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Proprietors of same liquor store killed eight years apart

The first slaying in Hawaiian Gardens was committed in a botched robbery, but this week's killing remains a mystery. One theory is that the victim was targeted over gambling debts.

May 25, 2012|By Angel Jennings, Richard Winton and Andrew Blankstein, Los Angeles Times
  • A man tries the door at the Beer & Wine Market in Hawaiian Gardens, which is closed because the proprietor was killed.
A man tries the door at the Beer & Wine Market in Hawaiian Gardens, which… (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles…)

Eight years ago, the owner of a Hawaiian Gardens liquor store was fatally stabbed in a botched robbery.

This week, violence revisited the same address on Carson Street. This time, the body of a man whose family had purchased the shop after the murder was found Monday evening bound and gagged, placed in a back-room refrigerator. Authorities said he was shot execution-style in the head.

Los Angeles County sheriff's investigators said they do not believe the two crimes are connected. But the killings have shaken the working-class town east of Long Beach.

Brenda Billingsley, 56, of Compton learned of Hoa Vi Tran's death Thursday when visiting the store for a snack, something she regularly does on the way to her job at a nearby hospital. She had just been there last Friday, chatting with Tran about the Lakers.

"He was just as sweet as he can be," she said. "I'm in shock."

Others described Tran as quiet, even reclusive, but also friendly. He was known for giving free candy to neighborhood children.

Yolie Lell of La Palma said the liquor store often was dark, even at peak hours. "It was open at weird times," said Lell. "It wasn't like a regular liquor store that had regular hours."

The first killing at the shop occurred in 2004 and quickly yielded an arrest. Michael Seamster is serving 25 years to life in state prison for the slaying of Il Shin Chang.

The Sheriff's Department concluded that Chang's killing was a robbery gone bad, but the more recent case remains a mystery.

One theory detectives are pursuing is that Tran, 40, was targeted over gambling debts. Authorities say he was known to frequent a nearby casino.

"We know he liked to gamble," said sheriff's Sgt. Steve Rubino. "We are looking at everything in his life right now. Obviously, we've heard about [his] erratic hours and the visits to the casino."

Helen Tran, the victim's 37-year-old sister, said Wednesday that her brother kept to himself and that she could not imagine who would kill him.

"It was his business, and he wanted to take care of it [himself] all the time," she said, adding that she knew of no financial trouble he was in.

For decades, the dominant gang in the area has been the Varrio Hawaiian Garden, which was so entrenched that the FBI estimated in 2009 that one in 15 people living in the square-mile city on the Orange County line had ties to it.

That year, federal authorities charged 147 members and associates of the gang with murder, attempted murder, drug trafficking, weapons trafficking, extortion, kidnapping and witness intimidation.

The investigation into the gang began in 2005 after sheriff's Deputy Jerry Ortiz was fatally shot by one of its members, whom he was trying to arrest in connection with a shooting.

Laura Gonsalez, 27, who works at a laundry business next door to the liquor store, described Tran as quiet but also kind-hearted and with a neat appearance.

But two months ago she noticed that he was looking more haggard and appeared exhausted. "He didn't shave and he looked all tore up," she said.

One day Gonsalez and her son found Tran lying on the floor behind the cash register. He told her that he was tired and needed a nap. Gonsalez could tell Tran had not been sleeping well, and she noticed he was no longer driving his Lexus.

A deliveryman, who asked not to be named because he feared retaliation, said that a month ago someone smashed out the window at the store.

"I am from the streets, and he was scared," the man said. "He knew someone was out there, and he had to be scared of them. He knew someone was out to get him."

Sheriff's detectives ask that anyone with information about the crime contact them at (323) 890-5500.

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