A 37-year-old Riverside man was sentenced today to life without parole for the execution-style murder of a fellow gang member nearly 18 years ago in Costa Mesa.
Tam Hung Nguyen, who prosecutors say was the triggerman, was convicted along with three other defendants in April of last year.
Orange County Superior Court Judge Patrick Donahue tacked on 45 years to life in prison Nguyen for conspiracy to commit murder. Co-defendant Anthony Paul Johnson Jr., 36, of Westminster, was sentenced in August to life without the possibility of parole, with an extra 10 years.
Co-defendants Giang Thuy Nguyen, 37, of Fountain Valley, and Truc Ngoc Tran, 35, of Santa Ana, await sentencing.
The victim, 18-year-old Viet Nguyen, was killed on Feb. 25, 1995, on the northbound Corona Del Mar Freeway near the San Diego 405 Freeway, Deputy District Attorney Kevin Haskins said.
At Friday’s hearing, the victim’s sister read a letter from her parents to Donahue, explaining the impact of the slaying on the family.
“Since we laid our son to rest we have not stopped thinking of him and his infectious smile,” the parents said.
The parents said they did not think they would ever find closure.
“How do you close an open wound in your heart?” they said.
Tam Nguyen’s attorney, Michael Khouri, said his client would appeal after Donahue denied his motion for a new trial.
Khouri argued during the trial that Tam Nguyen wasn’t present for the murder and alleged that the killer was the prosecution’s star witness, Ngoc Nguyen.
The case went cold until 2006 when investigators started re-interviewing potential witnesses, including Ngoc Nguyen, who invoked his Fifth Amendment rights before a grand jury but was forced to testify under immunity, Haskins said.
Haskins chiefly built his case against the defendants on the testimony of Ngoc Nguyen, who was along for the ride the night the victim was slain. Investigators do not think he knew of the plot to kill the young man and was not charged.
Viet Nguyen was in trouble with the gang for running out on a home invasion robbery on Feb. 24, 1995, Haskins said. That morning, Johnson, Giang Nguyen and Viet Nguyen donned masks and went to rob the Huntington Beach home of a classmate of Viet Nguyen’s, the prosecutor said.
“The murder victim made eye contact with the mother during the robbery and he mistakenly believed she recognized him, so he fled,” Haskins said, noting the others got away with just a modest amount of money.
Investigators believe Johnson and Giang Nguyen were concerned that Viet Nguyen would get arrested.
When the three went to a party that night, Johnson convinced Viet Nguyen to leave with them to buy drugs, Haskins said. During the drive, Tam Nguyen pretended to get car-sick and asked the victim to pull over, then shot him in the back of the head, Haskins said.
The group left him in his van and Tran, who was trailing behind in a car, picked up the rest of the defendants, Haskins said.
Investigators trusted Ngoc Nguyen’s account because he knew details of the home invasion that weren’t public and other evidence was corroborated by other means, the prosecutor said.
Giang Nguyen was scheduled to be sentenced today as well, but Donahue granted his request for a new attorney for sentencing. Attorney Joanne Harrold will represent Giang Nguyen’s motion for a new trial, Haskins said.
The prosecutor objected to the substitution of attorney, arguing it has unnecessarily delayed the sentencing.
“In the people’s view it’s unconscionable to make these people come back again,” Haskins said of the victim’s family. “The victim’s family has a constitutional right to a speedy adjudication of this matter.”
Harrold said she would need a few more months to prepare the motion for a new trial.