WESTMINSTER – A Santa Ana police detective said in court Monday what a defense lawyer has said repeatedly about the death of Annie Kim Pham – that she started the Jan. 18 fight outside The Crosby nightclub in Santa Ana.
On the first day of a preliminary hearing at West Justice Center in Westminster to determine whether a murder case should proceed against two women charged in Pham’s death, Detective Roland Andrade said a witness told him that Pham, 23, was belligerent and apparently intoxicated before throwing a punch that struck defendant Vanesa Zavala, 25.
That punch set off a fight that included Zavala and Pham and a second defendant, Candace Brito, 27.
“She was by no means innocent,” Andrade said of Pham. “She was the reason for the fight.”
But prosecutors contend that who started the fight is irrelevant. And testimony from other detectives included graphic details of the blows that knocked Pham unconscious – kicks that witnesses say came from Zavala and Brito to Pham’s head. Prosecutors contend those blows are why Zavala and Brito face murder charges.
Still, Etoi Davenport, a forensic pathologist for the county who conducted the autopsy on Pham, said only that the recent Chapman University graduate died of blunt-force injuries to her head. Davenport could not specify if a kick, a punch or Pham’s head hitting a hard surface caused Pham’s death.
Davenport added that Pham did not have a skull fracture but was struck at least five times, with injuries to both eyes, to the right side of her head by her temple, to the top of her head and to the lower left back of her head.
Detectives also said the fight began over a bumping incident outside the club, contradicting media reports about a “photobomb” or a racial motive.
A woman identified in court only as “Amelia,” a female acquaintance of Brito and Zavala, bumped into Pham as the defendants’ party was leaving the nightclub and Pham and her friends were waiting to enter. The woman said, “Excuse me,” in a sarcastic voice, and Pham responded with obscenities and had to be restrained by her friends, according to Andrade.
The defendants’ party was leaving, but reengaged with Pham two times as the women yelled at each other. The women eventually started pushing each other and pulling each other’s hair.
Other evidence introduced at the preliminary hearing included a brief video clip shot by a bystander.
According to Santa Ana police Detective Leo Rodriguez, the lead investigator on the case, the clip shows Brito breaking away from a security guard and executing “a kicking motion” at Pham as Pham was on the ground.
Detective Matthew McLeod also testified that, as the tussle continued, Brito kicked Pham in the face, and Zavala landed a kick in the left temple area. After that, McLeod said, Pham “went limp and collapsed.”
Additional video footage of the fight is expected to be shown today, to be used by the prosecution, in part, to support the theory that Zavala and Brito delivered blows to Pham’s head that ultimately led to her death.
The defense contends that video footage tells only part of the story, showing Pham as an equal participant. Zavala and Brito, both office workers from Santa Ana, have pleaded not guilty.
Superior Court Judge Thomas Borris could rule today whether there is sufficient evidence to compel a jury trial, after more witnesses, including at least two to be called by the defense, take the stand.
Monday’s hearing was attended by friends and family of the victim and the defendants.
Pham’s father, James Pham, dressed in all black and wearing a button with a picture of his daughter, left the courtroom before the video was shown. Supporters of the defendants moved into position to get a view of the brief video clip.
Another witness who took the stand, Santa Ana police Detective Patricia Navarro, said she worked undercover in the days after Zavala and Brito were arrested, pretending to be an inmate at a jail in Santa Ana and secretly recording a discussion with Zavala. Before she could offer details about what she found, Navarro’s admission prompted a break in the hearing, with Borris excusing Navarro and ordering her to return to take the stand today.
BY DENISSE SALAZAR, GREG HARDESTY AND VIK JOLLY / ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
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