Tayler Coately said she stayed in the car parked outside of the home on Ardith Drive in south Sacramento as her friends exited and headed for the house, guns tucked into their clothes. It was just before dawn.
After they disappeared from her view, she said, she heard yelling, then a gunshot and two more.
A woman ran screaming from the house and ducked behind a car, Coately recalled. A man, later identified as Thanh Le, 56, followed, sprinting across the front yard. Inside, Le’s two adult sons, Dong Le, 32, and Tien Le, 21, already lay dead.
Seconds later, the elder Le was shot too, killed as he fled. Standing behind him in the doorway, Coately said, was David Nguyen, the man who Sacramento County prosecutors say, along with his partner Elijah Johnson, fired the blasts that killed Thanh Le on the lawn and his two sons inside.
“He fell. He didn’t get back up,” Coately said about Thanh Le from the witness stand, tears welling in her eyes.
For much of Thursday morning, Coately, 17, took the stand at Nguyen and Johnson’s preliminary hearing before Sacramento Superior Court Judge Marjorie Koller in the April 26, 2016 home invasion turned triple homicide.
Nguyen, 25, and Johnson, 23, face three counts each of murder and robbery and attempted robbery with special circumstances in the slayings. Sacramento County District Attorney’s prosecutors will seek life sentences without parole for the men at trial. (Investigators previously had referred to Nguyen as Daniel, not David.)
As Nguyen and Johnson piled back into the car, Coately said, she sat stunned. “I was in shock. I wasn’t expecting that,” she testified.
She said she initially had thought the drive to Ardith Drive was a run for marijuana. Then she noticed Nguyen and Johnson were carrying guns. With the smell of gun oil heavy in the car, “it (crept) into my mind that we were ‘hitting a lick,’ ” she said – a slang term for robbing the house.
Coately testified she overheard Nguyen and Johnson say that Dong Le had come into some cash – $35,000 – with the men joking that “Asians don’t believe in bank accounts.”
“That’s why we decided to go to the house,” Coately said from the stand.
Coately and friend Amanda Tucker, 20, who prosecutors allege was behind the wheel and drove Nguyen and Johnson away from the deadly shooting, took plea deals on robbery and firearms allegations to avoid murder charges in the slayings.
Coately remains in Sacramento County custody and wore the green sweatsuit of a juvenile inmate on the stand Thursday. A seven-year prison term with time served awaits her – if she continues to cooperate with prosecutors.
Prosecuting Sacramento County District Attorney Jeff Hightower acknowledged the plea deal when questioning Coately Thursday. The terms of it were simple, he said.
“What is your job?” Hightower asked.
“To tell the truth,” Coately answered.
“If you lie, and are charged with murder, what is your understanding of the time you will serve?” he asked.
“Life,” she said.
The preliminary hearing is expected to continue Friday.