SAN JOSE -- If the house on Cortona Drive was a nightmare, the aftermath is shaping up to be a battle royale.
Almost four months ago, police removed Binh Nguyen and a dozen other mentally ill Asian men and women from an unlicensed care home. They soon arrested five people, all members of the same family, who face up to 18 years in prison.
The defendants pleaded not guilty Friday in Santa Clara County Superior Court, and the preliminary hearing was set for late October. Lawyers who represent the now-notorious family say their clients have been unfairly portrayed and are gearing up to fight back aggressively in court.
But one alleged victim says the conditions were atrocious and hopes the defendants get their just deserts. "My goal is to live a normal life," said Binh, 58, who believes achieving that requires justice.
The case is complex. Interviewing 13 alleged victims who all have severe mental disorders is incredibly difficult. And so is battling a social service agency that seems reluctant to produce useful information about those victims.
"Given their medical conditions, these are not the most articulate people," said Deputy District Attorney Charles Huang.
Defense lawyers are not happy. "There's been a lot of sizzle but no steak," said Sam Polverino, who represents defendant Kathy Le.
Huang has charged Le, her two siblings, Margarette Ngo and Charles Nguyen, and their parents, Jennifer Ngo and George Nguyen,
Defense attorneys say they have not seen enough evidence turned up by police to warrant the charges. One resident told authorities that he was treated fine and never saw any beatings, according to court documents.
"This is simply untrue," attorney Stephanie Rickard told the court about the charges against her client, Jennifer Ngo. Rickard said Ngo has her own medical issues "which should be dealt with at home under humane circumstances." The lawyer seeks a bail reduction from $500,000 to $10,000.
Meanwhile, local Vietnamese-language newspapers and talk radio are buzzing over the case. Jennifer Ngo and George Nguyen appear to have enjoyed some respect in the community for caring for mentally-ill Asians shunned by their own families. A Vietnamese Catholic priest appeared at the defendants' arraignment on July 16, saying he wanted to lend the defendants moral support.
"From what I've read, the charges are untrue," said Antony Ngo, a nephew who insisted that his aunt and uncle ran a room and board, not a group home that required licensing. "These are independent people," he said of the tenants, "who can be there on their own."
State officials disagree. The state Department of Social Services ruled the house had operated as an unlicensed care facility. However, that is not a criminal offense that Huang could prosecute.
Diane Abbott was only 11 when her Vietnam hometown, Saigon, fell to the communist north in 1975. Amid the violence and turmoil, she noticed that her older brothers, Hung and Binh, began to behave erratically but she didn't know why.
It took their father, Vuong Nguyen, an accountant, 10 years to get his family out of the country. After settling in San Jose, he had Binh and Hung undergo psychiatric evaluations. The brothers were diagnosed with severe schizophrenia.
Their father cared for them at home, Abbott said, and drove them to appointments with a Vietnamese-American psychiatrist who later referred them to Jennifer Ngo in 2002.
Binh said he and Hung moved into a group home Ngo operated in East San Jose. Two years later, he said, Ngo moved everyone to the bigger, newer house on Cortona Drive in Evergreen Valley. There the brothers met George Nguyen, known at the house as "The Doctor."
Friends said George Nguyen was a graduate of the University of Saigon Medical School and had served as a trauma physician with the South Vietnamese Army. It is not known if he ever took or passed the medical exam in California after arriving as a refugee in 1975.
Binh Nguyen and other residents of the house told investigators that the caregivers often withheld their medications to punish them, even for minor accidents like spilling water.
When police searched the house, they found a suitcase hidden in the attic and stuffed with prescription medicines for the mentally-ill residents.
Now living at his sister's house, Binh described his former life: He and Hung, shared a room with another man and were rarely let out -- except to eat and use the bathroom. Breakfast was always one peanut butter sandwich each. Lunch, a bowl of instant noodles, and dinner, chicken and rice.
Despite their isolation, he said, they managed to stay connected in small ways, such as watching TV together once a month on a large screen. A devout Catholic, Binh listened to Catholic radio.
'In the light now'
It is not clear how often Abbott visited her brothers, but she said the staff urged her not to visit at the house, but to only see Binh and Hung when they went to doctor's appointments.
For their monthly trips to the psychiatrist, Binh said, the residents were allowed a shower and fresh clothes. But during those sessions, Binh never complained to the doctor because Jennifer Ngo was always beside him, squeezing his shoulder when she wanted him to clam up.
"Too afraid," Binh said. "She would punish us later."
Hung Nguyen died suddenly on May 20 en route to a hospital, for reasons that are still unclear. He was 48. When Abbott and other relatives went to the house to pick up Binh for the funeral, they were told Binh didn't live there. The upset family called police.
"I'm free because my brother died," Binh said recently. "Hung's death saved my life."
As this case slogs along, one big unanswered question remains: How could an unlicensed group home operate in a middle-class neighborhood for years?
Lee Pullen, the deputy director of Adult Protective Services, said his department cannot answer questions without violating privacy rights. To ultimately get the full history of the operation may take a lawsuit filed by the victims. Abbott said a lawyer is exploring such a suit.
After spending 10 years as a virtual and helpless prisoner, Binh said he misses his brother and loses sleep over his death, but he's looking forward to justice and more.
"I was taken from a dark room," Binh said, "and I'm in the light now."
Contact Joe Rodriguez at 408-920-5767. Follow him at Twitter.com/joerodmercury.