As he prepared to celebrate his 10th birthday on Nov. 6, Aaron Vu asked his mom not to embarrass him by bringing a cake to school. He didn’t want fellow fifth graders at Northwest Christian Academy to know he was younger than they were.
His mother, Lynn Ma, listened, but managed to surprise him later that night. She and husband Hai Nam Vu presented him with an ice cream cake and sprinkled donuts after the two had put in a long day at their nail shop.
Sixteen days later, his mother would be mourning the loss of her eldest child, devastated by the manner of his death.
Aaron was killed Friday when armed robbers stormed his parents’ popular Hong Kong Nails shop in Northwest Miami-Dade just as the family was preparing to call it a day and take Aaron shopping for additional birthday presents. The robbers were recorded by a video security system.
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Aaron’s father, Hai Nam Vu, a former Marine who lived in Oregon before moving to South Florida, was shot in the left shoulder. He remained in intensive care Sunday. His mother, Ha Pham, said he was sitting up.
But it was Aaron, a funny, thoughtful kid with a life full of promise who occupied his family members’ minds.
“He’s a very loving, very playful, very caring boy,” a sobbing Lynn Ma said Sunday.
The extended family gathered in the backyard of the family’s home in Miramar, hoping to comfort a grieving mother, while stunned customers also stopped by. Neighbors remembered a little fun-loving boy who often would look up the video for Michael Jackson’s song Beat It on YouTube and break out his best dance moves.
“I’m numb,” Ma said, alternating between silence and tears as she contemplated what had happened to her husband and her child. “I’m speechless.”
“He was really good,” said Abbyomi Johnson, 19, who often babysat Aaron and his two younger siblings. “He was a funny kid.”
Police had made no arrests as of Sunday. They would say only that the intent was clearly robbery and that the robbers sped away from the salon at 14832 NW Seventh Ave. in a black Dodge Ram pickup truck.
On Saturday, police canvassed the shop’s neighborhood with photos of the robbers who entered the shop about 7:30 p.m. Friday. They also released the in-store video recording that showed one of the robbers, his head covered by a red shirt, and another, wearing a red headband but whose face was not hidden.
The recording shows the two men pulling open the shop’s glass door and bursting in. On their way out, the robber wearing the red headband fired a shot.
As word of the shooting spread, customers and strangers showed up outside the nail shop, and created a makeshift memorial of teddy bears, flowers and balloons. Someone even left a little pair of boy’s shoes.
Messages of support for Lynn Ma poured in as her customers inundated her cellphone with hundreds of text messages.
Some customers arrived Sunday for a manicure, but instead saw the memorial.
“I had no idea,” said Geraldine Eason, who came from Broward County. “I can’t believe this happened.”
Eason, who has been getting her nails done by the Vus since before Aaron was born, said Hai Nam Vu would always text her when he wouldn’t be there on a Sunday, or when the family took off for vacation at Disney World.
“They do everything for those kids,” she said.
The family is pleading for help from the community to find the robbers. A news conference at Miami-Dade police headquarters, 9105 NW 25th St., is scheduled for 2 p.m. Monday.
Thi Pham, Aaron’s great-aunt, who flew in from Portland, Ore., said family members know nothing will bring back the fun-loving boy, but they don’t want his “death to be another violent-death statistic.”
“The worst pain is losing your child,” she said. “We don’t want any families out there to have to go through the pain we’re going through right now.”
Friday began the way it alway did in the Vu household. Aaron woke up, then went in to wake his mother about 6:30 a.m.
The mad rush soon started to get him, his 8-year-old sister and 5-year-old brother out the door to school. Breakfast was at McDonald’s. He ordered the burrito, his favorite, and a mango smoothie.
“I always walk him in,” Lynn Ma recalled, adding that he asked for “$5, probably to buy chips. Then he said, ‘Make sure you remember to take me to Target.’ ”
The planned trip to Target was for that evening, where Aaron had planned to get the rest of his birthday gifts.
“It never happened,” she said, breaking into tears, “I was going to buy him anything he wanted.”
Ma is a popular nail tech whose customers begin lining up at 5:30 a.m., but her life revolved around her kids. A few years ago, wanting to spend more time with Aaron, she cut back her hours and days at the shop. Customers didn’t mind. They came from as far as South Miami-Dade, asking for “Lynn” and pointing out designs that they had seen on her Instagram account.
She remembered their names, asking about their lives, and filling them in on the latest exploits of Aaron and his siblings.
On Friday, her two younger kids were in the shop, as were other children of customers who had come to have their nails done as Thanksgiving approached.
“My mom was inside. [One of the robbers] put a gun to her head. I am grateful she’s alive,” said a customer as she left a large teddy bear with balloons at the makeshift memorial in front of the shop. “There were kids in there who had to see this.”
The woman, who did not want to give her name, then turned her focus to the shooter: “Turn yourself in. You took a life. People are suffering. Other kids are traumatized because they had to see this.”
Investigators asked the family not to speak about what happened inside the shop. Instead they spoke of Aaron, a kid who loved to dance, draw, eat pancakes and protect his siblings. A boy who always thought of everyone else.
Two days before his death, Aaron called his grandmother in Portland and wished her a happy birthday. He took the liberty of planning a summer visit for him and his siblings, his aunt and grandmother recalled — smiling as they recounted the story.
That same day, he wrote a letter to his school’s principal, telling her, “Happy Birthday Mrs. Brady. Thank you for everything you have done for me,” his mom said.
“He had his whole life in front of him,” said Thi Pham.
Said his mom, “Things I promised him, I haven’t done.”
Miami Herald Staff Writer Jacqueline Charles contributed to this report.