UPDATE: Jury recommends death sentence for woman convicted of killing fortune teller and her daughter.
Why the heads and hands of a Vietnamese fortune teller and her daughter were covered in white paint when they were found slain in their Westminster home in 2005 confounded observers.
UPDATE: Tuesday, a jury in Santa Ana recommended the death penalty for a North Carolina woman the panel had earlier found guilty of the murders.
Ha Jade Smith, 52, and her daughter Anita Nhi Vo, a 23-year-old college student, were found dead in Mrs. Smith's Little Saigon home on April 22, 2005. They died of hideous multiple stab wounds to their faces and necks. Both also had cuts on their hands, suggesting that they had attempted to resist their attacks. What most baffled officers was why nearly a gallon of white paint had been poured over their heads and hands.
"I haven't come across anybody else who has had a case in which the victim's heads and hands were covered in paint," police Det. Tim Vu said at the time. "I've had calls from colleagues in other departments, too. They feel kind of fascinated by that. It's just not something that happens. . . . This is by far the most bizarre thing I've seen."
"Many theories have been put forward to attempt to the explain the significance of the paint," New Criminologist, an online journal of criminology professionals, posted two weeks after the crime. "White is traditionally worn at Vietnamese funerals, the color is symbolic of mourning and rites of passage. Actors in traditional Vietnamese theater painted their faces white for performances, or maybe an unhappy client used paint to ward off evil spirits."
As New Criminologist pointed out, Smith was a respected figure among the 30,000 Vietnamese who live in the area and she took in clients from as far away as New York, "desperate for her words of wisdom on love, business, spell-casting and what the future held." Most clients would have gone to Smith's home and paid up to $15,000 for her services in cash.
Police discovered Smith's home had been ransacked. "[D]rawers had been turned out, furniture had been tipped over, and papers were scattered throughout the location," according to New Criminologist. "However, hidden stockpiles of money and jewelery were undiscovered and untouched."
She'd been victimized before, having been tied up and robbed of $372,000 in jewelry and money in 2001. She'd apparently changed the locks and placed iron bars over the windows of her home. But police investigating the murder scene saw no signs of forced entry, the bars were in place, and all the doors were locked. That would indicate the killer(s) knew the victims, allowing them inside. Which, despite the bizarre white paint, prompted this from New Criminologist: "Another possibility could be that the paint is simply a red-herring; implying a cultural significance to what essentially could be a straight forward murder-robbery."
That's exactly what the jury found, that Tanya Jaime Nelson, 45, of Roanoke Rapids, N.C., killed the mother and daughter to rob the fortune teller and get her hands on Smith's expensive jewelry. The exact verdict was guilty of first-degree murder with special circumstances including murder of multiple victims, murder during the commission of robbery, and murder by lying in wait.
UPDATE: Nelson's formal sentencing is scheduled for March 26.
Her co-defendant, Phillipe Zamora, 55, also of Roanoke Rapids, pleaded guilty April 14, 2009, to two felony counts of first degree murder.
UPDATE: Zamora, who testified against Nelson, faces a maximum sentence of 50 years to life in state prison at his March 19 sentencing.
According to the case presented by the DA:
* Nelson knew the victim because Nelson and Zamora's wife had been clients.
* On April 21, 2005, Nelson went to Smith's home with Zamora under the pretense of visiting and having Nelson's fortune told. Nelson formulated a plan to murder Smith and Vo in order to rob the victim.
* Using knives from the kitchen, Nelson stabbed and murdered Vo as Zamora stabbed and murdered Smith. They left Smith face down on the kitchen floor. Smith bled to death after being stabbed in the head, face, neck, shoulders, and hands. They left Vo on the floor of the laundry room with her head jutting out into the hallway that led to the kitchen. Vo bled to death due to multiple stab wounds to her head, face, and neck.
* After murdering the victims, the pair attempted to wash bloody kitchen knives and wrapping them in plastic bags. Nelson ransacked the victims' home with Zamora and stole personal items including cell phones, purses, jewelry, and credit cards.
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* Nelson then drove with Zamora to Walmart to purchase paint, returning to the victims' home, and pouring white paint on Smith and Vo's heads and hands. Zamora covered Vo's face with a black shirt.
On April 22, 2005, the same day the murderers arrived home in North Carolina, the Westminster Police Department received a call from a concerned friend who had not heard from Vo and asked that she be checked on. Police then went to the home and discovered the grisly scene.
Nelson returned to Orange County in May 2005 for a South Coast Plaza shopping spree after purchasing plane tickets with the victims' credit cards. Westminister police detectives arrested her at the Santa Ana Holiday Inn on May 30 of that year. She had the victims' stolen credit cards, identification cards and designer luggage in her possession at the time of her arrest. Zamora was arrested June 1, 2005, at his North Carolina home.
Perhaps a bigger mystery than the white paint was whether the fortune teller saw this coming.