The events that led to the carnage on south Sacramento’s Ardith Drive bore down like a freight train on the Le family, a Sacramento prosecutor told jurors Monday.
Tien Le was asleep in his bed hours after celebrating his 21st birthday when a gunman shot him twice in the head. Brother Dong Le, 32, would be next. Their mother, Be Vo, woke to the first two gunshots and ran into the hall where she met her husband, Thanh Le.
“Dear wife,” her husband said to her. “We’ve been robbed.”
The last time Be Vo saw her eldest son alive before fleeing for her own life, his face was pushed into a mattress, a gun barrel pressed to his head, a man demanding money. Thanh Le, 56, followed behind, Vo testified Monday, shouting at her to watch out for gunfire, before he too was cut down, shot three times in the back just outside the front door.
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“I saw my husband running out the door,” Vo said through an interpreter. “He screamed, ‘Watch out!’ I was lying down near the car. I was so scared I was frozen stiff.”
Within 45 minutes, two sons and their father lay dead. A third son survived unhurt.
On Monday, more than two years after the slayings, the murder trial for David Nguyen, 26, and Elijah Johnson, 24, began in the April 2016 gun killings in Sacramento Superior Court before Judge Maryanne Gilliard. Their suspected driver and their lookout, Amanda Tucker, 21, and Tayler Renee Coately, who was 17 when arrested in 2016, took deals last year to escape the same fate. Both women are serving 7-year prison sentences for robbery and are expected to take the stand for the prosecution.
The home invasion robbery’s bloody aftermath uncovered a tangled knot of business associates and alliances, deals and double-crosses, part-time lovers and fast friends-turned-rivals that attorneys promised to sort out by trial’s end.
“This case has a lot of moving parts,” prosecuting Sacramento County Deputy District Attorney Jeff Hightower told jurors on Monday.
Dong Le and David Nguyen had been friends and business partners. They hung out together and teamed to sell “substantial quantities” of marijuana, Hightower said in his opening statement.
Le had socked away some $30,000 at the family home on Ardith Drive near Elk Grove-Florin Road and Nguyen wanted it. Nguyen made a late-night call to friend Amanda Tucker, who was dating Elijah Johnson and had picked up a new friend in the past week, a Bay Area woman named Tayler Coately. Nguyen told Tucker he was planning to take Le’s cash and would need a place to lay low.
Tucker, Johnson and Coately were staying at a Super 8 motel off El Camino Avenue where Tucker was working as a prostitute and teaching Coately the trade. They drove to Nguyen’s south Sacramento place and picked him up for the drive to Le’s home, Hightower said. Nguyen had two handguns: a chrome-and-wood .45 and a .40 caliber and gave the .40 to Johnson.
At 5:20 a.m., Nguyen and Johnson used the women’s bandeau bras to shield their faces and broke into the home through a laundry room door. Tucker and Coately waited for about an hour as chaos and gunshots erupted inside before Thanh Le was shot dead outside as wife Vo ducked behind a car. Hightower said Nguyen fired the fatal shots first with the .45, then with the .40 caliber when the .45 jammed.
The chaotic drive back to the Super 8 ended with the killings all over the morning news and the group passed out in their room on Xanax, but not before seconds-long cell phone videos taken by one of the woman showed guns and cash in the motel room, Hightower said.
Coately, the newcomer to the group, woke up and called her boyfriend, saying only that things had gone bad. Her boyfriend arrived with two friends who authorities said took the guns, cash and a cell phone stolen from the deadly home invasion hours earlier.
Authorities arrested Nguyen, Johnson, Coately and Tucker within days of the Le slayings, recovered the weapons and linked them to the killings with cell phone and motel records.
But Nguyen’s attorney, Linda Parisi, said another man, Andrew “Drew” Williams, were in both Johnson’s and Dong Le’s orbits and killed the Le men.
“There’s motive for Andrew Williams to have committed these crimes,” Parisi told jurors in her opening statement, calling him at one point a “cold-blooded killer.”
Cash, one of the murder weapons and phone records can all be traced to Williams, Parisi said.
Parisi said Williams got help getting away with the robbery and killings from Tucker and Coately, who traded their testimony to the cops to beat murder raps and to cover for Williams who Parisi said they feared after the home invasion-turned-triple-murder.
“It becomes a simple task of replacing names. There’s this teenage drama of associates and the things they do and say. This is that web of drama. It changes Drew to David,” Parisi explained. “Trouble is, the girls can’t keep their stories straight. The physical evidence doesn’t lead to Nguyen, it leads to Drew. Where is the gun? Drew has it. Where is the money? Drew has it. The roads lead to Drew.”
But Williams won’t be able to tell his side of the story. He was killed in a later incident, Hightower said.
Testimony continues in the case.