Tanya Nelson Irks Judge Frank F. Fasel, Who Sends Double-Killer to Death Row

Death row bound Nelson: I'm innocent!
Death row bound Nelson: I'm innocent!

Retiring Frank F. Fasel is the type of no-nonsense Orange County judge who appreciates people who make their points quickly. But Fasel wasn't impressed by Tanya Jaime Nelson's pithy pre-sentencing message designed to keep herself off California's notorious death row.

After all, with an accomplice in April 2005, Nelson--a 46-year-old Vietnamese immigrant, North Carolina boutique shop entrepreneur and secret escort service owner--savagely murdered two people: Ha Jade Smith, a popular Little Saigon fortune teller, and her daughter, Anita Vo.


In February, a jury concluded that Nelson had masterminded the steak-knife killings and then desecrated the corpses with a demented finishing touch: For whatever bizarre reason, she dumped white paint over the faces and hands, and placed the brutally punctured bodies facing south.

Then, in an act of either brazen contempt for the Westminster Police Department or pathological delusion, she left a trail from the murder scene to her front door by repeatedly using the victim's credit cards at places like Fry's Electronics, Target, restaurants and with airlines. A search of Nelson's property located jewelry worth $500,000 in a coffee maker as well as $68,000 stuffed inside a vacuum cleaner.

"I am innocent," Nelson--the youngest in a wealthy Vietnamese family with 16 children, a 1979 immigrant from communist Vietnam and a Costa Mesa High School attendee--told Judge Fasel in a pre-sentencing note delivered through the probation department. She said she couldn't have been the killer because she had flown from North Carolina to OC at the time of the murders only to spy on her estranged husband's affair with another woman. She'd never even met the homicide victims in person, she explained. She even had an answer for why she had the victim's credit cards: Smith had been a telephone customer. (I'm not aware of the excuse she gave for using the cards after the killings, though.)

But inside Fasel's ninth-floor Santa Ana courtroom on April 23, a waist-shackled Nelson--who converted from Buddhism to Christianity in jail and now serves as an evangelist for other female inmates--had nothing to say. She kept her back to Smith's surviving sisters, Nicky Phan and Huong Thi, while they gave a victim's impact statement. In unmastered English, Phan slowly read a six-page typed statement that ended by calling Nelson "the queen of greed and evil." 

Thi stood beside Phan holding a large portrait of her dead sister. She repeatedly bowed to Fasel, homicide prosecutor Sonia Balleste and a large crowd in attendance. As her sister spoke of the terrible pain her family has suffered by the loss of two members, tears streamed down Thi's face. A nearby veteran bailiff stiffened his face muscles to resist crying himself.

After Balleste described Nelson as "the personification of narcissistic evil" and defense attorney Kenneth Reed argued briefly for the merits of life without the possibly of parole, Fasel pounced.

"It's laughable," he said. "It's a joke, the stuff [Nelson] told the probation officer."

A stern, red-faced Fasel then pointed to the victim's relatives sitting in the audience.

"These people have a right to be doubly upset."

Then without a moment's hesitation at 12:43 p.m., Fasel looked down at Nelson and told her she faces execution for her crimes after she is transported to San Quentin State Prison.

Deputy DA Balleste interrupted, pointing out that females sentenced to death in California go to Central California Women's Facility in Chowchilla; men go to San Quentin.

Fasel, not somebody prone to blunders, nodded and said, "Okay." He repeated his instructions with the correct institution.

The hearing ended without incident. Bailiffs took Nelson out of the courtroom. She didn't look back, though one of her adult sons was in the room. In coming days, the sheriff's department is scheduled to bus her to her final destination--where she'll probably eventually die of old age.

--R. Scott Moxley / OC Weekly

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