A man charged in the grisly murders of three members of a California family left the only survivor, a baby girl, to starve near the body of her mother, whose head was nearly severed in the attack, a prosecutor said Wednesday.
Quang Van Quan, who knew the victims well, used a ruse to enter the home and commit a robbery that ended with the killings, Orange County prosecutor Scott Simmons told jurors in his opening statement at the trial.
Quan, 39, was arrested in Houston about a month after the May 2006 crime and charged with three counts of murder during a robbery and burglary. If convicted of murder with the special circumstances, he could face life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Prosecutors said an IOU was found in the house saying victim Phong "Sonny" Le owed Quan $80,000.
Quan has pleaded not guilty to all charges and denied the special circumstance allegations.
Quan's defense attorney Sheryl Beasley countered in her opening statement that her client had nothing to do with the murders, robbery or burglary. Quan and Le were best friends, and together they owed a substantial sum of money to a "scary person," Beasley said.
Prosecutors have not said if they believe Quan or his possible accomplices killed the three people, but they alleged Quan at least participated in a felony robbery that resulted in the deaths, which would leave him open to murder charges.
Outside court, Simmons said police believe there are still suspects at large.
After the killings, the baby was found near the body of her mother, Ngoc Lam, when police conducted a welfare check after Lam's coworker at a casino reported her missing.
The 11-month-old was so dehydrated that her lips were gray and cracked. No tears came out when she cried, Simmons said.
"Two to three days, this baby was in that bedroom with her dead mother," he said.
Le, the baby's father, was found with his feet and hands hogtied with electrical cord and speaker wire and 16 stab wounds to his head. Lam also was hogtied and had her windpipe cut.
Her 6-year-old son from a previous relationship, Tommy Lam, was found stabbed five times in the head in his bed in Spiderman pajamas. There was blood spatter on the wall and ceiling.
Simmons said outside court that prosecutors believe the boy was killed because he knew Quan and could identify him.
Prosecutors said cell phones and a laptop were taken from the home.
They traced Quan's movements on the day of the murders using signals from his cell phone, Simmons said. Quan called Le 12 times the evening of the murders — the last six times from near the home — and left Le an urgent voicemail requesting a meeting, he said.
In that message, left in Vietnamese, Quan asked Le to call him back.
"The kid has a problem," the voicemail said. "We need a place. We need a place tonight. Alright?"
Le had surveillance cameras set up all around the house which he monitored from a device in his pocket and kept a gun under his mattress, Simmons said.
"Sonny was paranoid, he was worried," Simmons said, using Le's nickname. "He borrowed money from the wrong people and he didn't pay it back. He was fearful for his life."
Beasley, who represents Quan, countered that her client went to Le's house with the lender to discuss the debt and found several other people who were supposed to help pay off the money.
When the discussion with those individuals escalated into an argument, Le told Quan to leave before things got violent, and he did, Beasley said.
"He had no idea what was going to happen that night. The people inside that house were his best friend and his best friend's family," she told jurors. "Mr. Quan didn't kill anybody, Mr. Quan didn't rob anybody and Mr. Quan didn't burglarize anybody."
Beasley told jurors a wiretap of Quan's phones turned up no incriminating statements.
The defense attorney also claimed Le had installed the surveillance cameras because he was a methamphetamine dealer and was worried about the safety of his family,
She also questioned why Quan would not have taken more than $66,000 in gold coins stashed in the kitchen to help settle the $80,000 debt.