By Terri Vermeulen Keith
LONG BEACH, Calif. – A prosecutor told jurors Tuesday that three people were killed and nine others were wounded, including a woman who was left paralyzed, in a shooting at a Halloween-themed birthday party in Long Beach that the alleged mastermind mistakenly believed rival gang members would be attending that night.
“The plan was to kill rival gang members. The only problem was there were no rival gang members there,” Deputy District Attorney Michele Hanisee told jurors in the trial of Jeremy Penh, David Long, Kaylin Thik, Ryan Sim and Grant Johnson.
Penh’s attorney, Amy Jacks, acknowledged that her client — the son of Cambodian immigrants — joined a gang because he lived in a neighborhood in Long Beach where gangs were prevalent. But she said he was not at the scene of the shooting and did what he could do to try to diffuse the situation that was building.
“The truth is that Mr. Penh is not guilty,” Jacks told the Long Beach jury.
Defense attorney Daniel Nardoni told jurors that there was no DNA or fingerprint evidence linking Long to the crime and no witnesses identifying him as one of the gunmen.
Nardoni said his client eventually lied to undercover jailhouse informants about being involved with the shooting after being warned about what could happen to him in county jail following more than three hours of conversation in which Long adamantly denied participating in the crime.
Penh, 29, Long, 23, Thik, 24, Sim, 21, and Johnson, 39, are charged with murder in connection with the Oct. 29, 2009, shooting deaths of Maurice Poe Jr., 25, of Long Beach, Melvin Williams II, 35, of Gardena, and Ricardo Torres, 28, of Inglewood, who died at the scene of the party in the 2700 block of East Seventh Street, between Temple and Junipero avenues in Long Beach’s Rose Park area.
The murder charges include the special circumstance allegations of multiple murders and gang-related murders, which could result in life prison sentences without the possibility of parole if the defendants are convicted.
The five are also charged with nine counts of attempted murder involving the other victims who were injured, including a young woman celebrating her birthday and another woman who was left paralyzed as a result of the shooting.
The prosecutor told jurors that Penh masterminded the attack after hearing from a childhood friend that a man he believed had disrespected “his hood” in a video was hosting the party and then driven Long, Thik and Sim to the crime scene where the three allegedly opened fire and turned a party of friends and co-workers into a scene of “terror and bloodshed.”
Penh had called his childhood friend to warn him to go inside the home, with everyone else at the party subsequently rounded up to go inside the home, according to the prosecutor.
Penh called his childhood friend again to ask why he told everyone to go inside, and the friend responded, “There’s nobody here that gang-bangs. It’s just my co-workers,” Hanisee told jurors. The party-goers eventually started filtering into the backyard again and within minutes it was “turned into a shooting gallery,” the prosecutor said.
“They were screaming, they were running, they were falling to the ground…,” Hanisee told jurors.
Johnson was allegedly a passenger in the get-away vehicle — a PT Cruiser — that was caught multiple times on surveillance video along with two other vehicles in a convoy driving in Long Beach before the shooting, Hanisee said.
A forensic firearms examiner concluded that three different guns were used based on a microscopic examination of 23 bullet casings that were recovered from the scene, but no guns were ever recovered, the prosecutor said.
Ingrid Cortes, who was celebrating her birthday that night, said she heard what she thought was fireworks before being struck in the chest.
“I was like, `These are not fireworks,”‘ she said, noting that she saw everyone running when the gunfire erupted.
When asked if the shooting took her by surprise, she said, “It sure did.”
She testified that she eventually blacked out and awoke to her friends trying to take care of her wounds in the home’s living room, and subsequently spent a month in a hospital.
Another woman who was injured, Adina Avila, choked back tears as she told jurors that she was struck in the right leg and left shoulder, fell to the ground and that one of the men at the party tried to help her before being shot himself.
Other victims who survived the shooting are expected to testify Wednesday.
Three additional defendants who were initially charged with the shootings have reached plea deals, with one of them expected to testify during the trial.