Action ran around the clock at the dope and gambling den at the corner of 37th Street and 45th Avenue. All day and all night, cards flipped and dice rolled in Apartment No. 3. Dope dealers kept close by to provide methamphetamine to players who wanted to crank up and opium to those who needed to mellow down.
"This is as close to the House of the Rising Sun as you're going to find," Deputy Public Defender Norm Dawson told a Sacramento Superior Court jury Wednesday, just before the panel began deliberations in the murder trial of his client, an accused homeless hit man named Teng Thao.
The West Lemon Hill palace of sin didn't bear a name like the New Orleans brothel fabled in nearly a century of song. But Jenny Cha knew its legend and dipped frequently into its offerings of vice, authorities said. A couple of years ago, she stopped in for another late-at-night, early-in-the-morning visit. She didn't make it out alive.
According to prosecutors, she stepped onto the back patio for a smoke. It was 3:15 a.m., and a man who joined her for a cigarette in the cold, Jan. 9, 2011, air told authorities they'd been out there no more than a couple of minutes when a shotgun blast coming from the other side of a fence behind them tore through the back of Jenny Cha's left shoulder. Lead poured through her body, and one fatal pellet exited just above the tattooed inscription on her chest that identified an old love in her life named Ger Vue.
More then three months later, Sacramento sheriff's detectives arrested Teng Thao, who is now 59, in a vacant lot not far from the scene of the shotgun killing. They found him "collecting cans to buy food and opium," Deputy District Attorney Robin Shakely said in her court papers.
At the time of Jenny Cha's death, investigators believe that Thao resided amid the trash and high grass in the field on the other side of the fence from the gambling den. It is their theory that on the night of the killing, Thao pried two fence boards apart. They say he then inserted a pink rubber flip-flop to keep the space wide enough open for him to stick the barrel of the shotgun through and take the perfect kill-shot at Jenny Cha.
While Shakely and Dawson differ on whether it was Thao who shot Cha, the prosecutor and the defense lawyer agree that whoever carried out the killing only added up to half of the murder. The other half, the real reason for the killing, they agreed, could be discovered in the figure whose name had been inked on Jenny Cha's chest and two other places on her body.
As the tattoos suggest, she had once been an item with a man named Ger "Bobby" Vue. Their relationship soured amid accusations of violence, according to court papers filed by Dawson that say Vue was arrested in 2009 for assaulting Cha.
Both Dawson and Shakely said in their closing arguments Wednesday that Bobby Vue was deeply jealous of Cha, and that it upset him when he saw her on the morning of her death with another man in the Apartment No. 3 gambling den.
"He is the toxic element that both Ms. Cha and Mr. Thao had in their lives," Shakely told the jury.
The prosecutor said Vue let it be known in West Lemon Hill the neighborhood that recently earned the distinction as being the gun-crime capital of Sacramento that when it came to Jenny Cha, "if he couldn't have her, nobody could have her," and that "you better not be around her when things go down."
Vue has been questioned in Cha's murder, but he has not been charged with it. He could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Dawson joined Shakely in deploring Vue. A drug-dealing kingpin in West Lemon Hill, Bobby Vue intimidated witnesses early in the investigation, the lawyer said. Vue drove fast cars and kept a bodyguard, according to Dawson. Maybe he put his bodyguard up to the killing, Dawson speculated, or maybe he did it himself anybody, the defense lawyer said, other than his client, "a poor, homeless, dirty old guy who lives in a field."
Shakely said two witnesses testified at trial they saw the grimy Thao in the field around the time of the killing. Both recognized him as a neighborhood regular who ran errands for the players in Apartment 3 in exchange for a place to shower. One of the witnesses, on his way over to try his luck, testified he saw Thao running from the field, without stopping to exchange pleasantries, right after the shotgun blast emptied the place in a hurry.
Vue used to let Thao sleep in his garage, another witness testified, before the defendant wound up in the field across Franklin Boulevard from the old Campbell Soup factory, on the other side of the fence from Apartment 3, where games of chance were played, drugs were used and Jenny Cha died.
Call The Bee's Andy Furillo, (916) 321-1141. Follow him on Twitter @andyfurillo.