David Nguyen endured a horrible childhood before plunging into a life of crime; Elijah Johnson navigated through years of foster care and homelessness without a criminal record. The Le family of south Sacramento were Vietnamese immigrants who built a new life from virtually nothing in an adopted America.
Those lives collided on an April morning three years ago leaving three of the Le men dead, their families forever changed and, on Friday, lifetimes behind bars for the men convicted in their murders.
David Nguyen and Elijah Johnson, his accomplice, were each sentenced Friday in Sacramento to multiple life terms without parole in the horrific 2016 triple-killings of a father and his two sons, closing a case that had been seen as an early test of California’s controversial new felony murder law.
“There are a lot of murder cases in Sacramento County, but there are very few triple homicides. This case unveiled a part of our community that many of us are blissfully unaware exists,” Sacramento Superior Court Judge Maryanne Gilliard said in extended, expansive remarks from the bench.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Sacramento Bee
“The need for turning a quick buck, getting things easy is a value that no decent person should embrace. The Le family worked hard. This was not a $30,000 robbery, this was dollars and cents. This was a pitiful display,” Gilliard said. “It boggles the mind that there appears to among us people who live a feral existence, that killing three people is anything but horrific.”
Nguyen recruited Johnson and two others in the early hours of April 28, 2016, to rob former marijuana-dealing partner Dong Le of a $30,000 stash believed to be socked away at his parents’ south Sacramento home.
Within minutes of breaking into the garage of the family’s Ardith Drive home, Dong Le, his brother Tien Le, and their father, 56-year-old Thahn Le, lay dead. Tien was shot at close range while he slept, Dong as he awakened begging for his life. Father Thahn was gunned down in the front yard as he and his wife fled the slaughter inside.
Tien Le had celebrated his 21st birthday just hours before he was killed. He fell asleep with his phone by his side, his girlfriend asleep on the other end of the line. Vivian Leung awoke the next morning to the chaos playing out over the phone at the Le home.
“Every night I go to sleep wishing Tien was still here. Instead I wake up in the morning realizing he’s gone,” she said in a statement read by Sacramento County homicide prosecutor Jeff Hightower. “April 28 will be imprinted in our minds for all the wrong reasons.”
Nguyen was the ringleader, supplied the guns and fired the shots that killed them all. Johnson carried a weapon and followed Nguyen into the home but didn’t fire a shot. Prosecutors also charged Johnson with murder in the bloodbath.
Johnson testified in his own defense at trial while Jamilia Land – the Sacramento woman who pulled Johnson from the streets and would come to see herself as his adoptive mother – advocated for his freedom from the state Capitol steps and on the witness stand.
“We can’t ignore that he was a participant (but) Elijah didn’t do it,” Land said at the time. He didn’t shoot or kill anyone.”
Two others – wheelwoman and lookout Amanda Tucker and Tayler Coatley – escaped life sentences of their own, striking deals to testify for prosecutors.
Both are serving dramatically lighter prison sentences for robbery in the case.
“They’re going to be able to get married, give their parents grandchildren,” Land said of their deals after Johnson’s sentence was meted out Friday. “You might as well have given Elijah the death penalty.”
As trial came to a close, Johnson, Land and Johnson’s attorney Olaf Hedberg held out hope that a new law limiting prosecutors’ ability to charge accomplices with felony murder could save Johnson from a lifetime in prison.
Under the new law signed by outgoing Gov. Jerry Brown in October, a person can only be convicted of felony murder only if they directly assisted with the homicide or if they were a “major participant in the underlying felony and acted with reckless indifference to human life.”
Gilliard and Hightower agreed to take the new law into consideration, though the law wasn’t to take effect until Jan. 1, Gilliard said Friday.
But after weeks of deliberation in October, jurors convicted Johnson and Nguyen of multiple murders and robbery in the home invasion slayings.
And on Friday, a tearful Land sobbed in the gallery as a seemingly incredulous Gilliard read aloud the sentencing terms that would send Johnson and Nguyen to prison for the rest of their days.
Nguyen, Gilliard said, had lived a “horrible existence” before the killings. Johnson, she said, defied the odds.
“You came out of foster care without a criminal record,” Gilliard told Johnson. “The Le family came to America seeking a better life, put their kids through college. Then you look at Mr. Nguyen and Mr. Johnson. It’s a horrific tragedy.”
Land vowed as she walked out of the courtroom that she would continue to fight for Johnson’s freedom.
“I love you, Elijah. I’m not going to stop. I’m not going to stop until I bring you home,” Land said before letting out a wail outside the courtroom’s doors.
“I’m sorry for this family, God knows I am. From the depths of my heart, I’m sorry.” Land said later outside the courtroom. “I just lost my son, she lost her two sons and her husband, but Elijah didn’t deserve this.”
The Le’s survivors did not attend Friday’s sentencing in Sacramento Superior Court. Homicide prosecutor Hightower delivered their words – forthright accounts of a family’s collective grief and singular loss.
“Three of my family members were tragically murdered, execution style, without ever a chance of survival. Forever silenced,” Hightower read from surviving son Thahn Le’s letter. Le and mother Be Vo survived. “For those who escaped ... our fears have been indelibly etched into our psyche for the remainder of our living days.”