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After more than a year, fruit vendor's slaying leaves bitter taste

Don Ly, 68, was stabbed outside his South Philly home. Surveillance videos could help crack the cold case.

A Buddhist memorial service for Don Ly is held inside the Ly family home after the vigil in South Philadelphia on April 18, 2014.  (ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer)
A Buddhist memorial service for Don Ly is held inside the Ly family home after the vigil in South Philadelphia on April 18, 2014. (ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer)Read more

WHENEVER she catches a stranger's eye, Nary Ly wonders if he's the monster who savagely stabbed her father to death as he prepared for work on a cool spring morning outside his home on a quiet South Philadelphia block.

"Last night . . . I saw a man with a beard and I wanted him to stop. I thought, 'Is that him? Is that him?' " Ly, 42, said recently at the house on Vollmer Street near 4th, where her father, Don Ly, lived until dawn on April 18, 2013, when he was stabbed seven times. The suspected killer was a man seen on surveillance video who police believe was a perfect stranger.

Just as he had every morning for almost 20 years, Don Ly, 68, began to prep his cart for work that day before sunrise. The kind-hearted Vietnamese immigrant who came to the U.S. in 1990 had supported his family of six by selling fruit from the cart, day in and day out, at 34th and Walnut streets in University City.

Although more than a year has passed, the pain dogs his family just as it did the day their world was shattered by his violent end. It doesn't help that the first investigator on the case was dismissed from the department amid controversy, or that those who followed are not much closer to tracking down the killer.

"It's same old, same old," said the victim's son Hoanh Ly, 39. "They're still saying [there are] no credible leads and actively seeking any information."

For Hoanh, his sister, their mother and two other siblings, it's been tough to move on knowing that Don, who often saved extra fruit to share with his neighbors, is dead, while his killer is still walking the streets - maybe even hiding in plain sight.

"I don't know how this person sleeps, eats," Nary Ly said, her voice quivering. "He's wasting the ground."

Few clues, fewer leads

In the past year, leads in Ly's killing have been scant. A $25,000 reward for information leading to the killer has failed to garner any useful tips. The few that have emerged haven't helped to advance the case.

Two weeks after the killing, Hoanh Ly made a chilling discovery: In his father's cart, he found a dark ski cap that looks like one worn by Ly's suspected killer, a bearded man seen in surveillance video stalking the neighborhood in the hour before the slaying.

Hoanh said he didn't recognize the hat as belonging to anyone in his family and called police.

Investigators entered DNA obtained from the hat into the FBI's Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), a database that stores DNA evidence from unsolved crimes to be checked for matches against DNA taken from arrestees and crime scenes.

So far, no matches.

Detectives also have extensively questioned a neighborhood man seen in surveillance video interacting with the suspect less than an hour before Ly was killed.

That man, now held at the State Correctional Institution at Camp Hill awaiting trial in an alleged armed robbery, told police he did not recognize the suspect.

But police sources said video shows a lengthy interaction between the man and the possible murder suspect in the wee hours that morning. During that time, sources said, investigators believe the suspect used the same knife that stabbed Ly to help the man retrieve keys from a grate.

Attempts by the Daily News to contact the man, who lived a few blocks from where Ly was killed, have been unsuccessful.

The man's mother, reached at the home she shared with her son before his arrest, echoed what he told detectives.

"He don't know who it is. He told the detectives that over and over again," said the mother, who asked that her name be withheld. "I'm sure if he knew who it was, he would have told them."

She said that her son had been startled by the knife-wielding man when he and his girlfriend came across him as they walked home that morning, but that the man did not threaten the pair.

She acknowledged that her son has a lengthy arrest record, including convictions for assault and burglary, but was adamant that he would have been honest with detectives had he known the suspect's identity.

A disgraced detective

The Ly family also has grappled with the removal of the first homicide detective on Ly's case, disgraced ex-cop Ron Dove.

Dove was abruptly suspended in November, and fired from the force soon after, amid allegations that he helped his longtime girlfriend - a murder suspect - flee the city and then failed to cooperate with an Internal Affairs investigation.

The family said that Dove did what he could in the six months or so that he worked on the case, but that he was difficult to get a hold of and usually left their calls and emails unreturned.

Things have improved since Detective James Dougherty, a veteran investigator in the Homicide Unit's cold-case squad, took over Ly's case in November.

"He tries very hard," Nary Ly said of Dougherty. "He doesn't want this person to be on the street, either."

The Ly family's next-door neighbors said the lack of leads in the case has nagged the tight-knit community as they've watched Don Ly's wife and children struggle to move on with their lives.

Tina Dolpies, 70, said Ly often saved bananas for her grandson and mangoes for her mother and gave them the fruit for free.

"He's an innocent man, a good man," Dolpies said at her home recently. "That's so hard. You can't understand why something like this happened."

Meanwhile, Ly's wife and other daughter have gone back to selling fruit in University City since his death. Dolpies said Ly's wife hasn't been the same since.

"She went back to work because that's her sanity," she said.

Dougherty, the newly assigned detective on the case, said he looks at Ly's file every day, but tracking down solid leads on who killed the fruit vendor - and why - has been challenging.

Ly was not robbed of his jewelry or his wallet, investigators said. He had no known enemies.

Hard work on their father's case, although comforting, isn't much relief for Ly's children.

"Our hearts are empty," Nary Ly said.

"We try to hold on to something that we know is coming, but don't know how soon," Hoanh Ly said. "Hopefully someone comes forward before this happens to someone else."

Dougherty, for his part, said he won't give up.

"We're in the cold-case squad," he said. "This is what we do."