery and the people. He also met his future wife in Washington.
“He was actually just trying to meet friends,” said Binh, “but she turned out to be more than a friend.”
Huynh and his wife, who prefers to remain anonymous, were married in November—five months before he was killed. On the day of the funeral, Huynh’s parents chose to follow Chinese tradition.
They lit incense, offered a spread of food and alcohol to his wandering spirit, and burned paper replicas of money, all meant to ease his transition into the other world.
His mother wanted an open casket, said Binh.
“She felt she hadn’t gotten to see him enough and wanted one more look at him.”
Linda said some private words to him.
Following the funeral was a memorial where more than 100 guests showed up. Each one of them came up to the sisters and shared a story of how Huynh had touched their lives.
Questions about the defendant
Questions remain about the defendant, who is now being held on a $2 million bail. Authorities noted that Williams has no prior criminal record, an assertion that AAPI coalition members worry could be used to justify a decision not to investigate the murder as a hate crime.
According to a press release from the University of Washington (UW), Williams was a student at the UW Bothell campus.
His long, shoulder-length hair and heavy glasses, as shown on local television, made him appear a stark contrast with the tightly cut coiffe and intent gaze of Huynh, who was also an extreme mountain bike rider, according to his sisters.
According to the court documents, Williams ran back into the apartment he shared with his mother after the attack and hid in the bathroom. According to the case summary, he told his mother he had just been attacked by an “anti-masker.” When his mother asked if he was hurt, he allegedly told her no, but he might have hurt the other person, according to news reports.
Cathy Lee, president of Chinese Americans Citizens Alliance, one of the groups joining the coalition demanding that the murder be investigated as a hate crime, said that the fact Williams lied suggests there is more to the story.
“John Huynh did nothing to provoke Williams. Of all the people there, he chose to kill Huynh then lied without any regret,” she said in a press release. “We are here to support the Huynh family and seek justice.”
The coalition has rallied around Huynh’s family in issuing statements from prominent AAPI activists and leaders, and planning marches and events.
“We are here to show support and solidarity with the Huynh family. We cannot imagine the pain they must be suffering with the unprovoked death of their brother,” said Connie So, president of OCA-Asian Pacific Advocates of Greater Seattle, after attending the meeting with the King County Prosecutor’s office on May 6.
The Justice for John Huynh coalition includes OCA- Greater Chapter of Seattle, Seattle CID Nightwatch, Chinese Information and Service Center, Asian Pacific Islander Americans for Civic Engagement, Vietnamese American Community of Seattle, Sno-King Counties, Friends of Little Saigon, PIVOT Washington, OneAmerica, Japanese American Citizens League, Pacific Islander Health Board, and International Community Health Services.
The coalition is planning a series of events hoping to use this moment to raise awareness about the unceasing violence against Asian Americans while demanding justice for Huynh.
May 14 Community healing: 3 p.m., Bothell City Hall
May 15 Rally and march: 3 p.m., Hing Hay Park, Seattle.
May 16 Rally: 1 p.m., Four Corners, Maple Valley.
Virtual vigil and AAPI history teach-in by Connie So, Teaching Professor of American Ethnic Studies at the University of Washington: “The history behind AAPI activism and how it continues today”: 3 p.m. via Zoom. Register at tinyurl.com/aapihistory.
Mahlon can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.