Amanda Tucker sat behind the wheel of the getaway car, friend of a friend, Tayler Coatley, hunkered in the back seat.
The shakedown robbery at the home on quiet Ardith Drive in south Sacramento had gone sideways. Inside, two men lay dead, found shot in separate bedrooms. The body of a third man lay in the driveway. He had been shot in the back as he bolted from the house, running for his life.
Tucker’s friend, David Nguyen, and her then-boyfriend, Elijah Johnson, whom she had convinced to get in on the planned home invasion, climbed into the waiting car. Tucker then sped away for the room they had rented at a Super 8 motel across town on El Camino Avenue.
“Everybody is screaming and yelling. Everybody’s freaking out. I’m freaking out. David’s freaking out. My mind’s running a million miles an hour. I’m in my own zone, just trying to get out of there,” Tucker said from the witness stand Friday as testimony concluded in Nguyen and Johnson’s preliminary hearing in Sacramento Superior Court in the April 2016 armed robbery and gun killings of Dong Le, Tien Le and their father Thanh Le.
Tucker, 20, and Coately, 17, took prosecutors’ deals to testify and avoid their own murder charges in the shootings. The two remain held in county custody awaiting seven-year prison terms for armed robbery and gun charges in exchange for their testimony.
Their testimony at the two-day preliminary hearing was enough to send Nguyen and Johnson to trial on charges of murder, robbery and attempted robbery with special circumstances, a Sacramento Superior Court judge ruled Friday.
Nguyen, 25, and Johnson, 23, face life in prison if convicted of the crimes.
Tucker on Friday spent several hours in the witness chair, appearing before Sacramento Superior Court Judge Marjorie Koller. Coately occupied the same seat Thursday, giving her account of a bloody plan gone wrong and the days after that led to their arrests.
It was supposed to be an easy payday. Both women testified that Nguyen had heard Dong Le had $35,000 stashed at the family home near Elk Grove-Florin Road and had orchestrated the early morning “lick” to take the cash.
Tucker and Coately both admitted on the stand that they initially had lied to investigators before inking the deals that would help them avoid murder raps. Coately said she had lied to protect herself; Tucker, to protect her boyfriend, Johnson, and undercut Coately, whom she grew to despise, later, believing she snitched to the cops.
“If I was going down, she was going down, too,” Tucker testified under questioning from Nguyen’s attorney Linda Parisi. “I thought she was the one who snitched on me.”
Tucker testified she heard loud voices in English and Vietnamese coming from the home as she sat in the nearby parked car during the 2016 incident. After Nguyen demanded the cash, Dong Le yelled “I don’t have it, I don’t have nothing,” Tucker said.
“Why are you doing this?” Dong Le pleaded, Tucker said.
“My bad, bruh,” came Nguyen’s response, then gunshots, Tucker testified.
Tucker said she heard more gunshots and more yelling. The total take from the robbery: $200.
The yelling continued in Room 307 of the Super 8. Tucker said she vomited from the stress of the early morning chaos.
“The boys were arguing back and forth,” Tucker said. “David was mad that Elijah didn’t shoot anybody.”
Tucker said Nguyen also was angry at Johnson for letting Thanh Le and a woman get past him and out the front door. The woman ducked behind a parked car before Thanh Le was killed, she said.
Johnson admitted to pistol whipping one of the men, Tucker testified, but said he argued back with Nguyen, saying killing wasn’t part of the plan.
“(Johnson) said, ‘I’ve never caught a body, and I’m not about to catch one now,” Tucker said from the stand.
By then, dawn had turned to daylight and the south area killings were all over the TV news. Three dead. No suspects. The bulletins caught both Nguyen and Johnson by surprise, Tucker testified. Nguyen looked straight ahead, and Johnson looked toward his one-time girlfriend.
“Elijah said, ‘I thought it was just one (dead),’ ” Tucker testified. “David said, ‘I couldn’t help myself.’ ”
She said Nguyen rationalized the elder Le’s killing: “I had to shoot the dad because he was going to snitch.”
Koller’s decision to move forward with the trial came quickly, with little discussion. Nguyen and Johnson, through counselors Parisi and Olaf Hedberg, entered not guilty pleas ahead of an Oct. 12 hearing to set a trial date.