Press-Telegram (Long Beach)

DA’s reforms appall family of slain woman, 76

- By Ruby Gonzales

Chyong Jen Tsai emmigrated from Taiwan to America in 1985 with her two daughters to join her husband, Hsiu Nan Tsai. The 43-year-old’s English vocabulary consisted of “Hi,” “My name is,” “How are you?” and “Bye.”

Her husband arrived earlier in New York the same year, then moved to Arcadia. She helped him manage a laundromat, then a dry cleaner, worked 10-hour days, went to adult school at night to learn the language and did extra jobs like sewing clothes to earn money. When she couldn’t do the physically intensive job at the laundromat and dry cleaner anymore, she found a bookkeepin­g position.

At 76, she looked forward to moving into the granny flat being built in the backyard of her house in the 300 block of East Forest Avenue. Nancy Tsai said her mother saved her money for the project and wanted to live in a smaller place because the main house was too big to be cleaned. It was supposed to be her retirement home.

Tsai and her husband made coffee for the constructi­on crew working on the granny flat and bought breakfast for them at McDonald’s. She cooked lunch for them or if she wasn’t feeling well, her husband bought the workers pizza.

“They did it out of compassion for the workers because they once worked

physically demanding jobs and knew food is essential and something that these laborers may not have enough,” Nancy Tsai said. “Food is their welcome language.”

Sheriff's detectives say that one of the workers, Heber Enoc Diaz, stole constructi­on tools from the Tsai residence on March 19, 2019, then returned three weeks later, on April 8 or 9, to commit another burglary.

Prosecutor­s believe the Pasadena man killed Tsai when she discovered him at the home. They said he attacked her with a hammer, a jab saw and a box cutter. She was beaten, strangled and stabbed multiple times, then covered with several shovelfuls of dirt.

The killer then ransacked the house and fled with the couple's belongings, including a wallet, credit cards, documents, and their Lexus RX 300, investigat­ors said.

If convicted of killing Tsai, Diaz faced a possible sentence of life in prison without parole because the prosecutor charged him with “special circumstan­ce” allegation­s that the slaying was committed during a robbery and a burglary.

But nearly two years after the slaying, 29-year-old Diaz — who has pleaded not guilty to the crimes — faces a shorter sentence — 32 years and four months to life in prison, if convicted.

Under one of the directives by District Attorney George Gascón, the DA's Office will ask the courts to dismiss special circumstan­ce allegation­s in existing cases and will not file such allegation­s in new ones. In January, a spokeswoma­n for the DA's Office said they would ask a judge to dismiss the two special circumstan­ce allegation­s against Diaz, who had been scheduled for a Feb. 19 court hearing.

But the dismissal of the enhancemen­ts has not happened. The deputy district attorneys' union filed a lawsuit to stop Gascón from being allowed to remove special circumstan­ce allegation­s in cases, and on Feb. 8, the judge in that suit issued a preliminar­y injunction, temporaril­y blocking the DA's Office from scrapping the enhancemen­ts.

Gascón said his office will follow the court's ruling, but his legal team will appeal the injunction.

Sentencing enhancemen­ts add years to a defendant's sentence. Gascón wanted an end to all enhancemen­ts in existing and new cases. Studies have shown excessive sentences increase recidivism and create more victims in the future, he said in a Dec. 30 statement.

“Data shows these harsh tactics compromise our community's long-term health and safety, create more hardened criminals and victims, and therefore are not in the interests of justice,” Gascón said.

Nancy Tsai doesn't want the special allegation­s to be dismissed. Not only would Diaz get a shorter sentence if convicted, he'd have a chance at parole. She said Diaz knows her parents' address. She fears he poses a danger to others, as well.

“I'm scared for my family and neighbors. He can work as a constructi­on worker and be in someone else's house,” she said.

Neighbors shocked

Chyong Jen Tsai had diabetes, an irregular heartbeat and blurry vision even after cataract surgery, Nancy Tsai said. Her mother would wake up before 6 a.m. because that's when the workers would arrive. She would make a pot of coffee and go to McDonald's to get food for them.

“She was a light sleeper,” Nancy Tsai said.

Only Chyong Jen Tsai and her cocker spaniel Cappuccino were home the week of the slaying. Her husband, Hsiu Nan Tsai, was in Taiwan at the time.

The alarm in the house was turned off around 2 a.m. on April 9, 2019. Authoritie­s believed Tsai may have done it to let her dog out the door when she was assaulted, according to the report by the coroner's investigat­or.

A neighbor heard screaming around that time. It wasn't clear if it was Tsai. The neighbor was unable to identify the specific source of the screams, said sheriff's Detective Francis Hardiman, an investigat­or in the case.

Members of the constructi­on crew arrived around 6:55 a.m. and started to enter the backyard through the locked gate to the alley, the coroner's report said.

One saw Tsai lying in the backyard near some constructi­on supplies and equipment with a layer of dirt partly covering her. Clad in a pink pajama top, a gray undershirt and white pants, she bore injuries from the fatal assault. The workers called 911. That morning, Nancy Tsai received a call from one of her mother's neighbors, who said something was going on.

She called her parents' land line, texted her mother's cellphone and called Arcadia police. When she gave police her parents' address, she was told they can't tell her anything but to head to the location.

She next called the contractor, who said he found her mother dead. Nancy Tsai remembers screaming.

“When I got there it looked like a set for a crime show. This was my childhood home,” she said.

Residents and passersby seemed shocked that a body was discovered in a backyard in this suburban neighborho­od. Neighbors described Tsai as a sweet lady, a wonderful Christian, someone who gave them fruit from her trees and offered sympathy.

The autopsy showed Tsai's attacker landed multiple blows to her head; part of her skull was broken. The assailant also broke her ribs and stabbed her in both cheeks, right upper lip, chin, neck, shoulder, chest and right thigh. The left side of her neck was slashed twice. She also was strangled or choked.

The injuries to her arms showed she tried to defend herself. The coroner determined she died from the combined effects of multiple sharp forces injuries, multiple blunt trauma and asphyxia.

An encounter

Deputies found the Lexus RX 300 abandoned in Los Angeles on April 18. Detectives arrested Diaz the next day as he was leaving his Pasadena home.

“Circumstan­ces from a prior burglary at the location and other evidence led detectives to Diaz,” Hardiman said.

Diaz was burglarizi­ng Tsai's garage when he encountere­d her and killed her, Deputy District Attorney Miriam Avalos said in a 2019 release about the DA's Office charging Diaz.

Diaz doesn't have any prior felony conviction­s in Los Angeles County. Court records show he pleaded no contest in 2016 to drinking in public and paid a $25 fine. Detectives were not aware if he used other names.

He was charged with murder with two special circumstan­ce allegation­s, robbery, elder abuse resulting in death and three counts of burglary. The prosecutor in the case also filed allegation­s against Diaz that he inflicted great bodily injury upon Tsai, who was over 70, and that he used a hammer, jab saw and box cutter — all deadly weapons.

Authoritie­s then arrested two friends of Diaz, Luis Gaitan of Altadena and Isis Villalobos of Pasadena, on May 8, 2019.

“Gaitan assisted Diaz in fleeing from the abandoned vehicle. He also assisted Diaz in hiding the bloody clothes that Diaz was wearing during the murder,” Hardiman said.

He said Villalobos lied to detectives about multiple trips to a Pasadena pawnshop with Diaz.

Both were charged with being an accessory after the fact, said Pamela Johnson, a spokeswoma­n for the DA's Office. Gaitan was also charged with receiving stolen property, about $950-plus in constructi­on equipment from the site.

They later pleaded no contest to being an accessory after the fact. Villalobos received five years probation and 160 hours of community service. Gaitan was sentenced to two years in county jail.

If he is convicted without the special circumstan­ce allegation­s, it is likely that Diaz would be eligible for parole in 20 years, under the Elderly Parole Program, Hardiman said.

Diaz's public defender did not return calls and or an email seeking comment.

Fighting back

Nancy Tsai recently read news articles about her mother's slaying and the coroner's report. She knows she has rights under Marsy's Law, which provides victims with a voice in the criminal justice system. In January, she joined a group that wants to recall Gascón.

She and her sister, Patty Thurlow, submitted victim impact statements to the prosecutor and plan to speak in court.

Tsai said she wants the judge to know the severity of the crime and the excruciati­ng last minutes her mother went through.

“I want him to hear what I read,” Tsai said. “I never want to have that hell happen to another neighbor, another community member or another victim's family. The hell I went through.”

After the murder, Nancy Tsai, a physical therapist, couldn't work for three months. The prospect of her mother's killer getting a sentence of life without parole was a little solace she could cling to, she said. She felt relieved that he wouldn't be eligible for parole.

“I worked through 21 months accepting that life in prison (without parole) was the highest penalty he could get,” she said.

She was shocked when told Diaz faced a lesser sentence if convicted. Tsai said she really needs an explanatio­n of why a shorter sentence is the next best option.

Gascón's special directives are “an upheaval to the entire definition of public safety,” she said. “I don't think my mother would believe these (directives) are bringing justice to her case.”

Support for Gascón

Nancy Tsai is grateful to Los Angeles Superior Court Judge James Chalfant for issuing the injunction and to the judges who have rejected the motions from the DA's Office to dismiss special circumstan­ce allegation­s in several other cases.

The injunction was the result of a civil lawsuit filed by the Associatio­n of Deputy District Attorneys for Los Angeles County against Gascón. The suit alleged that four of Gascón's special directives ignore or violate the law, including his directive on sentencing enhancemen­ts.

Gascón had called them a legacy of the state's toughon-crime era. “The current statutory ranges for criminal offenses alone, without enhancemen­ts, are sufficient to both hold people accountabl­e and also to protect public safety,” he wrote.

Many of the sentencing enhancemen­ts enacted in California are outdated, incoherent, and applied unfairly, in Gascón's view.

“By avoiding harsh sentencing and investing in rehabilita­tion programs for the incarcerat­ed, we can reduce crime and help people improve their lives,” he stated.

In response to a backlash, Gascón later allowed certain sentencing enhancemen­ts to continue to be filed. The exceptions do not pertain to the Tsai case.

Steven Green, a statewide organizer for Families United to End Life Without Parole, said he agrees with Gascón's policy not to file special circumstan­ce allegation­s in new cases and withdraw such allegation­s in existing cases.

“I support his stance 100 percent,” said the former gang member and exinmate, now a student at Cal State Fullerton majoring in public administra­tion. He wants to work on policies in criminal justice reform.

Ten or 15 years down the road, the person sentenced to life in prison without parole might be a different person, Green said.

“But an LWOP (life without parole) sentence doesn't care if they change,” he said. “It's really tragic because we don't give people a chance to change.”

It wasn't that long ago that Green was serving a sentence of life in prison without parole for the Jan. 26, 1992, murder of 13-yearold Tayde Vasquez in Long Beach.

Green was 18 and a gang member at the time of the murder. He wasn't the shooter. Elizabeth Lozano, a 16-year-old from another gang, robbed Vasquez of her jewelry and at point-blank range shot the younger girl in the head twice.

While in prison, Green shed his gang ties, earned his GED and six associate degrees plus participat­ed in self-help programs. Prison authoritie­s lauded his efforts. In 2018, Gov. Jerry Brown commuted his sentence to 26 years to life in prison. Green was released in November 2019.

“I've done close to 28 years,” he said. “It didn't make anybody safer.”

Speaking out

Nancy Tsai's father is a retired prosecutor from Taiwan. As someone who worked in criminal justice, he encouraged his children to trust the system.

Then the family was informed about the idea to drop the special circumstan­ce allegation­s in the case. Nancy Tsai told her father she wanted to speak out.

“I told him that the system is not working out the way you thought,” she said.

Tsai said she and her mother used to talk two to three times every day. During their last call, Chyong Jen Tsai mentioned the granny flat was almost done and she looked forward to its completion. Nancy Tsai told her mother she loved her.

She still talks to her mother when she visits her grave at Rose Hills Memorial Park in Whittier.

“I told her,” Nancy Tsai said, “‘I will not let you be just a name on that line because you deserve more than that.'”

 ?? LOS ANGELES COUNTY SHERIFF’S DEPARTMENT ?? Chyong Jen Tsai, 76, was found dead in the backyard of her Arcadia home on April 2019. The man accused in the brutal attack and death faces a shorter sentence under DA George Gascón’s reforms.
LOS ANGELES COUNTY SHERIFF’S DEPARTMENT Chyong Jen Tsai, 76, was found dead in the backyard of her Arcadia home on April 2019. The man accused in the brutal attack and death faces a shorter sentence under DA George Gascón’s reforms.
 ?? KEITH BIRMINGHAM — STAFF PHOTOGRAPH­ER ?? Chyong Jen Tsai’s daughters Patty Thurlo, left, and Nancy Tsai, holding her picture, stand in their childhood home in Arcadia last month. On April 9, 2019, Chyong Jen Tsai, 76, was killed in the backyard of the home. Heber Enoc Diaz, who was working to build a granny flat on the property, is charged with murder, robbery and burglary.
KEITH BIRMINGHAM — STAFF PHOTOGRAPH­ER Chyong Jen Tsai’s daughters Patty Thurlo, left, and Nancy Tsai, holding her picture, stand in their childhood home in Arcadia last month. On April 9, 2019, Chyong Jen Tsai, 76, was killed in the backyard of the home. Heber Enoc Diaz, who was working to build a granny flat on the property, is charged with murder, robbery and burglary.

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