Fallen Heroes: Officer Tony Trinh

Nelson Zoch

April 6, 1997

Cuong Huy Trinh was born in South Vietnam on May 18, 1971. He came to the United States along with his parents and a brother in 1983. Tony, as he was known to family, friends and fellow officers, joined the Houston Police Department by way of Police Cadet Class No. 158 on April 11, 1994. That class graduated on September 29, 1994, and Tony’s first assignment was to the Westside Patrol Division. Tony completed his probation at that unit and worked there until he transferred to the Juvenile Division in July 1996. He wore Badge No. 5891.

On Sunday morning, April 6, 1997, Officer Tony Trinh had volunteered to work at his parents’ store, the Sunny’s Food Store. This was a convenience store located in Southwest Houston at 2716 Westerland. Trinh opened the store at approximately 7:30 a.m. A customer arrived at 8:30 a.m. and, not seeing anyone behind the counter, began calling and searching for an employee. Then she discovered Tony Trinh lying behind the counter. She called police and the Trinh was found dead from a single gunshot wound to the forehead. He was only twenty-four years old.

Police Officer Coung “Tony” Huy Trinh was survived by his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Nguyen Dinh Trinh, and one brother, HPD Probationary Police Officer Dat “Ricky” Huy Trinh of the Southwest Patrol Division.

Forest Park Westheimer Funeral Home, 12800 Westheimer, was in charge of arrangements. Visitation was held at that location beginning on Wednesday, April 9, 1997, from 9 a.m. until 9 p.m. Funeral services were held at the Don Coleman Community Coliseum, 1050 Dairy Ashford, at 10 a.m. Saturday, April 12. Burial followed at the Forest Park Westheimer Cemetery.

This was definitely a whodunit and the Homicide Division immediately sprang into action. On this weekend, the Murder Squad of Lieutenant Greg Neely was on duty. Neely had taken vacation days and Night Shift Homicide Lieutenant Charles “Chuck” McClelland was filling in for him. Assigned to the scene investigation were Sergeant David Calhoun and Investigator Fred Hale. Lieutenant McClelland also assigned to this investigation Sergeants John Swaim and Carless Elliott, who were ably assisted by Investigators Millard “Fil” Waters and Darrell Robertson. Homicide Captain Richard Holland also made the scene with Lieutenant McClelland and they both supervised the investigation.

Crime Scene Units J. A. Ogden and J. Hammerle were summoned to record and recover any evidence the investigators deemed necessary. Firearms Examiner Mike Lyons also was called in as was Latent Print Examiner Chuck Sheldon. A chief assistant district attorney also was on hand, according to procedure in police shootings like this one. Assistant Chiefs Joe Breshears and John Gallemore also arrived to assure the Homicide supervisors of any additional resources that might be needed.

The neighborhood was canvassed and officers determined that about the time of this offense, an Asian male was seen exiting the store hurriedly and getting into the back seat of a vehicle. While this possible suspect was running, he was seen dropping an item and stopping to pick it up.

Officer Trinh was wearing several gold necklaces when he was found. He was not in uniform and his police identification was found near him in a position that probably would not have been seen.

The initial  scene investigation revealed that some items of jewelry were missing from Officer Trinh, yet several were left behind. The shooter left a significant amount of cash at the store, with no signs that a ransacking or search for such had taken place. The officer’s police ID remained at the scene and it was unknown whether the suspect saw the ID or the officer’s weapons. The only solid physical evidence found in the initial investigation was a 9mm hull and a spent round from the scene, also possibly a 9mm slug.

The following morning, with Lieutenant Neely back on board and Captain Holland closely monitoring the investigation, Sergeant Jim Ladd and his partner, Investigator Todd Miller, were assigned to assist. Lieutenant McClelland, on the night shift, remained actively involved in the investigation. Officers ran any and all leads coming in on the night shift through him and he kept the dayshift fully informed of their activities.

In such an involved investigation, Homicide stalwarts knew that the more experienced officers involved the better as long as the investigation and activities of all of them were closely coordinated. This again held true in this case. There have been other police officer whodunit investigations conducted by the Homicide Division through the years. Some of those included Officer Lyndon L. Sander (1967), Officer Leon Griggs (1970) and Officer Jerry Spruill (1972).  In these instances, just as in the Trinh case, there were no immediate clues that indicated what happened or who was involved.

The major question was where to start. With Officer Trinh being of Vietnamese background, the department’s Oriental snitches were immediately pressed into service. Was this murder related to Officer Trinh’s departmental assignment? Was it a botched robbery? Was there a connection with the numerous Asian gangs in the Westheimer/Alief area? Questions abounded with few answers. As the old adage goes, “Working on a mystery with no clues.”

As in the cases mentioned above, months went by with officers thoroughly checking out any and all leads. Suspect after suspect were eliminated. These were very trying times for Homicide investigators and their supervisors, who are charged with the responsibility of maintaining troop morale and at the same time making sure that all leads were thoroughly checked out. Ultimately, many of them proved to be totally unrelated to the investigation. Homicide could leave no stone unturned, for this division’s worst nightmare was an uncleared capital murder of an innocent citizen or, especially, the uncleared capital murder of a law enforcement officer of any jurisdiction.

Hopefully, at some point, the real story starts to unfold. Then, all of the previous work becomes well worth it. So it was on or around August 7, 1997 – four long months after this offense – Westside Asian Crimes Investigator Charlie Cash contacted Sergeant John Swaim in Homicide. Swaim was a natural leader, admired and respected by many Homicide investigators for his natural investigative instincts. Lieutenant Neely, himself an experienced investigator, recognized Swaim’s abilities and readily placed him out front.

Investigator Cash’ information was that a man named Chuong Tong was the person responsible for Trinh’s murder. Further, Tong had been seen with Officer Trinh’s missing jewelry and other individuals involved directly or indirectly were three other Asian males named Dan, Joe and yet another Joe. Also, information surfaced through Cash’s informant that the murder weapon was a Glock and that Tong had been involved in a Galleria area bank robbery recently. The Glock information, as only investigators knew, was true and had been purposefully withheld for obvious reasons.

Good information is just that. However, great investigative abilities are needed to work out that information in a manner where it can be used in a criminal prosecution. Sergeant Swaim carefully had this information checked out in order to identify all of the parties mentioned. As a result of a meticulous and detailed investigation, Lieutenant Neely, Sergeant Swaim and a posse were able to obtain probable cause warrants for the parties involved to this point.

Officers made the arrests on probable cause warrants. In summary, Tong gave a statement to Investigator Fil Waters in which he implicated himself in the robbery of the Sunny’s Store. He also said that he knew Officer Trinh was in fact a police officer because Trinh advised him of such and cautioned him in what he was doing. He maintained that he shot Trinh because he was intimidated by his size. (This would hardly hold any water in court due to the actual size of the slain officer).   He also later admitted to the Galleria area bank robbery and identified the other parties involved.

The two individuals who were in Dan’s vehicle, the getaway car, were identified and gave statements placing themselves and Tong at the scene of the murder. Additionally, one of the witnesses who saw the suspect run across the store parking lot positively identified Tong.

The state filed capital murder charges against Cuong Tong in the death of Officer Trinh.  Assistant District Attorney Julian Ramirez led the prosecution in this case. On Tuesday, March 11, 1998, the suspect pled not guilty in the 178th Criminal District Court. A jury found Tong guilty and sentenced to him to death by lethal injection. In 2007, nearly ten years after the verdict and sentence, Tong’s appeal remains in the justice system.