Lost Elijah

Unspeakable family tragedy and a question: Should a former foster child die in prison for murders he didn’t commit?

Elijah Johnson in pictures: From left, Johnson with his biological mother before she left; as a teenager; and as a cause for Jamilia Land and her daughter, who took him in.

Elijah Johnson in pictures: From left, Johnson with his biological mother before she left; as a teenager; and as a cause for Jamilia Land and her daughter, who took him in.

Photos courtesy of Jamilia Land

This is an extended version of a story that appears in the January 10, 2019, issue.

Jamilia Land met her son about seven years ago outside a Walmart in Natomas. Elijah Johnson and another youth were asking strangers for their cellphones to call home and having little luck. Land gave the two a lift. On the way, she heard her passengers blithely discuss their accommodations—a doghouse where their new foster dad had banished them.

Land took Johnson and two other foster youths into her home. Johnson stuck, becoming a homebody who enjoyed baking cookies with Land’s daughters.

“All he wanted to do was be at home because all he had been was on the streets,” Land remembered.

Johnson, now 24, can never go back to that place again.

On January 4, he and another wayward young man were sentenced to multiple lifetimes in prison for their involvement in a haunting trio of murders that stole a father, two sons and doomed a south county Vietnamese family to the impossible task of enduring.

Johnson didn’t commit any of the murders, but wasn’t spared their blame. That’s just one controversial footnote to a case that inflicted nightmares on the jury, tilted on a new state law and left the judge struggling to square the scales of justice for the victims’ family and the two lost boys accused of obliterating it.

“There are a lot of murder cases in Sacramento County. There are very few triple homicides,” Sacramento Superior Court Judge Maryanne G. Gilliard reflected from the bench. “This case unveiled a part of our community many of us are blissfully unaware exists … people that live what can almost be described as a feral existence, without any boundaries or thought.”

In the judge’s mind, David Thuan Nguyen led one of these feral existences. The 27-year-old had a “horrible upbringing” that merited significant counseling, Gilliard noted at the sentencing hearing. Instead, Nguyen dealt marijuana and Xanax bars and earned multiple robbery convictions by the time he could legally drink.

In April 2016, he plotted another heist. The plan was to rob the home of a purported drug associate, whom Nguyen believed was sitting on $30,000 in cash. Nguyen enlisted his girlfriend Amanda Tucker, then 18, a 17-year-old girl and Johnson, then 21.

According to the judge, the crew spent long minutes in the garage of a hard-working immigrant family, searching for a stash that didn’t exist. The defendants had multiple opportunities to turn back, Gilliard said. Instead, Nguyen led Johnson inside.

Tien Le had gone to bed with his girlfriend on the phone, a nightly ritual for the couple of three years. Somewhere in his slumber, he turned 21. Nguyen stood over the college senior with the goofy charisma, steadied the handgun and made sure Tien grew no older.

Nguyen’s gun jammed following that first execution, so he took the one he had given Johnson and killed Dong Le, 32, in his bed, according to prosecutors. Nguyen then chased the men’s father outside, shooting 56-year-old Thanh Le in the head three times as his wife hid behind a car and watched her husband die.

According to Gilliard, Nguyen and one of the young women later laughed and talked in a motel room in view of the murder weapons and modest loot that included a Gucci wallet and necklace, “apparently very proud of what they had just done.”

The prosecution divided and conquered the defendants. In exchange for becoming cooperating witnesses, Tucker and the other woman received what Gilliard called “a sweet deal by the district attorney’s office.”

While prosecutors portrayed Nguyen as the mastermind and lone shooter, they contended that Johnson was just as culpable for the grisly deaths. In October, a jury agreed. Johnson’s murder convictions came before a new state law went into effect on January 1 that changes the felony-murder rule. It limits murder convictions to those who actually commit the killings and major participants. Johnson’s attorney Olaf Hedberg told the court he would file the paperwork to appeal the conviction. Senate Bill 1437 allows those convicted as accomplices to seek shorter sentences or new trials.

“My client never pulled the trigger, not once,” Hedberg said before sentencing. “His crime was participating in a home invasion robbery where a codefendant shot three people. His only crime, so to speak, was the robbery.”

Land wept as Deputy District Attorney Jeff Hightower read victim statements from a daughter, a girlfriend and a friend. Vivian Leung, the girlfriend of Tien Le, described awaking to nightmare sounds from her phone: his mother’s cries for help as someone performed CPR on him. Leung hung up in disbelief that the man she expected to spend her life with was gone.

In her statement, Thanh Le said she lost a father and two brothers, and was now watching her mother ebb.

“For my Mother, her world has collapsed,” she wrote. “Who will she confide in? Who will be her Guiding Light? As for me, I take on a new role as, the One to speak out for the Family.”

In that role, Thanh wrote that the family didn’t want revenge. It simply wanted to make sure the men who stole everything would never have the chance to take even more.

“We do not want the stains of their blood on this family’s hands therefore we are against the notion of the Death Penalty, but would rather have them incarcerated for the rest of their lives in fear that they would come back to finish what they had started or to ever harm anyone else again,” she wrote. “That would not only bring justice to my family but peace as well.”

Johnson and Nguyen fixed solemn gazes on inanimate objects as the statements were read in the courtroom. Addressing each defendant, Gilliard declined to equate the person with his crimes.

“Mr. Johnson, there’s good in you. Mr. Nguyen, there is good in you,” the judge said. “Mr. Johnson, there are people in this courtroom who are crying because of what’s going to happen to you today.”

As Johnson rose to meet that new reality, Land staggered to her feet and called to her son in a sob-wracked voice.

“I love you Elijah, and I’m not going to stop until I bring you home,” she said. “Do you hear me? I love you.”

Johnson didn’t turn back. It was much too late for that now.