Best friends rarely shoot each other dead in cold blood, which is why Joseph Hoang said he found it odd that two acquaintances kept offering him $10,000 to knock off his childhood friend Lein Nguyen.
Not that he isn’t dependable, he told the jury, having taken the stand Friday as the star witness in the Criminal District Court murder trial of Khoi Hoang, who is no relation.
“That’s what I do,” he said.
“You kill people?” defense attorney Kevin Boshea asked.
“I take care of things. I’m not going to tell you I kill people,” Joseph Hoang replied. “I have shot people before.”
“How many people have you shot?”
“I don’t think I need to answer that.”
Ad hoc Judge Walter Rothschild cut short a deeper probe into Hoang’s past, though not before Hoang added that he has “taken care of things” for “several, several” people.
What he would not do in 2013, he testified, was kill his friend, though someone ultimately did.
The two grew up in the same neighborhood in the 1980s as Vietnamese refugees, he said.
Nguyen, the owner of a Food Express store in Kenner, was 40 when he was found in a pool of blood on a remote street in New Orleans East on April 23, 2013.
Through his last breaths, Nguyen repeatedly said “wife” when asked who had shot him, prosecutors allege.
An admitted cocaine and marijuana dealer, Joseph Hoang told jurors on Friday that Nguyen’s wife, Charity, and Khoi Hoang, her alleged accomplice and lover, initially asked him to do the hit.
Charity Nguyen, who testified on Thursday against her alleged accomplice, awaits her own murder trial in the killing of her husband and the father of their three children.
She laid the blame entirely on Khoi Hoang, her voice quavering as she described physical and mental torture at home. She also testified that Khoi Hoang later forced her into sex under threat — the latest of several shifting accounts since the murder.
But during 45 minutes of testimony Friday, Joseph Hoang told a different story, detailing four separate meetings in which he said either Charity Nguyen, Khoi Hoang or both pushed him to kill Lein Nguyen.
The first meeting, with both suspects, came perhaps a month before Nguyen’s killing, at the Ba Mien restaurant on Chef Menteur Highway in New Orleans East, he testified.
“Khoi asked me first. He wanted me to do a job. I had to make sure I knew what he was talking about,” Joseph Hoang said. “To knock someone off, that’s what he told me. Charity was sitting there with no emotion, no anything.
“She just sat there and let him do the talking. She turned around and said Lein had been hitting on her, abusing her, and she wanted it done.”
At another meeting, he said, Khoi Hoang offered him a gun wrapped in black tape, gloves and a promise of $10,000 and a pound of marijuana.
Assistant District Attorney Brittany Reed asked him why he thought the pair approached him, knowing he was Lein Nguyen’s close friend.
“Probably because of my past, living the illegal life, doing things like that,” he replied. “It really pissed me off, so I just left.”
The appeals continued, he said, but he continued to wave them off.
“I never thought of her as that type of person. I told her just to work things out. I didn’t take it seriously. If I did, I would have told him,” he said.
He also hesitated because he knew his friend would have reacted violently, Joseph Hoang said. “He would be like me. He would have had her killed if I told him.”
During cross-examination, Boshea, the defense attorney, cast a skeptical eye on Joseph Hoang’s story. Earlier, Boshea suggested to the jury that police had too readily dismissed Joseph Hoang himself as a suspect.
Prosecutors can’t say just who pulled the trigger, but they argue that Lein Nguyen was tied up, stuffed in the back of a Nissan Titan, driven to a remote wooded area and executed in a plan hatched by the two lovers. They have presented evidence that on the day of the murder, Khoi Hoang borrowed the vehicle seen in video surveillance at the Nguyen family home on Sandalwood Street.
New Orleans Police Department homicide Detective Gregory Hamilton testified earlier Friday that he dismissed Joseph Hoang as a suspect in part because Hoang readily agreed to provide a DNA sample.
Hamilton had found Joseph Hoang lingering near the scene of the killing, on McCoy Street, in an area where Hoang admitted Friday that he regularly sold cocaine and marijuana.
“Without a doubt, without hesitation, he said he would, and he gave it to me,” Hamilton said of the DNA sample.
Authorities have no DNA or fingerprint evidence in the case, and no identification of the shooter outside of Lien Nguyen’s purported last words.
On Friday, Joseph Hoang admitted he didn’t tell authorities of the hit offers, even after his friend’s killing, until Hamilton approached him.
Hoang said he learned of his friend’s death through word of mouth and attended Lein Nguyen’s Catholic funeral.
“Really I got mad, because I could have just took her out,” he said. “I should have shot her myself.”
The trial continues Monday.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.