Cop posed as inmate to record suspect in Kim Pham beating death

Law enforcement officials believe the victim, 23-year-old Kim Pham, threw the first punch in the fatal beating outside of a Santa Ana nightclub.

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

Det. Patricia Navarro said she never identified herself to Vanesa Tapia Zavala when she secretly recorded their conversation in a jail cell, trying to get her to share details about the fight outside a downtown Santa Ana nightclub that left a recent college graduate comatose, and then dead days later.

Zavala, 25, and Candace Marie Brito, 27, have been charged with murder in the Jan. 18 altercation. Both have pleaded not guilty.

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

“Did she talk to you about this event?” asked Kenneth Reed, Zavala’s attorney.


“Yes, she did,” Navarro answered.

But before she could continue, Orange County Superior Court Judge Thomas J. Borris called defense attorneys and the deputy district attorney into his chambers.

Ten minutes later, Borris emerged and said, “It’s my understanding at this point in time that the witness is going to be excused.” He ordered Navarro to return to court Tuesday.

The testimony came during a preliminary hearing to determine whether there was enough evidence to order the women to stand trial in the death of Kim Pham, an aspiring journalist who was out with friends when violence erupted outside a popular restaurant and lounge.

The case drew widespread attention because videos of the melee appeared to show other club patrons standing around watching or filming the attack rather than intervening. The incident also led city officials to reassure the public that the revived downtown scene was safe.

Prosecutors, however, said that as many as 15 people tried to come to Pham’s aid.

Five Santa Ana police officers took the stand Monday, the first time investigators detailed reports from witnesses who saw the fight.

Officer Roland Andrade said one witness told him that someone from Brito and Zavala’s group bumped into Pham, setting off an argument.

Andrade was told that one of the women told Pham, “Excuse me,” using a sarcastic tone. That prompted Pham to start screaming obscenities at the group. The witness said Pham had to be restrained by her friends.

Brito and Zavala’s group walked away but then came back twice to confront Pham, 23, who broke free from her friends and threw the first punch, Andrade said the witness told him.

Pham was kicked in the head by a woman after tumbling to the ground in the scrum, the officer said.

Hospital tests revealed there were no traces of drugs in Pham’s system, but Andrade said alcohol was detected, though he didn’t know her blood-alcohol level.

Senior Deputy Dist. Atty. Troy Pino played a video shot on a cellphone of the incident and asked Santa Ana homicide Det. Leo Rodriguez to identify those involved in the fight.

He first identified Zavala, who appeared to be stooping over and reaching for something on the ground with her right hand. Seconds later, the video shows a woman clad in black pants, a black shirt and a blue sweater launching what investigators believe was the first punch in the altercation.

“That is victim Pham,” Rodriguez said.

Brito is singled out moments later, talking to a security guard who had pulled her aside. She is then seen walking around the fight, which spilled onto the ground, and making a kicking motion toward the sidewalk.

As the video played, someone sitting in the courtroom with Brito and Zavala’s friends and family exclaimed, “Oh no.”

A pathologist, Etoi Davenport, also testified Monday that the victim died as a result of blunt-force trauma, but could not specify whether it was a result of being hit, kicked or striking her head on the pavement when she was knocked to the ground. There were no skull fractures.

A police officer said one witness told him that a woman had bumped into Pham as she waited in line and then turned to Pham to say: “Watch where you’re going.”

Officer Gerardo Corona said one of Pham’s friends told him two or three women immediately began punching the victim, 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 Pham, the officer said.

The hearing at the Westminster Justice Center is set to continue Tuesday.