Consumed by his own irrational fears and demons, Chantilly’s Tony Tong had threatened to kill his wife for years. In October 2010, he did so; and last week in Fairfax County Circuit Court, he was sentenced to 30 years in prison.
"In his petition for leniency, the defendant said he ‘was not able to control [himself] in a moment of anger,’" said Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney John Murphy. "But there’s an abundance of evidence that the exact opposite was the situation. This defendant engaged in behavior over a long period of time to terrorize this victim and her family."
The crime occurred Oct. 22, 2010 in the Chantilly Green Estates community. Mistakenly believing his wife, Kathleen Tran, 44, was having an affair, Tong, 43, shot and killed her in a bedroom of their house. Both their sons, John, 18, and James, 16, were home at the time.
Following a preliminary hearing, Tong was indicted by the grand jury and, on July 18, 2011, he pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and use of a firearm in the commission of a felony. He returned to court last Friday, Feb. 3, for sentencing before Judge Lorraine Nordlund.
At the outset, in lieu of having the medical examiner testify, the defense stipulated that any one of the three shots Tong fired into his wife would have been enough to kill her. And ballistics expert Julian Mason Jr. testified that, although it could be done quickly, each shot fired from Tong’s .45-caliber pistol "requires a separate pull of the trigger."
No one else testified, but Murphy noted that Tran’s mother told him that, every night, she talks to her daughter’s picture and tells her how much she misses her. He also said Tran "speaks" to the court through the record of her life with Tong.
"In 2006, she discussed that, since 2003, she’d been verbally abused by him, three times a week," said the prosecutor. "He threatened her, saying, ‘If you tell anyone, I’ll kill you and your family.’ In January 2006, he told her to get a coffin because he was going to kill her."
Tran then fled — and even sought a restraining order against Tong — but she later withdrew it when he promised to seek treatment for his anger issues. However, Murphy said it’s unclear whether Tong ever did so.
"She’s a truly blameless victim and, on the night of the crime, she’d done nothing wrong," said Murphy. "She lived a life of quiet desperation. But she was also brave because she couldn’t leave Tong because of her two sons. And her aged mother and family lived locally, so she knew he could get to them."
The night Tran died, said the prosecutor, "The defendant waited for her in the dark. He stalks her in her own house, confronts her with a loaded firearm in his pocket, follows her and berates her." Afterward, said Murphy, she urged her sons not to upset him.
Then Tran overheard the phone call Tong made to Vietnam, telling his sister he wouldn’t be seeing her ever again. "[Tran] knows what that means," said Murphy. "She tries to leave the house, he forces her back inside. He blocks off her way to leave the bedroom and she is trapped; she can’t get past him."
Eventually, said Murphy, she somehow summoned her courage and told her husband, "I don’t have to do what you tell me."
"He dared her to repeat her words, she does and he starts to fire," said Murphy. "He shoots her the first time, and she screams and calls for her sons — and he pulls the trigger again. Then he says, ‘We’re both going to die, anyway,’ and he shoots her again."
"There couldn’t be anything more deliberate in the way he executed her for standing up to him," Murphy told the judge. "There’s nothing sympathetic about this defendant; this was totally unjustified."
He then asked Nordlund to sentence Tong to 50 years behind bars, suspend 20 years – leaving 30 to serve – and place him on 20 years probation. Murphy said Tong needed someone watching his actions, once he’s released, because Tran’s relatives are "very concerned about [Tong] because of his threats to their family."
Public defender Todd Petit, however, wanted his client to serve no more than 20 years in prison for the murder. He noted that Tong entered an Alford plea of guilt — not admitting he’d committed the crime, but acknowledging the existence of enough evidence to convict him of it. Petit said Tong also did so because "he meant to take his own life."
"[He] at no time wanted to put his family through a trial," said Petit. "His boys are here in the courtroom and he doesn’t want them to have to relive [what happened]."
Petit explained that, as a young boy in Vietnam, Tong lived through the war, and his father — who was in the military — was "ripped away from his family for years of internment and torture. As a young teen, [Tong] left his family to live on his own and support himself so his family wouldn’t have to worry about him. He later became a U.S. citizen, but his depression and difficulties started when he was a child and had a profound effect on the rest of his life."
The night of the tragedy, said Petit, Tong "was angry because he truly believed [his wife] was having an affair. He’d already lost his father in Vietnam and didn’t want that for his sons. It doesn’t justify what he did; he wanted so much for the family to stay together that [he and Tran] lived in separate bedrooms."
"He thought she’d disrespected him, he was somewhat intoxicated and he did a horrible thing," added Petit. "The only reason we’re here in court today is because his son tackled him, stopping him from pulling the trigger and taking his own life."
Then, crying, Tong stood and addressed the judge via a Vietnamese-language interpreter. Hearing his words, his sons also cried.
The slight-built, bespectacled man began by apologizing to his mother-in-law, his sister-in-law and his children. "I took away a child from my mother-in-law and a sister from my sister-in-law," he said. "And I caused my two sons to lose their mother."
"If there would be a miracle that would change things, I wish it was I who’d died, and not my wife, because she’s the one who took care of my children," continued Tong. "All I can do now is express my apologies to them. I deeply regret what I did to my sons — who not only witnessed the death of their mother — but now see me being sent away. I implore Your Honor to give me a chance so that, later on, I’d still be alive to see my children."
But Nordlund had the last word. She said that, in her 30 years on the bench, she’s seen spouses believe they’re justified in hurting each other because of a misplaced sense of jealousy, anger or pain. But, she said, it doesn’t give them the right to do harm. Said Nordlund: "A sense of craziness overtakes them and they fail to see the pain they inflict on everyone else around them."
"It’s only now that you have murdered your wife that you feel regret," she told Tong. "And it’s not because you’ve killed her, but because you won’t get to see your kids. But she won’t get to see them and they won’t get to see her — you took that away."
Although Tran was the one who suffered years of "psychological and physical terror and bullying," said Nordlund, "All you could see was yourself and all you could hear was yourself. If you wanted to kill yourself, it makes no sense that you’d kill your wife first."
She told Tong, "There’s nothing to defend this crime. There’s terrible pain on both sides. I see your [sister and other relatives in the front row] crying because of what will become of you. And I see your sons and your wife’s family crying, as well, sobbing over their loss."
"You were blinded by your own jealousy," the judge continued. "You committed the unspeakable crime of murder because you failed to listen to anyone but yourself or to reach out for help."
Nordlund then sentenced Tong to 50 years in prison, suspending 23, for 27 years to serve. She also ran the mandatory, three-year sentence on the firearm charge consecutively to that amount, for 30 years total. Furthermore, she told Tong, "You are not to initiate contact with your sons; only they can initiate contact with you."