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A year later, killer of fruit vendor still sought

SOUTH PHILA. It's been a year since Don Ly died, but his family still speaks about him in the present tense.

Don Ly's widow, Saruong Thach , weeps during a vigil at the family's home.
Don Ly's widow, Saruong Thach , weeps during a vigil at the family's home.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

SOUTH PHILA. It's been a year since Don Ly died, but his family still speaks about him in the present tense.

When his daughter walks into the family home in South Philadelphia, she still turns toward the living room, expecting to catch a glimpse of his familiar smile.

Ly's children have taken over his fruit stand, where he worked long hours to put four children through college. They've published a 5,000-word account of his life online.

And they refuse to move from the block where he was stabbed to death on the morning of April 19, 2013.

"If we move away, we lose the fight," his son Hoanh said in a recent interview. "We have to keep fighting the way we know how."

Don Ly's case is still open; his assailant is still unknown.

A Vietnamese immigrant, he had survived a war, escaped through a jungle, and endured a year and a half in a Thai refugee camp before he managed to get his family to a modest rowhouse in South Philadelphia in 1990.

For 18 years, he ran a fruit stand near the University of Pennsylvania's campus in West Philadelphia, rarely leaving work early except on Election Day, so he could make it to the polls on time.

"Without him, we wouldn't have come to this country. Without him, we wouldn't be here," said his daughter, Nary. "He loved it here. We never thought someone would come and do this."

On the day he was killed, Ly was outside the family home on the 400 block of Vollmer Street, loading his fruit cart as he did every morning.

It was 5 a.m., and he had been outside for about an hour, going back and forth from the kitchen to the cart. He was almost finished. "All he needed to do was start the car," Hoanh Ly said.

It's still unclear who attacked Ly, and why: investigators don't know if Ly's killer started stabbing him without warning, or if he threatened him with a knife and Ly tried to defend himself or run.

It was a cold day, so Ly had closed the door of the house behind him, but he managed to stumble back to the house and bang on the front window. Hoanh Ly heard him knocking and figured his father had locked himself out.

Then he saw the knife wound in his father's neck.

Ly had been stabbed multiple times. His family held him on the sidewalk as he lost consciousness. His eyes widened, and he tried to speak, but couldn't get the words out.

He never regained consciousness and died at the hospital.

Nothing was stolen from Ly, and investigators believe the attack was random.

Police are still searching for a man spotted by surveillance video who they believe had been trolling the neighborhood for robbery victims and may have been watching Ly load his cart from near an empty schoolyard across the street.

The footage shows images of the man walking the neighborhood in the hours before Ly was killed.

One of the images captures a brief shot of the man's face. Police have described him as a light skinned Hispanic or black male, approximately 5-foot-8, thinly built with a goatee. He was wearing dark pants, a dark jacket, a black knit hat, and black Chuck Taylor Converse sneakers, and was last seen walking onto the 2700 block of South Randolph Street.

Other security footage shows the man trailing behind a young couple about two blocks away and only 30 minutes before Ly was killed. Police believe he was scouting out the couple for a robbery, but decided against it when they turned onto busy Oregon Avenue. The footage then shows the man looking in the direction of Ly's house from across the school yard.

"This is someone who could have seen him at any time," one investigator said. "This was just his regular ritual. Someone could have been watching him from a distance and he would have never known."

There is nothing in Ly's past that suggests he was targeted, police said.

"This was an extremely hardworking man who came here and put his kids through college," the investigator said.

Homicide's Special Investigations Unit is handling the case, and a $25,000 reward has been offered for information leading to an arrest. Police are asking anyone with information to call homicide detectives at 215-686-1232.

In the meantime, Ly's relatives are trying to stay patient as they wait for clues in their father's death. A former police officer in Vietnam, Don Ly "believed in the system," Hoanh Ly said, and his family wants to do the same.

But the knowledge that their father's killer is still on the streets is almost too much to bear.

"I wonder how they sleep - how they eat," Nary Ly said. "We live in fear. I don't want someone else to be a victim like us."