Nightclub beating suspect secretly recorded by police, cop says

Nightclub beating suspect secretly recorded by police, cop says
Vanesa Zavala in court Monday. (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

A Santa Ana police detective testified Monday that she posed as an inmate and went undercover into the jail cell of a defendant in a high-profile beating case after the woman refused to talk with detectives and asked for an attorney.

Det. Patricia Navarro said that she never identified herself to Vanesa Tapia Zavala but did record her conversation with the suspect in a nightclub beating that left Kim Pham on life support.

"I was asked to act in an undercover capacity and contact Ms. Zavala to find out the truth about what had occurred," Navarro said.

"Did she talk to you about this event?" asked Kenneth Reed, Zavala's attorney.


"Yes, she did," Navarro responded.

Before she could testify further, Superior Court Judge Thomas J. Borris ordered defense attorneys and a deputy district attorney into his chambers.

Ten minutes later, the judge emerged and said, "It's my understanding at this point in time that the witness is going to be excused," the judge said. The judge ordered Navarro to return to the witness stand Tuesday.

The testimony came during a preliminary hearing to determine whether there is enough evidence to order two women to stand trial for murder. Zavala and Candace Marie Brito have pleaded not guilty.

A pathologist testified earlier that Pham died as a result of blunt force trauma but could not say for sure whether she died as a result of being hit, kicked or hitting her head on the sidewalk when she was knocked to the ground outside a downtown Santa Ana nightclub.

A police officer who was called to the scene of the Jan. 18 altercation said witnesses told him that a woman had bumped into Pham as she waited in line and said, "Watch where you're going."

Officer Gerardo Corona said one of Pham's friends told him two or three women immediately began punching Pham, knocking her to the ground and kicking her in the face until security guards intervened.

The women then walked away after several male companions pulled them off of Pham, the officer said another witness told him.

Another witness, who was not among Pham's friends and came forward after reading news accounts of the incident, told officers that one of the women punched Pham about 10 times before the two of them tumbled to the ground, Navarro said.

The investigator said the witness also reported that Pham took a swing at the woman at one point.