‘Nicest Killer I’ve Ever Met’

Strip prosecutor Cameron Talley of his fine suits, put him in street clothes and you might guess he’s a drummer in a rock band or a former professional boxer. Thanks to horseplay at a holiday party, a prominent vertical scar marks his forehead above his right eye. Though bald, he’s a lean, in shape 47 and he’s got the energy of a chatty adolescent, which makes you wish he’d quit drinking coffee. It’s not uncommon to see court reporters glare at him because of his rapid-fire delivery, but there’s no contempt. Polite to a fault, Talley is liked by court staff, judges and even defense lawyers. If provoked, however, he’s ferocious.

On March 12, Talley—who was prosecuting Jonathan Phong Khanh Tran, for murdering a 15-year-old prostitute and for raping three other teenage prostitutes in Southern California—was provoked. He couldn’t believe his ears when Mark Cantrell, one of Tran’s defense lawyers, described the bloody, battered body of a female victim found on a Santa Ana street as a “pesky fact.”

Cantrell would later apologize for the remark, but not before Talley nailed him. The deputy district attorney rose from his seat, grabbed two enlarged autopsy photographs of the victim—the great-great granddaughter of a famous Italian educator—and held them up for jurors.

“This pesky fact had a name,” said Talley. “It was Hanna Montessori. She was a little girl, 15. She may have been a runaway and a prostitute, but she was a human being.”

He placed the pictures on an easel, paused and then pointed at the 22-year-old Tran—perhaps the most unlikely looking killer/rapist you’ll ever see.

“That predator killed this little girl,” Talley said, pointing again. “Nobody can breathe life back into her and give her back to her mother.”

There was silence in the courtroom except for Hanna’s mother, Cheryl D. Ramirez, who’d flown in from Georgia. She sobbed and wiped away tears with a wad of tissues. Mark Boyce, a victim’s advocate, squeezed her shoulder and whispered in her ear. Ramirez, who is divorced from Hanna’s father, nodded gently but continued to weep. A few rows away, Tran’s mother, uncle and grandmother—dignified through the trial and obviously devastated to learn of their loved one’s dark side—stared ahead, foreshadowing the guilty verdicts to come.

Or perhaps they were wondering about the competence of the defense team they’d hired. I was. In closing, the gray-haired and bespectacled Cantrell spent more time explaining why he’d called Montessori’s corpse a “pesky fact” than defending Tran as innocent, a word he never uttered during the trial. He spoke in a monotone voice, constantly repeated himself and actually bragged about his lack of enthusiasm.

“The DA is appealing to your emotions,” Cantrell told jurors with his last chance to defend Tran. “I’m the college calculus professor you hated. I’m more dry. I’ve never hinted at my personal opinion [about the charges]. Theater, hysterics and drama are the sign of a weak case.”

Recall that the proceedings were about a gruesome—if probably accidental—murder, rapes at gunpoint, teenage prostitution, pimps, unprotected sex and, of course, the fate of his client. But Cantrell’s final words to the jury were bizarre. He said, “I hope you had a good time.”

With the trial portion completed and the jury in another room beginning deliberations, Talley saw Tran’s family in stunned anguish. He walked over, extended his hand and said, “I hope you understand that I’m just doing my job. It’s not personal.”

Families of many criminal defendants despise prosecutors. They curse, mad dog and even threaten them with violence. But Tran’s relatives—successful, well-dressed immigrants who came here from Vietnam in the 1980s—saw Talley’s sincerity. They shook his hand, sighed and said they understood.

It took the jury less than 90 minutes of deliberating on March 13 to reach first-poll unanimous verdicts. When the clerk read the first of four guilty counts, Tran exhaled and looked down at his lap. When the verdicts were done being read, he turned around to look at his mom, closed his eyes and bowed his head. Superior Court Judge William Froeberg announced a May 11 sentencing. Tran faces a potential 55 years to life prison sentence. As three bailiffs placed him in handcuffs, Montessori’s mother cried and greeted each juror with “Thank you so much” as they filed out of the courtroom.

As he was escorted back to jail, Tran looked back several times at the emotional scene. His victim’s mom hugged Talley and the Santa Ana police officers who’d solved the case. Even after he had been declared a killer and a serial rapist, a deflated Tran didn’t look the part. The tall young man born with an innocent face bit his lip and, as best I could tell, looked at Hanna Montessori’s mother with sympathy and regret.

“I’ve got to admit,” said Santa Ana homicide detective Dean Fulcher, “he’s the nicest killer I’ve ever met.”

Members of the jury agreed. “Tran is definitely a good-looking guy,” the female jury foreman told the Weekly. “But we had to put that out of our minds. There was overwhelming evidence against him. I don’t think he meant to kill Hanna. I think she panicked and jumped from Tran’s truck when she thought she was going to be raped or robbed. It’s very sad for everyone.”

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