Jurors on Wednesday convicted five gang members of murder and attempted murder for carrying out one of the worst mass shootings in Long Beach history in which they killed three people and left nine others wounded.
Prosecutors say Jeremy Penh, 29; David Heng Long, 23; Kaylin Thik, 24; Ryan Sim, 22; and Grant Johnson, 39, ambushed guests at a Halloween-themed birthday party in the backyard of a home in Long Beach’s Rose Park neighborhood on Oct. 29, 2019, believing rival gang members would be in attendance.
There were no rival gang members there, according to prosecutors. Instead, the gunmen sprayed bullets into the backyard, killing three partygoers — 35-year-old Melvin Williams II, 28-year-old Ricardo Torres, and 25-year-old Maurice Poe Jr.
The trial against Penh, Long, Thik, Sim, and Johnson began Oct. 10. Over the course of five weeks, it centered around witness testimony from partygoers, neighbors, a co-defendant who turned on his fellow gang members, cell phone records, surveillance footage, and undercover operations in jail where prosecutors say the defendants implicated themselves in the crime following their arrest.
Each defense attorney, meanwhile, attempted to cast doubt on the evidence against their client.
During the trial, Deputy District Attorney Michele Hanisee established a timeline of the events leading up to the shooting. She said it all started when Penh picked up his childhood friend Timothy Ngoy and the two went out to lunch together.
During lunch, Ngoy invited Penh to a party later that night, but Penh disparaged the host, Daniel Chan, because Chan had slighted his gang in a video, Hanisee said.
The two went their separate ways after lunch, but while Ngoy was getting ready to attend Chan’s party, Penh was at an apartment along Brayton Avenue in North Long Beach masterminding the deadly shooting, according to Hanisee.
There, Penh, believing rival gang members would be at the party, laid out the plan for the rest of his crew.
He’d drive Sim, Long, and Thik over to the party where they served as shooters, given that they were youngest members of the gang at the time and this was their chance to “earn their stripes,” Hanisee said.
Joshua Sam, who later testified in the trial against his co-defendants in exchange for a plea deal that could reduce his charges, and Johnson would be in the getaway car. Christopher Williams, who has since taken a plea deal, and Danny Sourn, who has since been sentenced in a separate murder case, would be in a third car that Penh hoped would serve to disguise their escape, according to prosecutors.
In a caravan of three cars, the crew made a pit stop at a gas station about a block away from the apartment before making the seven-mile trip down Orange Avenue to the party near Seventh Street and Ohio Avenue, Hanisee said.
Ngoy, meanwhile, had arrived at Chan’s party that night, which was made up mostly of Chan’s coworkers from Hollywood Park Casino, according to prosecutors.
People were in the backyard mingling and hanging out, according to prosecutors, when Ngoy received a call from Penh warning him to go inside because his gang was on the way.
Ngoy told Chan about the call, and they had all the guests shelter inside.
Chan, his dad, and Ngoy remained outside to check the area, Hanisee said. That’s when Ngoy got a second call from Penh, who started “cussing” at him for telling people to go inside the home, Hanisee said.
Ngoy told Penh not to have his crew show up and that nobody at the party “gang bangs,” Hanisee said. Penh hung up and Ngoy wasn’t able to get back in touch with him, according to prosecutors.
At some point, Chan’s father expressed that he wasn’t comfortable having so many people inside his home, so when everything looked clear outside, the partygoers began trickling back out, Hanisee said.
But by then, Penh and his crew were already in the area ready to carry out the plan, Hanisee said.
Penh dropped off Long, Sim, and Thik in an alleyway that connected to the back of the home.
The three gunmen then popped over the fence and began firing at people in the backyard, Hanisee said.
Witnesses testified thinking they were hearing fireworks because the popping of the guns was overlapping. Soon, people started screaming and running across the backyard as the gunmen emptied their clips, prosecutors said.
When they ran out of bullets, the three gunmen ran to the other side of the alley where Sam and Johnson were waiting in the getaway car, Hanisee said.
Ingrid Cortes, whose birthday was being celebrated at the party, described the moment she was shot in the chest and fell as other partygoers started running around her.
She crawled to the front of the home where she blacked out. When she woke, she was inside Chan’s living room where her friends were applying pressure to her wound.
That’s when Ngoy told her: “It wasn’t supposed to happen like this,” Cortes said.
As paramedics began to arrive and tend to the wounded party guests, Penh was waiting at his parent’s home in the 1100 block of Raymond Avenue for the gunmen to drop off the guns, Hanisee said.
When they got there, they gave Penh the guns and he got rid of them, prosecutors said. To date, police have not recovered them.
Police, meanwhile, began interviewing potential witnesses, including Ngoy and Chan, Hanisee said. At first, the two weren’t completely forthcoming with police about what they knew, Hanisee said. Ngoy testified at a preliminary hearing earlier in the case that he lied because he didn’t want to be involved in the case, and Chan said he lied to protect Ngoy, who was scared.
But Ngoy, who authorities later learned had contact with Penh, eventually confessed the additional information to police.
Using witnesses, cell phone records, location tracking, and video from a car’s dash camera, officers were able to piece together who was responsible for the shooting, Hanisee said.
The gang members were then arrested the following year in connection with the shooting, along with four other people who were booked on suspicion of weapons or accessory charges, not for the killings themselves.
After the arrests, Penh, Long, Sim, and Thik were all taken into different holding cells where officers posed as inmates in an undercover operation aimed at gathering evidence, according to Hanisee. During this operation, Penh, Long, Sim, and Thik each implicated themselves and each other in the crime.
It’s in those recordings, prosecutors said, that Penh makes a statement about “molding” the shooters, and Sim brags about how the shooting was like “the movies.”
“I was like pow, pow, pow, pow,” he can be heard saying.
Sam, during his testimony against his co-defendants, corroborated prosecutors’ version of the events. He testified how he had stolen a car earlier in the day from someone who had turned out to be a rival gang member.
When he found this out, he said he agreed to meet with them at the Food4Less in North Long Beach to sell the car back to him.
To help him with the meeting at the Food4Less, Sam recruited Johnson, but before they could make their way over to the sale, they got called to the apartments in Brayton Avenue to take part in the shooting, he said.
This was their chance to “shut it down” and “drop them all,” Penh said, referring to rival gang members, according to Sam.
In a twist, Sim later contradicted prosecutors’ core contention when he suddenly decided to testify and explained how he alone carried out the mass shooting. He said it was a chance to catch what he believed to be rival gang members “slipping” after being “jumped” by them in the same area five years earlier.
But during closing arguments, which started last week and continued to Tuesday afternoon, Hanisee questioned his recollection of events and maintained her position that Penh was the planner and Long, Sim, and Thik were the shooters.
“This isn’t a mysterious whodunit,” Hanisee told jurors before again presenting the evidence she went through during trial, including the jail operation in which Pehn, Long, Sim, and Thik were recorded by undercover informants speaking about their roles in the shootings.
Those recordings, according to Hanisee, show Penh was “waiting and watching for an opportune time” to act. It also reaffirms her belief that there were three shooters after authorities discovered at least three different guns had been used in the crime.
“The thing that’s so tragic … is that opportunities existed for them not to pursue that evil plan,” Hanisee said. “(Penh) could’ve called the whole thing off.”
Penh’s attorney, Amy Jacks, denied that Penh had any role in the shooting, and argued that he wasn’t guilty of the charges against him.
She told jurors that Penh called Ngoy that night with the intention of moving people out of harm’s way.
But that failed when Chan’s father had everyone go back outside, she said.
Jacks also said Penh was clearly lying to undercover informants when he talked to them about the shooting because he was scared of them and trying to make himself look tougher.
In prison you’re either “predator or prey,” Jacks told jurors, while also making remarks comparing it to “gladiator school.”
She, like the other defense attorneys in the case, cast doubt on Sam’s testimony, portraying him as a drug addict with a “broken moral compass,” who only had his own best interests in mind.
“It’s pretty clear that his guiding force is ‘what’s best for me,’” Jacks said. If a witness is willing to make stuff up and lie under oath, can you believe what he says beyond a reasonable doubt?”
Johnson’s attorney, Dale Atherton, said his client was simply in the getaway car, along for the ride, and shouldn’t be found guilty of murder.
Daniel Nardoni, Long’s attorney, told jurors that none of the evidence pointed back to his client and that not one witness could identify him as a shooter. He also said Sim testified that Long stayed in the car during the shooting.
Thik’s attorney, Christopher Chaney, said he first pointed at Sam as the lone shooter in the case because a witness testified to seeing a Black man running down the alley after the shooting. But he wasn’t so sure after Sim’s testimony.
He did, however, say Thik’s DNA being on the bullets wasn’t evidence that he was involved in the shooting and that experts during the trial admitted that the presence of his DNA did not mean he loaded the gun or fired the weapon since his DNA could’ve gotten there a number of different ways.
In her rebuttal, Hanisee said there was very clear evidence of planning and conspiracy, and that Sam’s testimony was not necessarily needed to prove the defendants were guilty of murder and attempted murder.
She said Sam was only used as a witness to offer context for the evidence.
“Joshua Sam went along with a plan to shoot up and murder innocent people,” Hanisee said. “He’s not a nice person. He’s just as bad as the rest of these guys.”
But prosecutors saw offering Sam, someone who had a lesser role in the crime, a plea deal as a “means to an end,” Hanisee said, adding that it made sense to make a deal with one person if it meant convicting the other five.
She also said that it didn’t make sense for Penh, Long, Sim, or Thik to lie to the undercover informants, even if they described their physical appearance — gang members with tattoos all over their face and body — because that also applied to them.
Hanisee reiterated that authorities know Penh planned the shooting because he and other co-defendants say so in the recordings. She said jail recordings and testimonies from several witnesses all corroborated each other.
“They’re bragging. They’re proud of what they did that day,” Hanisee said. “Please hold these defendants accountable for their actions.”
Jurors deliberated for roughly five hours over the span of two days before finding each defendant guilty of three counts of first-degree murder and nine counts of attempted murder.
Jurors additionally found true a gang enhancement that each defendant carried out the crime while an active participant in a criminal street gang, and that the act was carried out to further the activities of the gang, and the special circumstance that it resulted in multiple murders, to be true. Additionally, jurors also found true gun allegations against Long, Sim, and Thik since they were identified by prosecutors as the shooters.
The next court hearing for the five defendants will take place Jan. 29, though it’s unclear whether they will be sentenced then.
Editor’s note: This article was updated to reflect the correct route prosecutors say the gang took on their way to the party.