A North Carolina woman has been charged with killing a well-known fortuneteller and her daughter at their Westminster home, police said Friday.
After the April 21 killings, police said Tanya Jaime Nelson, 41, of Roanoke Rapids, N.C., assumed the identities of the victims and spent more than $3,000 on clothing and bought airline tickets for a family vacation to Orange County.
Nelson, who also uses the name Phuong Thao Nguyen, was arrested Monday and later charged with fraud and burglary. Double-murder and conspiracy charges were added Friday, Westminster Police Lt. Derek Marsh said. Nelson is being held at Orange County Jail in lieu of $1-million bail.
Her friend, Phillipe Zamora, 50, a machine operator from Roanoke Rapids, is being held at Halifax County Jail in North Carolina and will be extradited to Orange County to face identical charges, Marsh said.
Police described Nelson as the mastermind behind the stabbing deaths of fortuneteller Ha Jade Smith, 52, and her daughter, Anita Nhi Vo, 23, an Orange Coast College student. The two were discovered at their Bird Avenue home by police, who were called to check on their well-being.
Officers found the house ransacked, with white paint poured on the women’s faces and hands. They had each been stabbed about 10 times, Marsh said. Their killers fled with credit cards, identification, jewelry and cash, police said.
At a news conference Friday, police announced the arrests that brought tears of sadness and joy to Smith’s sister, Loan Ngo, 42, of Surrey, British Columbia.
“I prayed every night for this,” said Ngo, flanked by relatives and Smith’s neighbors.
“I think they can rest in peace now.”
Ngo said she has been too depressed to sleep or return to work.
“I have been struggling a lot,” Ngo said. “The only thing on my mind now is why they had to die?”
Officials said theft was the motive. Smith, who had clients from Orange County to New York and overseas, wore expensive jewelry. She was robbed twice in 2001 and lost more than $375,000 in cash and diamonds. The white paint might have been used to throw off police, Marsh said.
Authorities said Nelson and Zamora flew to Orange County on April 19. Nelson visited Smith the next day to introduce Zamora and check the house, which had an elaborate security system, officials said.
Intending to burglarize the home, the pair returned April 21, encountered the two women and killed them, officials said.
Six days later, Nelson assumed the dead women’s identities, police said.
Surveillance cameras recorded her charging clothes, miscellaneous items and a notebook computer at stores in Santa Ana and Anaheim.
She then flew to Georgia for another shopping spree, officials said.
For a Memorial Day getaway, Nelson booked airline tickets on the victims’ credit cards for herself and four children to visit Orange County for several weeks, police said.
She was flying as Smith and her 13-year-old daughter as Vo, police said.
When the group flew into John Wayne Airport last week, they were under surveillance by more than 20 detectives from local and federal agencies, Marsh said.
Nelson rented a hotel room in Santa Ana and visited relatives, including her husband, who lives in Orange County, police said. With her children in tow, she stopped at South Coast Plaza and used Smith’s credit card, police said.
Nelson was arrested Monday at her hotel. Officers searched her purse and found $2,000 as well as identification and credit cards belonging to Smith and Vo. Her children were placed at Orangewood Children’s Home in Orange.
Nelson grew up in Orange County and owned a lingerie and gift store in Little Saigon in 1998, officials said.
She and her husband, Johnathan Thang Nguyen, filed for bankruptcy in March 2000 after accumulating nearly $204,000 in credit-card debts and personal loans, according to court records.
About a year ago she moved to North Carolina, where she opened another lingerie and gift shop, according to police. Detectives conducting searches at the shop and at her home discovered Zamora, who provided information about the slayings, police said.
Nelson will be arraigned in Santa Ana next week.