More than five years after one of Irvine's most vicious murders, Orange County prosecutors charged two alleged gang members Thursday with killing a teenage girl during a home invasion robbery.
Police said Noel Plata and Ronald Tri Tran, both 25, pushed their way into the home of Linda Park, hogtied the girl and tortured her until she revealed where her family hid its valuables.
The robbers allegedly beat the 18-year-old, slit her throat and then strangled her before fleeing with about $500 in cash and jewelry worth $10,000.
Park's father found his daughter's bloody body covered with a blanket, face down in the entranceway to their Deerfield home when he returned from work on Nov. 9, 1995.
At an arraignment hearing Thursday, Tran shook his head at spectators and mouthed the words, "I didn't do it." Both Tran and Plata face murder charges with "special circumstance" allegations of robbery and burglary that make them eligible for the death penalty.
They declined to enter pleas, and a judge postponed arraignment until March 23.
"This was a very notorious case, a brutal case," said Deputy Dist. Atty. John Anderson after the hearing. "Something went wrong with the home invasion robbery and because of [that] . . . she was killed."
Tran was arrested Tuesday night, just as authorities were transferring Plata to Orange County from the state's Tehachapi prison, where he is serving 28 years to life for another murder.
The arrests followed a five-year investigation by Irvine detectives, who 18 months ago paired up with a team of gang investigators in the district attorney's unit. New forensic technology using DNA found at Park's home was used, police said, though they declined to elaborate.
At the time of her death, Park's relatives said they were baffled at why the Irvine Valley College freshman, known to be extremely careful in dealing with strangers, would have opened the door to her killers.
Detectives said anonymous tips helped them quickly focus on Plata and Tran, in part because Park might have recognized Tran as a fellow student at Irvine Valley College. A college spokesman said Tran attended the college for a semester in the fall of 1995.
Police who interviewed both men soon after the killing said they did not have enough evidence to arrest them until this week. Tran and Plata, police allege, are members of the notorious street gang Viets For Life.
Prison and court records show that Plata, of Westminster, was convicted in 1999 of killing a 19-year-old. In 1994, Tran was sentenced to two years in prison for burglary.
Park's killing sent a chill through the quiet suburban community because of its savagery and because Irvine is widely considered one of the safest cities in the country.
As the years passed, Park's father said, his hopes for seeing his daughter's killers brought to justice dissolved. Instead, Sonny Park said, family members tried to concentrate on coming to terms with their loss.
Out of the blue, detectives knocked on his to tell the family of the arrests. The news brought relief, but also forced them to confront their loss anew.
"It hurt again," Sonny Park said, sitting in his Tustin upholstery shop, choking back tears.
The day of the killing, he recalled, Linda telephoned him at work about 5 p.m. He was busy and didn't return the call until 6. There was no answer and he left a message, saying he would be home later.
Now he can't help thinking that her killers must have been rummaging through his belongings, his daughter bound and perhaps dying, as he left the message.
"It haunts me," he said. "I keep thinking what they were doing to my daughter at the time I left that message. They knew what time I would be home."
On Thursday, he spent the day away from court, avoiding the men accused of killing his daughter.
"I don't want to see them," he said. "It doesn't make a difference. They will have to pay for it. She was my baby girl."