A man sentenced to life in prison without parole for his role as a 16-year-old in Pierce County’s worst mass shooting learned Friday that he might one day be released.
John Phet, now 39, was one of the gunmen in the 1998 Trang Dai Cafe massacre in Tacoma, in which five people were killed and five others were injured.
On Friday, Superior Court Judge Stanley Rumbaugh sentenced Phet to 25 years to life, which means the state’s Indeterminate Sentence Review Board will decide when or if he’ll be released.
Phet was convicted of five counts of aggravated first-degree murder and five counts of first-degree assault in 2002, and at the time the only sentence available was life without parole.
The law about such sentences for youths has since changed.
The U.S. Supreme Court in Miller v. Alabama said mandatory sentences of life without parole for juveniles amount to cruel and unusual punishment, because the brains of adolescents are still developing. The state’s response in 2014 was to change Washington law to allow such defendants to be re-sentenced, with hearings that take their youth into account.
If a judge at re-sentencing finds life without parole isn’t appropriate for someone who was 16 or 17 at the time of their crime, the minimum sentence that judge can give is 25 years to life, with the state review board determining the end date.
That allowed Phet to go before Rumbaugh in 2016, but at that time Rumbaugh ran 25 year sentences for each murder consecutively, which he acknowledged was functionally life in prison without parole.
Defense attorney Jeffrey Ellis wrote in his sentencing recommendation for the Friday hearing: “This Court previously sentenced John Phet to multiple consecutive 25 years terms for aggravated murder after it concluded by applying the then-existing law that it was unable to find substantial and compelling reasons authorizing exceptional concurrent terms. … What is now clear is that this Court possesses the absolute discretion to run the 25-year terms for aggravated murder concurrent with each other, with the assault terms, and with the firearm enhancements.”
Phet, one of six charged and convicted, was the youngest participant.
The group he was with went to the cafe in the 3800 block of South Yakima Avenue to get revenge against someone there and fired indiscriminately inside.
Phet and another man were told to shoot anyone who came out the back door, which is how 21-year-old waitress Tuyen Vo was killed.
“Mr. Phet is alive today,” deputy prosecutor Jim Schacht told the court Friday. “She is not. … This is the worst mass shooting that Pierce County has had, and that part of this case needs to be taken into account.”
The four others killed in the attack were 26-year-old Nhan Ai Nguyen, 33-year-old Tuong Hung Do, and brothers Hai Le, 27, and Duy Le, 25.
“This shook Tacoma to its roots,” Rumbaugh said.
Schacht also acknowledged that Phet has been a “model prisoner.”
By video, Jeremiah Bourgeois told the court he’s known Phet for about 10 years, and that they met while Bourgeois was serving life without parole. He was in prison for more than 27 years, he said, starting at the age of 14.
Bourgeois said he was recently released and today is studying law at Gonzaga University, “in large part due to” Phet’s positive influence.
He described Phet’s conversations with him, and said his words during his time in prison continue to help him through the reentry process: “Whatever it takes to get out there, do it. Whatever it takes to stay out there, do it. Don’t let these people around here keep you from being the person that you know you can be and that you know you are.”
Ellis talked about Phet’s commitment to rehabilitation, which he said started before Phet had any “reasonable expectation that the law would change.”
Even after he was effectively resentenced to life, Ellis said, he recommitted “not only to his self improvement,” but those around him.
“He was a follower and he followed bad behavior,” Ellis said of Phet as a teenager. “… He’s a man now. He’s a leader, and he leads for good.”
He also said his client understands the loss that he’s responsible for, and that “to say he is remorseful is an understatement.”
Phet himself said: “I understand and I take full responsibility” for the crimes.
He talked about the impact of others who supported him behind bars and encouraged him to get an education.
He said he knows he can’t “erase the pain of the families.”
“I’m sorry,” Phet said.
Before handing down the sentence, Rumbaugh told Phet he believed that contrition.
He also acknowledged Phet’s “chaotic” and “traumatic” childhood, and that his parents fled the genocidal regime of the Khmer Rouge.
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