The brother of a defendant in a murder case was identified by a witness in court Thursday as a ski-masked gunman who prosecutors believe participated in the kidnaping and killing of a Villa Park man.
Along with defendants Hoan Ngoc Lai and Xuan Kim Lai, Peter Ha Nguyen and Xuan Kim Lai's 17-year-old son were arrested Dec. 1 by Santa Ana police in the strangulation of Quynh Duy Nguyen. The body was found Nov. 30 floating in a canal in the Naples district of Long Beach.
Police believe that the Lais, who are married, lured the victim to a Santa Ana motel room where he was murdered by members of the Lai family because he had had an affair with Xuan Kim Lai, who is a defendant.
Peter Ha Nguyen, 34, who is not related to the victim, was released Dec. 4 for lack of evidence, as was Xuan Kim Lai's son.
However, a detective agency employee who tailed the victim on the night of his death said Thursday that it was Peter Ha Nguyen who put on a ski mask and drew a gun before entering a motel room where Quynh Duy Nguyen is thought to have been held.
The testimony came during the first day of a preliminary hearing on murder charges against the Westminster couple in the Santa Ana courtroom of Municipal Judge Edward L. Laird.
Orange County Deputy Dist. Atty. Thomas J. Borris said the detective agency had been hired by Quynh Duy Nguyen's family, who suspected the 53-year-old Vietnamese immigrant of carrying on an extramarital affair.
Under questioning by defense attorney Alan M. May, the detective agency employee, Jesse K. Welch, identified both Hoan Ngoc Lai, 47, and Peter Ha Nguyen as being present the night of the murder.
Welch, a 24-year-old who had been working as an investigator for four months before the murder, said he and his partner, Robin Mensch, had been assigned to follow Quynh Duy Nguyen to the motel.
Welch said he had been parked in the motel's parking lot for five minutes when he noticed one of three men sitting in a nearby car get out and walk to a motel room where he believed Quynh Duy Nguyen had gone.
The man, after listening at the door, came back and conferred with others in a parked car, Welch said.
Five minutes later, Welch said, the man got out of the car and went back to the motel door. Shortly after that, a second man left the car to join him, Welch said.
"The first man put on a mask and pulled out a gun," Welch said. After the two men entered the room, "I told Robin to get the heck out of there."
Welch testified that as he drove away from the motel, the car he had been watching "sped after us" but gave up the pursuit after several blocks.
Asked by May whether the driver of that car was in the courtroom, Welch identified Huan Ngoc Lai. Asked whether the masked gunman was in the room, Welch pointed out Peter Ha Nguyen.
In an interview, Peter Ha Nguyen denied that he was the gunman and said he had never seen Welch before the hearing.
After Welch's testimony, Peter Ha Nguyen and the 17-year-old were called to the witness stand. On the advice of deputy public defenders called in to advise them after Welch's testimony, both cited their Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination and declined to testify.
The complicated case involves charges and countercharges of revenge and questionable business dealings between the families of the accused and the victim, all of whom are Vietnamese immigrants.
Without accusing any other individual of the crime, May has said his clients were framed.
In court papers, May asserted that Quynh Duy Nguyen's wife, Tuyet Nguyen, knew and consented to her husband's liaisons with prostitutes because she had "had a medical procedure that made her incapable of fulfilling her wifely duties in that regard."
Tuyet Nguyen, along with her 27-year-old daughter and 24-year-old daughter-in-law, sat through the day's events wearing white headbands, a traditional Vietnamese symbol of mourning.
Tuyet Nguyen does not speak English, but her daughter-in-law, Trang Nguyen, 24, said "I'm sure (the Lais) will get what they deserve."