Michael Le is the coolest guy in the room! But it wasn’t always so. When I met Michael he was an anxious, nervous, shy man-child wearing Vibram FiveFinger Shoes. He had a deer in the headlights look because his sister Michelle had been missing for nearly three weeks, since May 27, 2011. On June 7, Michael and his family learned on the evening news that Michelle’s disappearance had been reclassified as a homicide.
Michael’s paternal family was boat people: immigrants who fled Communist controlled Vietnam following the Vietnam War. His maternal family was recipients of the Orderly Departure Program, which allowed people wishing to leave Vietnam after the war to do so in a safe and orderly manner. Both families immigrated to the United States intact and settled in San Diego where Michael’s parents met and married. Michael and Michelle lost their mother to cancer in 1999 and lost their father to indifference before they were even born.
Son Le immigrated to the United States, the oldest of six children, when he was 17 years old. Like generations of first born Asian men before him, Sonny received deferential treatment and was allowed to chart his own path. Unfocused, indifferent and caught between two cultures, Sonny became a nomad prone to ancient superstitions as he embraced 21st Century electro-technology. He has a tendency to disappear for long periods of time and then reappear suddenly as if he had never been away. Sonny deferred his paternal responsibility to his younger sisters and allowed his children to become way stations in his nomadic wanderings.
In 2002 Michelle and Michael were living in the San Francisco Bay Area with relatives while Michelle pursued her dream of following in her mother’s footsteps and becoming a nurse. She was six months away from achieving that goal when she disappeared from a Kaiser Hospital in Hayward last May. The extended family began commuting from San Diego to help Michael search for his sister.
It was during one of these commutes up Interstate 5, which runs from North to South through California’s Central Valley, that I received the call from one of Michael’s uncles. As we had so many times before, Violet and I watched Michelle’s drama play out on the evening news. She kept encouraging me to help the family, but I deferred, reminding her that the family needed to call us, not the other way around. I believe that my wife was driven by similarity. She too is a first generation Asian American whose family of nine traveled half way across the world to settle in the land of golden hills and Champagne dreams.
Our first meeting occurred in a dingy motel room in Hayward. My first piece of advice to the family was to get a new room. Having stayed in hundreds of hotel and motel rooms I understand the importance of maintaining standards of comfort that did not exist at this location. Ultimately, I believe that we reflect our environment which is why it is better to surround ourselves with beauty rather than squalor.
I accompanied the family to the Hayward Police Department where Sonny, surrounded by family, stepped in front of waiting television cameras and read a statement rejecting law enforcement’s theory that Michelle was a homicide victim. He declared that the family still believed that she was alive and that they would search for her until she was found alive. Off camera Sonny looked me in the eye, and promised to move heaven and earth to find his daughter. Two weeks later he traveled to Vietnam for an extended visit.
Michael and his cousin Krystine, who had just moved to the Bay Area from San Diego, assumed the burden of responsibility, a daunting task for kids in their early 20s. They recruited volunteers to distribute fliers. Although Michael was shy, and he spoke haltingly, he organized small fund raising events and tried to repair the family’s relationship with the police. Finally, when we reached the point where volunteer searches were feasible the family secured a Buddhist Temple that we could use as a search center on weekends.
Michael was a ubiquitous presence at the search center. At first he stayed in the background, a lanky lad gracefully shadowboxing or teaching the temple children how to dragon dance. Although he was surrounded by family, and his girlfriend Thuy was never far away and was always watching his back, Michael seemed alone, isolated, attempting to slay the demons in his head as he reconciled his frightening new reality.
The search for Michelle was very different than the search for Sierra LaMar. We only had a weekend search center, not an entire donated school. Hayward was as indifferent to Michelle’s plight as Morgan Hill has been responsive to Sierra’s. Whereas we have registered thousands of volunteers from Morgan Hill, only a handful of people from Hayward offered assistance. Instead the response came primarily from volunteer Search and Rescue (SAR) teams, the Asian community and those who admired the steely determination of Michael’s tight-knit family.
Eventually, a core group of volunteers gravitated toward Michael and went with him on ground searches. He became more comfortable and began hanging out in the mapping room, sitting in on briefings and debriefing sessions. Very quiet and never displaying the wild range of emotions typical of family members, including myself, in dire straits, Mikey began to fit into his new role of brother-protector.
As days turned into weeks and then months the family assumed more and more search related responsibilities. KlaasKids is very good at creating a search and rescue effort. We can work with and provide direction for families and their communities. We can create relationships with law enforcement and work with the media, but we do not have the resources to devote our full time all the time to a single search.
Therefore, we are constantly teaching and instructing. We seek out people to assume critical search related roles and basically hope to hell that they are up to the task. Michelle couldn’t have been in better hands. Family passion never wavered and their commitment never waned. Unfortunately, on September 17, they learned what we had believed from the beginning. It was during the last scheduled search that Michelle’s remains were discovered. The Hayward Police had been correct all along. She had been the victim of a twisted mind and a vengeful heart.
Throughout, Michael never lost his public composure. The deer in the headlight gaze deferred to focused contemplation. He had developed a passion for search and rescue as he found his voice and his direction. He determined that Michelle’s death would have meaning and announced that he was forming his own SAR team. He organized meetings and team trainings. He has overcome his shy nature as he developed a quiet forcefulness that commands respect.
When Sierra LaMar disappeared I received another call from a desperate family. Again, I explained that certain milestones would have to be achieved before we could launch a major search and rescue effort. Again, my words clashed with a sense of urgency that wants to recover their child, not achieve “certain milestones.” When I called Michael and asked him if he would work with Sierra’s family on preliminary roadside searches he didn’t hesitate for a moment. I could hear the excitement in his voice. He met with them, he consoled them, he took them into the fields to search for their daughter and he led them.
Now when I see Michael at the search center every day he is not shadow boxing and he seems to have slayed or at least reconciled his personal demons. He stands in front of hundreds of anxious volunteers and quietly commands their attention as he explains basic SAR procedures. He briefs and de-briefs search teams all day long. The shy, lanky man-child I met last year has evolved into a man of purpose and a leader of men who wears Vibram FiveFinger shoes. Michael Le is and always will be the coolest guy in the room.