A 17-year-old member of a Cambodian street gang called the Tiny Rascal Gangsters has pleaded guilty in the 1995 murders of five members of a Vietnamese family in San Bernardino.
Vinh "Scrappy" Tran, one of five gang members charged in the slayings, pleaded guilty Tuesday to five counts of murder in exchange for a sentence of up to 50 years to life in state prison. If convicted, Tran could have been sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Tran and the others are charged with the Aug. 10, 1995, home invasion robbery murders of Son (Henry) Nguyen, 44; his wife, Trinh Yen Tran, 35; daughter, Doan Hoang, 15, and sons Daniel Nguyen, 11, and David Nguyen, 10. A 3-year-old son was shot but survived.
Set to stand trial in coming weeks are Run "Chaka" Chhuon, 24; Samreth Pan, 20; Nhung Tran, 20, and William "C.J." Evans, 17. Chhuon and Pan face the death penalty if convicted.
Authorities said the gang is based in the San Bernardino-Pomona area and specializes in robbing and terrorizing Asian families in their homes, in the belief that Asian families keep large sums of money and are reluctant to report crimes to the police.
The gang members are accused of breaking into the Nguyen home, ransacking the home in search of money and valuables, and then shooting the family members to death, execution-style.
"What they did in that home was just an extreme case of senseless violence, for no reason," said San Bernardino Police Det. Dave Dillon, a 17-year law enforcement veteran. "In all my years, I've never seen something as brutal."
Authorities believe that Pan and Chhuon are linked to home invasion murders in a Seattle suburb and Sacramento. District attorneys in those jurisdictions are waiting until the San Bernardino court system finishes its cases before beginning their prosecutions.
Vinh Tran was a juvenile when the crime was committed, but a judge ruled that he should be tried as an adult because of the callousness of the crime. Nhung Tran, the only woman among the five and no relation to Vinh Tran, is the next defendant to stand trial. She is expected by authorities to enter a guilty plea and testify against the remaining three.
The Nguyen murders went undetected for several hours until an aunt called the home, and the wounded and hysterical 3-year-old answered. Neighbors had reported hearing a short burst of gunshot-like sounds but had not called police.
Arrests were made within days of the shootings as usually reticent Asian immigrants provided information to the police. Vinh Tran will be sentenced Jan. 7.
"We hope we've put an end to this kind of violence," Dillon said. "Nobody wants to see it again."