SAN JOSE -- It began with the simple gesture of passing the hat around to other officers to help a family threatened with destitution after losing a father to a senseless act of violence.
San Jose police Officer Huan Nguyen never imagined he was starting a movement that would resonate around the world and set a record for generosity.
"I couldn't imagine more than I've seen so far," Nguyen said, "to see people have the same feeling as you to help this family."
A fund Nguyen started to support the family of Phuoc Hong Long Lam has raised about $125,000 -- $113,000 donated online -- since Lam, 37, was killed May 6 in an apparent road-rage shooting as he and his wife ran morning errands for his upcoming birthday. It is the highest total a police-initiated effort has garnered for a crime victim's family in the city's history, according to the San Jose Police Officers' Association.
Media coverage of the fund and the family -- highlighted by a widely published Associated Press feature -- spurred donations from all over the United States and overseas, topped by a pledge to fund a trust for Lam's two children until they're college age.
"I'm speechless. I don't know how to express my appreciation for everybody around the world," widow Dieu Hien Thi Huynh said in Vietnamese, as translated by Nguyen. "I'm going to value it and treasure it."
Deputy Chief Phan Ngo, who oversees SJPD's bureau of investigations, lauded Nguyen's efforts to bring attention to the fund.
"There's been a long-standing history of San Jose police officers extending themselves beyond the call of duty to help victims and family members during their most difficult times," Ngo said. "What Officer Huan Nguyen did is a prime example of this tradition."
Lam and Huynh were driving along Senter Road the morning of the shooting to get some speakers fixed so they could have karaoke at Lam's birthday 10 days later. It was a rare respite for Lam, who often worked seven days a week driving a charter bus to support his wife and two sons, 7-year-old Henry and 4-year-old Steven. Huynh stayed at home to meet the special needs of Henry, who has severe autism.
Nguyen said a car pulled out from a side street into Lam's path, forcing him to swerve to avoid a collision. Both cars pulled over near Baltic Way, and Lam and Huynh got out. Before any words could be exchanged, someone pulled a gun from the passenger side of the other car and fired, hitting Lam in full view of his wife.
Lam died that evening. The suspected shooter and driver fled but police revealed Sunday that they were arrested in late May after vehicle descriptions and a license plate number helped police identify suspects Daniel Alejandro Reyes, 23, and Fidadelfo Silva Ortiz, 17. Reyes was arrested in Tracy on May 19, and Ortiz, charged as an adult, was arrested May 23 in Oakdale.
"There wasn't even an accident, just a close call," Nguyen said, referring to the lead-up to the shooting. "It's so random and senseless."
Within hours, Nguyen found out that Lam's widow had two small children but no source of income and no other family in the country.
This was far from the first tragedy that Nguyen has come across in his 17-year police career. But more so than with most incidents, he could see himself in the victims: Nguyen hails from a Vietnamese immigrant family in the same area -- he is a Yerba Buena High School alum -- and has two children, ages 11 and 9.
"I grew up in the same community. This could happen to any of us," he said. "That could be me driving home. That could be me leaving two kids behind."
He conferred with a small group of officers with a modest goal.
"I said, 'Hey, we need to chip in and help them,' " he said.
He had no fundraising experience, but he had the Internet. He came across a free hosting website. By the end of the week, the fund was set up and the word went out to the police union and media.
Within 24 hours, Nguyen had received more than 100 text messages and emails, and the till topped $10,000.
The story kept spreading, most notably in an Associated Press feature that was picked up by news outlets around the United States. More donations poured in, ranging from $5 to $1,000, spanning from far away as London.
Among the donors is Shane Ortega, president of Ortega Family Enterprises, a prominent New Mexico-based tourism and hospitality firm, who Nguyen said pledged to make ongoing contributions to a trust for the Lam family. The Sharks Foundation -- the nonprofit arm of San Jose's hockey franchise -- has sent over signed pucks to be auctioned off for donations.
Ortega said he was struck by a news image of Lam's family huddled around a framed photo, prompting the father of seven to envision himself in Lam's place.
"He did everything right. He was working hard for his family," Ortega said. "I just imagined what it would be like to be a father dying and that even if you did your best, not be able to take care of your family. How can we not step up and help?"
The support from so many people who don't even know the family has been a comfort to Huynh, whose sons are only beginning to absorb the idea that their father is really gone. Portraits of Lam adorn the walls of their small two-bedroom apartment, one of which Henry kisses each day. The boys have been told that "dad has gone to heaven," but they still wait for his return from work each day and cry when he doesn't appear.
For Huynh, the emotions are still raw, and flare up often: To take her kids to school, she has to drive by the spot on Senter Road where she watched her husband disappear from her life.
"Without him," she said, "it's a lot harder."
Contact Robert Salonga at 408-920-5002. Follow him at Twitter.com/robertsalonga.
To contribute to the fund supporting the family of Phuoc Hong Long Lam, visit www.youcaring.com/sanjose15homicide. Checks can be sent to any Wells Fargo branch under the account number 1440267027.