After almost two months, that summer day is still vivid in Huong Nguyen’s memory.
About 9 a.m. July 29, John Le’s mother placed a Wawa breakfast of hash browns and a biscuit on a table in her sleeping son’s bedroom in their Narberth home. “John, I go out and see you later,” Nguyen said, not knowing if her son heard her, she recalled.
That afternoon, as usual, the devout Catholic went to her church in Broomall to pray. About 6:10 p.m., she was driving home on Eagle Road in the Ardmore section of Haverford Township when she heard the siren calls of an ambulance and police.
She didn’t know until about 20 minutes after she got home what the wailing cries of the emergency vehicles had been for: Lankenau Medical Center was calling to tell her that John, 29, the youngest of her four adult children, had been shot.
The shooting made headlines because it was a rare instance of gun violence in the township. Authorities said it was random. In its aftermath, Le’s family was reluctant to discuss it.
But on Friday, his mother agreed to her first interview in her home, during which she described the shock and surreal nature of that day and the forgiveness she feels for her son’s alleged killer. Nguyen, 58, said that she and her husband had gone to Lankenau without realizing the severity of the situation. Even after a doctor told her that he couldn’t save her son, she didn’t comprehend, and asked to see John.
“I said, ‘John, John, will you talk with me, John? Why you don’t talk with me?’ I hold him,” Nguyen recalled as she sat in her living room decorated with figurines and pictures of Jesus and Mary, a framed photo of her smiling son John above the fireplace.
Poised at first, she broke down crying. “He didn’t say anything. I say, ‘John, John, why don’t you talk with me?’”
Police have said that Le, a graduate of Lower Merion High School and Temple University, was gunned down during an apparent robbery by a Philadelphia man, Derrick Rollins, 24, just after 6 p.m. July 29 after Le walked from the Original Eagle Pizza shop on the 2300 block of Haverford Road to a friend’s apartment on that block. Haverford Township police have said Le’s cellphone was taken, but nothing else appeared to have been stolen.
Rollins, arrested Aug. 22 in Decatur, Ga., following an extensive manhunt, is being held without bail in the Delaware County Prison. A preliminary hearing scheduled for Thursday on murder, robbery, and weapons offenses is likely to be postponed, authorities said.
In the interview Friday, Le’s mother recalled making the sign of the cross on her son’s forehead in the hospital. Her husband closed their son’s eyes. Sitting on her sofa, Nguyen showed how she rubbed her son’s right arm with her hand. His right hand, clenched in a fist, relaxed.
“He opened his hand for me,” she said. “He was still warm.”
When she and her husband left, she still believed he was alive. She called the hospital the next morning, asking to see her son. “They say, ‘Sorry, he already died,’” she recalled.
Nguyen said she was told that her son was shot twice, just below the left side of his chest. She believes he had opened the front door to his friend’s apartment building when he was confronted by Rollins and saw the gun. Her son, she was told by his friend, then called up to his friend, who lives in an upstairs apartment, yelling: “He has a gun!”
Those, she was told, were her son’s last words.
Nguyen said she doesn’t know if she would want to attend the preliminary hearing for Rollins. “I don’t want to see him,” she said.
“I forgive him,” she said of her son’s alleged killer. “I’m not angry, but he has to live in the jail because he’s so dangerous.”
Asked how she could forgive, she cited her faith: “I love Jesus.”
Nguyen said she and her husband, after marrying in Vietnam, came to the United States as refugees via the Philippines in 1984. They lived in Logan and Olney before moving to the quieter and safer Main Line. John was born in Philadelphia and attended Catholic elementary school there, his mother said.
Le’s oldest sibling, a sister, lives in Japan. One of his brothers lives in California, the other in Virginia, the mother said. At Temple, John studied accounting and spent two years studying in a Temple program in Japan, she said.
A Temple spokesman said Le majored in international business with a concentration in accounting and graduated in August 2011.
Le worked as an analyst at Sneaker Villa’s office on the 1900 block of Arch Street in Center City. On his last morning, a Saturday, after he woke up about 10 a.m., he watched a tennis match on TV, his mother said she was told by her sister-in-law, who lives with the family.
About noon, he said goodbye to his aunt and left for the day.
Hours before his death, he played a round of disc golf with friends in Fairmount Park. Le also played in a recreational tennis league, and police have said he had been scheduled to play in a match at the time of the shooting, but it was canceled due to the weather. Nick Millas, who owns Original Eagle Pizza but was not present when Le went into the pizza shop about 6 p.m., said Monday that Le had ordered something to go.
Le’s mom believes he bought pizza. “John was so happy; he walked in Haverford, he walked everywhere,” she said. “He was free.”
“He was my baby,” she said. “I moved here because I wanted my children to be safe. Even though I moved here, John was not safe.”