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Couple to be sentenced in fatal Pacific Palisades hit and run

Couple will be sentenced after pleading no contest in the hit-run death of a young man walking home at 3 a.m.

The young man, drunk after a post-Christmas party, was walking home just before 3 a.m. along a dark, tree-lined street in Pacific Palisades.

A Volvo station wagon approached.

Security cameras captured the car before the collision and after the driver fled, but exactly what happened in between was murky.

What was clear was that in the street, fatally injured, lay David Pregerson, 23, an aspiring filmmaker and the scion of a prominent legal family. Soon afterward, the driver reported as usual to her job as a sorter at the Pacific Palisades postal annex.

For three months, she kept her secret even as the hit-and-run investigation became front-page news in the Palisadian-Post newspaper distributed through the post office where she worked.

When police finally tracked the Volvo to her Mar Vista home, Marguerite Vuong was captured on a hidden recording at the police station instructing her husband to take the blame and "just lie, don't admit anything."

The case against Marguerite Vuong and her husband, Michael, is headed for a conclusion Friday, when a judge will sentence the 67-year-old couple in the fatal hit-and-run.

In what promises to be an emotion-wrought hearing, Marguerite will be portrayed in two dramatically different lights.

The prosecution has described her as a remorseless, calculating scofflaw who never accepted responsibility for the pain she inflicted on the family of the man she killed.

The Vuongs' lawyers portray their clients as an honest, law-abiding couple who made one mistake when confronted with the most serious of moral conundrums. The Vuongs, they say, were refugees who fled Vietnam shortly before the fall of Saigon, came to America and raised three children who became productive citizens.

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Kathryn Solorzano must decide their fate. Marguerite pleaded no contest to hit-and-run-driving, and Michael pleaded no contest to being an accessory after the fact for initially pretending to police that he was the driver.

The couple's attorneys are seeking probation without any time behind bars. The district attorney's office has asked for three years in prison for Marguerite and 16 months in jail for Michael.

Pregerson's family has so far said little but is expected to make statements Friday about the effect of the killing.

Before authorities identified the Volvo's driver, the victim's father, Dean Pregerson, a judge in the U.S. Central District, pleaded for the driver to come forward.

"We are prepared to be compassionate," he said in a news conference with investigators.

But he added that it would be different if the driver failed to come forward. If "you have turned down the opportunity to do the right thing, then I will feel just the opposite," he said.

Days after the Vuongs entered their pleas, Dean and his wife, Sharon, filed a wrongful death suit against the couple, accusing Marguerite of "careless, grossly negligent, reckless, and unlawful conduct" leading to their son's death. The suit seeks to collect medical and funeral expenses as well as general damages.

Their lawyer, F. Phillip Peche, did not respond to requests for comment on the suit. Several members of the Pregerson family, including Dean and his father, Harry, a judge in the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, have attended hearings in the case, which is being heard in the county's Airport Courthouse.

In a thick document submitted to the court, Marguerite Vuong's attorney, David M. Murphy, told a classic story of war refugees making it good in the U.S. As the fall of Saigon approached, Michael Vuong, a 10-year veteran of the Vietnamese army, got his family aboard his pilot brother's helicopter and headed to sea.

After landing on a U.S. aircraft carrier, the Vuongs ended up at a refugee camp in the Philippines before moving to Arkansas, Minnesota, Fresno and Texas, doing odd jobs before settling in Los Angeles. He worked as a welder and she was a sorter on the graveyard shift for the U.S. Postal Service.

They put three children through college. Their oldest, Andrew, is a doctor.

A far-flung network of nieces, nephews, family friends, classmates and lifelong friends of their children wrote letters attesting to the Vuongs' integrity and charity and describing their home as a welcoming place of children, pets, food and camaraderie.

"She is not a monster, as the [prosecution has] portrayed her to be, but rather is a kind, caring, generous woman, who quite simply made a very serious mistake," Murphy wrote. "Her reaction, albeit wrong, was one of fear and panic, not one born of evil or malice."

He said the victim, a fledgling filmmaker with a handful of television and motion picture credits for photography, directing and acting, was responsible for the accident.

"He was highly intoxicated, as indicated by the medical reports from UCLA Medical Center, walking down the middle of a street at 3 a.m.," Murphy wrote. "Had he not been, there would've been no accident."

Murphy said that Marguerite Vuong, whose courtroom manner has been stoic, would show at her sentencing hearing that she is truly remorseful.

In a sentencing document filed last week, Deputy Dist. Atty. Marna Miller zeroed in on the Vuongs' attempts to evade responsibility by repairing the Volvo and denying any knowledge of the accident.

The prosecutor included transcripts of a secretly recorded conversation between the Vuongs at the police station. At one point, Marguerite warns her husband that they are probably being recording but the couple continue talking.

"I told them I didn't drive the Volvo that day," Marguerite said.

"Yes," her husband answered.

"Just lie about everything. Don't say anything. Don't admit anything.... Did you tell them the guy ran into your car?"

"Yes, I told him the guy ran into me, I didn't run into him," her husband responded.

Later, when LAPD Det. John Skaggs told them that their conversation had been recorded and they were both going to prison if they didn't tell the truth, Marguerite again deflected.

"I don't know," she said. "I don't know nothing about that."

doug.smith@latimes.com

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