One by one, the friends and associates of Ronnie Vang and his cousin Joson Vang trudged to the witness stand at their murder trial with all the joy of patients going in for root canals.
Most had pleaded with the cops when they were first interviewed four years ago to not give up their names or force them to appear in court. When their reckoning came this week, and they were called to testify publicly about the Vangs’ words and deeds in the days around the June 23, 2009, residential robbery shooting death of Keith Fessler, some of the witnesses recanted, changed or forgot their stories.
On Thursday, the prosecution countered the altered recollections the witnesses gave at trial by playing the taped statements they gave to police investigators four years ago. One of them, Tom Vang, who is no relation to the defendants, backed away from pretty much everything he told police. The audiotape of his police interview, however, provided jurors an option of which version of Tom Vang to believe – the one they saw with their own eyes or the one whose disembodied voice they heard in the tinny recording played in Sacramento Superior Court.
Four years ago, Vang, who was in jail at the time on gun and drug charges, told detectives he encountered his namesakes the afternoon of the killing at a house they used to hang out at on Montecito Way, not far from Fessler’s residence on Carella Drive in the Meadowview area. He said that before he was arrested, the Vangs took him into a bedroom for a private conversation, where Ronnie Vang, in Tom Vang’s words, “lays it on me.”
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“He said, ‘Damn, bro, I need to tell you something, you feel me?” Tom Vang said on the tape. “I need to tell you something, right?’ I was just like, OK,” and then Ronnie Vang, according to the Tom Vang on tape, made the motion with his thumb and forefinger as if he had just shot somebody.
Tom Vang told Sacramento police plenty more. He said the cousins borrowed his car to go back to Fessler’s house to set it on fire after the killing of the 44-year-old musician and Kaiser Permanente technician, to destroy evidence. He also told them how they set Fessler’s stolen car on fire that night and how they pawned several of the slain man’s valuable guitars that they stole from his house.
Deputy District Attorney Valerie Brown is scheduled to play another videotaped recording of another witness today before resting her case. Defense attorneys Pete Harned for Ronnie Vang and Michael Nelson for Joson Vang are also expected to rest today. Sacramento Superior Court Judge Steve White told jurors they will then be off for Thanksgiving week before they return for closing arguments on Dec. 2.
Ronnie Vang, 32, and Joson Vang, 27, are both charged with special-circumstance murder for the Fessler shooting. Ronnie Vang, who authorities have named as the gunman in the shooting, is facing the death penalty if convicted. Authorities say he executed Fessler with two gunshots to the back of the head after the two defendants hogtied the victim with his own neckties. Ronnie Vang had just been paroled from prison and was afraid he’d be sent back there if the victim identified him for the residential robbery, according to the prosecution.
Not all the witnesses’ testimony required a taped replay.
Earlier in the week, another cousin of the defendants, Jee Vang, said Joson Vang told him, “We burned a house down, murdered a guy and robbed him.” Jee Vang said when he asked Joson why they did it, his cousin replied, “We’re just thugs.”
Another witness, Ying Vue, reluctantly affirmed his statement to police that Ronnie Vang told him that Fessler pleaded for his life, telling the thieves to take whatever they wanted, but “please don’t kill me.” Vue testified that Ronnie Vang told him “he forgot to put his mask on” for the break-in and was afraid he’d be identified, so “he shot the guy.”
In his taped statement played in court, Tom Vang said that after his cousins told him about the robbery and shooting, they borrowed his car and went back to Fessler’s house to set it on fire.
“Like, damn, my car was smelling like gas the whole day, and it’s, like, making my head hurt,” Tom Vang said on the tape. Later that night, they told him they were going to go set fire to Fessler’s car.
“I said, ‘OK,’” Tom Vang said on the tape.
The detectives asked Tom Vang if he thought Ronnie Vang was “tweaking” on methamphetamine the day of the killing.
“Everybody smokes, man,” Vang replied. “Man, I’m telling you they smoke so much every day. It’s just, like, it’s stupid, you feel me? ... I mean, come on, man. You know what I’m saying? And at the end, how much did he get for it?”
The prosecution says the answer was $350, at the pawn shop.