Truc Thi Ly Nguyen was learning English and studying for her driver's license. Everyone drove in the United States, so the Vietnamese immigrant told others she wanted to, as well.
She worked at T&T Nails, an East Baltimore salon across from a chicken shack and a tax shop. Manicures with color gel finishes sell for $20, according to a sign tacked to the wall near a Safe Streets poster admonishing people to "Stop shooting, start living."
On Monday, Nguyen was crouched at the foot basin of a man receiving a pedicure, when a man walked in, aimed a gun at the seated customer, exchanged words and fired repeatedly.
Wounded, the customer ran into the back of the store, followed by the gunman. Some thought Nguyen was ducking when she fell between two chairs.
Fatally shot in the temple, police said, Nguyen, 43, became an inadvertent victim killed amid a surge of violence in Baltimore that also left two wounded Monday and three people dead on Saturday. Immigrating in 2010, Nguyen planned to marry, buy a car and move into her own home, relatives said.
As she lay dying, salon manager Thanh Huynh said, he saw the gunman corner the wounded customer and fire again.
The shooter turned and fled toward the salon entrance, and, Huynh said, he leapt from a chair and slammed him to the ground. Quang Ngoc Tran — Nguyen's fiance who happened to be fixing an electrical outlet in the store — piled on.
The gunman pleaded for his release, saying he targeted the customer and no one else. They held tight, and police arrived and arrested Tremaine Washington, 26, a man court records show has been convicted on charges related to drug dealing.
He remains in jail without bail after being charged with 14 criminal counts, including first- and second-degree murder, attempted murder and gun violations. No attorney was listed in court records for Washington and a relative could not be found.
Baltimore police spokesman Detective Sgt. Jarron L. Jackson said Washington confessed to detectives and told them he had, indeed, targeted only the customer. Police did not identify that victim but said he was listed in critical condition, shot in the back, stomach and leg.
When paramedics arrived, Tran said, he was cradling his bleeding fiancee. They grabbed her and drove to a hospital, barring Tran, 48, from accompanying Nguyen.
"She needs me," he said he told them. "She needs help. She can't speak English. She needs me."
Police told him he needed to be interviewed. Hours later, an officer accompanied Tran to the hospital, where, he said, he begged to see Nguyen. But she had been pronounced dead, and her body was no longer there.
On Tuesday, he stood outside the salon with red eyes, a dirty Tommy Hilfiger T-shirt and an American flag bandanna, composed except when describing how he missed Nguyen's last moments. As of Tuesday afternoon, he said, he still didn't know when and where he could see his fiancee's body.
They had met in the nail shop in the 2300 block of E. Monument St. about three years ago.
Born during the Vietnam War to a Vietnamese mother and an American soldier he said he never knew, Tran immigrated about two decades ago to Binghamton, N.Y. A mechanic and construction worker, he said he moved to Baltimore about three years ago for a "better city and better life because in upstate New York there wasn't enough work to do."
While working on repairs at the nail salon, he said, he was struck by Nguyen's helpfulness and honesty. She asked a relative whose home she rented if Tran could move in, too, when he needed a place to stay as they were getting to know each other.
He prided himself on helping her acclimate to the U.S. "She depended on me," he said.
He drove her to get her nail technician license and gave her a book to learn English where she matched pictures of body parts to words. He let her drive his 2004 Pathfinder when he dropped her off at work and again when he picked her up.
He taught her to check speed limit signs, to look in the rearview mirror before reversing. They made plans to marry next year and move into their own place, Tran said.
He reached into a pocket of his camouflage cargo pants Tuesday and pulled out her last paycheck, which he was supposed to deposit so she could send money back home, as she often did.
Tuesday afternoon, an employee from a nearby check-cashing business gave Tran a handshake, her palm concealing one of several donations he received.
It will cost Tran several thousand dollars to fly in Nguyen's sister from Vietnam to accompany her body back home. He doesn't know where the money is going to come from, and said he hopes people understand she was not meant to die.
"She sat here," he said pointing to tile floor where she prettied up people's feet. "She was innocent."
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