More than five years after one of Irvine's most brutal slayings, Orange County prosecutors charged two alleged gang members Thursday with murdering an 18-year-old woman during a home invasion robbery gone awry.
Noel Plata and Ronald Tri Tran, both 25, pushed their way into the home of Linda Park, hogtied her and tortured her until she revealed where her family had hidden their valuables, police said.
The bandits allegedly beat Park, slit her throat and strangled her before fleeing with about $500 in cash and jewelry worth $10,000. Park's father found her bloody body covered with a blanket, face down in the entry of their home when he returned from work Nov. 9, 1995.
At an arraignment hearing Thursday, Tran shook his head at spectators and mouthed the words "I didn't do it." 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 a 1996 murder.
The naming of suspects capped 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 Park's death, her relatives said they were baffled at why the Irvine Valley College freshman, known as extremely careful in dealing with strangers, opened the door to her killers.
Detectives, however, said anonymous tips helped them quickly focus on Plata and Tran, in part because Park may have recognized Tran as a fellow student. A college spokesman said Tran attended the school for a semester in fall 1995.
Police interviewed both men soon after the killing but said they did not have enough evidence to make the arrest and file charges 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 for the slaying of a 19-year-old man. In 1994, Tran was sentenced to two years in prison for burglary.
Park's murder sent a chill through the suburban community because of both its savagery and the fact that Irvine is widely hailed as 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, the family tried to concentrate on coming to terms with their loss.
Out of the blue, detectives knocked on Park's door to tell the family of the arrest. The news touched off a wave of relief but also forced them to confront their loss afresh.
"It hurt again," Park said, sitting in his Tustin upholstery shop, choking back tears.
The day of the murder, 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."
Sonny Park's desk at work is adorned with pictures of his daughter in a black and white dance costume. Linda, he said, was a jazz dancer and had dreamed of becoming a fashion designer.
On Thursday, he spent the day away from court, deliberately avoiding the men accused of murdering 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."