Killer faces up to life in prison with parole after felony murder conviction

Killer faces up to life in prison with parole after felony murder conviction

In the early morning hours of Sept. 1, 2012, as lounge owner Hieu Huynh and his wife Loan Tran exited their karaoke bar Nikki’s Lounge on Gulfway Drive in Port Arthur, a tragic turn of events transpired that would ultimately end Huynh’s life at 62 years old.

According to police reports from the Port Arthur Police Department and security video footage from Nikki’s Lounge, an armed robber brandishing a small, black handgun ran toward the couple, and when Huynh ran for his life clutching his little white dog Lucky to his chest, the gunman fired. A bullet from the weapon struck the victim, who fell to the ground near a side street adjacent to the lounge where Huynh was known to sing and dance for rapt patrons and where he and his wife earned their livelihood. After Huynh fell, witnesses told police the gunman approached the fallen man and fired again. Huynh was shot in the back and in the head. He died as a result of his injuries.

After the murder of the local business owner, police investigated with vigor, questioning witnesses, gathering evidence, looking for leads. Finally, they made a break in the case and arrested two men, both 18 at the time and both from Port Arthur. Darren Oliver and Brandon Tran were taken into custody separately and subsequently charged with the capital murder of Hieu Huynh. Now, jurors have found one of the men guilty of felony murder.

Testimony began in the trial of 20-year-old Brandon Tran on Oct. 14. The first witness to take the stand was Loan Tran, Huynh’s widow and no relation to Brandon Tran. She said that she and her husband had just finished their closing duties and were preparing to leave their business sometime after 2 a.m. Huynh exited first, picking up his dog, who Tran said was like a son to the childless Huynh. As Huynh started to walk toward the couple’s car and Tran locked the door behind him, a man ran toward them holding a gun, the widow testified. When her husband saw the gunman coming, she called out “Run,” and he ran, holding Lucky in one arm.

Tran told jurors she called for the robber to take her purse, which held the business’ earnings from the evening. He did not pause, Tran testified, but instead raced toward her fleeing husband. She heard gunshots, she told jurors, and saw a man run away from behind the dumpster area from where the assailant had come. She then ran around the corner of the building where Huynh and his pursuer had gone and saw her dying husband lying facedown on the ground. Tran said there was “a lot of blood,” and told jurors she turned Huynh over, holding his hand to her chest as he breathed his last.

Tran never saw the face of the man who killed her husband.

In an interview with The Examiner, Tran said her husband loved his pet, Lucky, very much, and once Huynh passed, the dog soon followed.

“He would wait for him by the front door and outside his bedroom,” Tran related. “He wouldn’t eat. About three months after my husband died, Lucky died. His heart was broken. Mine was too.”

Revelations, intimidation

Eddie Keller lived in a house behind Nikki’s Lounge. On the night of Huynh’s murder, he was watching television when he heard gunshots and ran outside to see what was happening. Keller testified he saw a man leaning over the prone body of Huynh “shaking him like a rag doll” in an effort to remove something from the victim’s body. Keller told jurors he chased the suspect briefly but could not catch up. He called 911.

Police discovered after Huynh’s murder that his wallet and a gold chain were both missing. The medallion was recovered at the scene, but witnesses during the trial told jurors Tran ended up in possession of the chain, which he then took to Houston and sold for $1,900.

Numerous people took the stand during five days of testimony, including Darren Oliver. Oliver told jurors that Tran was the shooter and that he ran when he saw that Tran, known to Oliver as “Little B,” fired at Huynh the night of the murder. He said he was reluctant to join in the robbery in the first place and had not intended for the event to result in murder, even though Tran got the gun from him.

Oliver testified that since the murder, he has received threats against himself and his family on Tran’s behalf demanding that he not testify against Tran. And he is not the only one who said they felt intimidated by Tran. Besides Oliver, Tran or someone he knows allegedly made threats against other potential witnesses and possibly even jurors.

On the first day of testimony, after returning from a break, a juror complained that as they were walking back to the courtroom, someone in the hallway menacingly whispered, “Not guilty.” Who said it is unknown, but at least one police officer said he believes it was a gang affiliate of Tran’s trying to intimidate the jurors.

LaJohn Wilson, a convicted aggravated robber who said he and Tran were incarcerated together, testified Tran confessed to him. He told jurors he too was threatened harm by Tran if he testified. He said Tran threatened him in a letter, in evidence at the trial, and Tran knew things he had said in his statement to police. He said Tran even had a copy of Wilson’s statement that he passed around jail to prove he was a “snitch.” He said he believed the defense attorneys’ investigator had given Tran the statement, an accusation vehemently denied during their examination of Wilson.

Wilson said Tran told him he shot Huynh in the back, then “dome-shot” him, indicating a shot to the head of the victim — the shot that presumably killed Hieu Huynh.

According to prosecutors, another former cell mate of Tran’s, Marthur Dingle, made a statement to police prior to the trial that Tran had confessed to the murder and told Dingle that he had planned the crime in order to garner respect from his peers so he could start his own gang.

The last person to take the stand was PAPD Detective Marcelo Molfino. Molfino told jurors that after receiving information that Tran was the shooter in the 2012 murder of Hieu Huynh and about Tran’s whereabouts, he and fellow officers went to the Driftwood Hotel in Bridge City and arrested Tran on Sept. 3. Molfino testified that after Tran was handcuffed, as Molfino lifted him from the ground to place in the back of a police car, Tran said, “I can’t do life in prison. You guys put a needle in me.”

Molfino testified that when he interviewed Tran at the police station, Tran confessed to shooting Huynh and said he did not mean to do it. He said it was a full moon and he felt he was possessed, according to Molfino and Tran’s signed confession, admitted into evidence after a hearing contesting its admissibility.

Prosecutors showed video from KFDM of Molfino escorting Tran from the police station in cuffs as reporters swarmed around the suspected murderer. Tran also told them that he “felt possessed” the night of Hieu Huynh’s murder. He said of Loan Tran, that he was “sorry for her husband’s loss,” and that he was “going to learn from it.” He then said he was sorry to his own family for what he had done. Tran could be seen smiling as he exited the police station earlier in the video footage.

During closing arguments, defense attorneys asked that jurors consider that Tran might not have been the shooter, and even if jurors felt he did shoot Huynh, they should consider the lesser charge of felony murder rather than capital murder, for which Tran would receive life without the possibility of parole. Prosecutors pointed to the “mountain of evidence” submitted against Tran, and said Huynh’s murder was committed during a robbery and with intent to kill, the criteria necessary to find Tran guilty of capital murder. Why else bring a gun to the robbery, they argued.

“Guns have one purpose,” Prosecutor Pat Knauth submitted to jurors. “It’s to kill.”

After more than 24 hours of deliberation, jurors came back with a verdict at about 3 p.m. on Oct. 22. Brandon Tran was found guilty of felony murder rather than capital murder.

The punishment phase begins Oct. 23. Tran faces five years to life in prison and will be eligible for parole.