A convicted burglar, a dealer in stolen property and a car thief, Ronnie Vang called himself an “unstoppable criminal,” prosecutors say, and even designated himself as such with a belly tattoo that said “USC.”
Authorities said Vang went on another tear four years ago. Out of prison for only four days, Vang and his cousin, Joson Vang, hatched a daytime burglary that turned into a residential robbery, then murder with a 9mm handgun, investigators said – when the homeowner who worked nights woke up and walked into their ripoff.
Worried about witnesses, Ronnie Vang shot and killed Keith Fessler, 44, ransacked the man’s valuable guitar collection and ran out with three of the victim’s windsurfing boards, prosecutors said. Now Vang and his cousin are on trial in Sacramento Superior Court, and the DA’s Office has targeted him for only the fifth death-penalty prosecution in Sacramento County in the past 10 years.
“Ronnie pointed his gun at the victim and told him to put his hands up,” Deputy District Attorney Valerie Brown’s trial brief paraphrased one witness as telling Sacramento police about a conversation with Vang after the killing. “The victim put his hands up and told them to take whatever they wanted, credit cards, cash, whatever, just don’t kill him. They walked him back to the bedroom and tied him up. Ronnie didn’t want to get caught for a home invasion so he decided he had to kill the man because he’d be able to identify Ronnie because he didn’t have a mask.”
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Sacramento police detectives broke the case of the June 23, 2009, killing when Ronnie Vang, now 32, and Joson Vang, 27, tried to sell Fessler’s guitars a couple of weeks later at a local pawnshop. The pawn man paid them $350 for two of the guitars and told them he’d sell the rest on consignment. Then he called the police.
The two transactions caught the Vangs and another man on the pawnshop videotape.
“One of them walked in playing one of Keith Fessler’s guitars like he was on a Sunday drive,” Brown told the two juries hearing the case. She identified the strummer as Ronnie Vang.
Joson Vang, who has never been to prison and is not accused of pulling the trigger to kill a witness, is not facing the death penalty.
In the second row of Judge Steve White’s courtroom, Keith Fessler’s mother and father and a brother, who live in Florida, as well as another brother who lives in suburban Milwaukee, sat in on the first day of the trial.
Their son and brother was born in Alabama to a military family. They moved to Sheboygan, Wis., and Fessler studied at DeVry University in Chicago and then in Arizona before he moved to the Bay Area as a technician who fixed medical equipment, such as MRI machines.
The family said Fessler moved to Sacramento about 15 years ago and took a job with Kaiser Permanente, buying his house in the 7400 block of Carella Drive in the Meadowview area – and delving deeply into his two great passions of life, music and windsurfing.
“My brother Keith, he really got into the art of music,” Eric Kessler said outside of the courthouse. “He got audiotapes and learned about the beginning of music all the way into modern music, and he taught himself to play, and he wrote probably over 100 songs that he would play for himself, record, and he made a CD with a friend probably 10 years ago.”
Craig Kessler described Keith’s music as in the “country spiritual” and “country blues” genres, heavily into original composition. “It was more spiritual, of what he had seen and interpreted out of nature and people.”
The four survivors wept as they discussed their lost loved one.
“It’s very difficult,” Eric Kessler said. “He was loved by all. He was really looked up to by his nephews.”
During the trial, the DA is expected to call several witnesses who knew the Vangs from a nearby house on Montecito Way that served as a gambling parlor and as a way station for crooks dealing in stolen property. The trial brief said the gamblers and hustlers told police about the Vangs bringing the items stolen from Kessler’s house to Montecito Way. Investigators also lifted a Ronnie Vang fingerprint off an electrical box in the next-door neighbor’s back yard, which corresponds with testimony from the Montecito Way hangout that the defendant said he first tried to break in there.
In his opening statement, Ronnie Vang’s attorney, Pete Harned, told the jury “you will not see a single piece of physical evidence linking Ronnie Vang to Keith Fessler’s home.” Harned also portrayed as “a series of flophouse civilians” the lineup of witnesses jurors will be hearing out of Montecito Way. “They are liars,” Harned said.
Defense attorney Mike Nelson said there will be no physical evidence that puts Joson Vang in Fessler’s house and nothing that ties him to a gun or any effort to restrain the victim in neckties, as his body was found in his house, which was later set on fire. Joson Vang may have tried to sell the guitars at the pawnshop, but he didn’t know they were stolen, Nelson said. The lawyer said the key testimony that will come in from Montecito Way against his client was pressured out of a witness by police, and that the DNA tests that tied Joson Vang to the neckties are inconclusive.