21 April, 2010
A lesson for Mothers-in-law
At about 5am on the morning of 21 April 1998 Son Tran broke into the home of his estranged wife Minh Pham. He smashed the bedroom window where Minh, their son, and her mother-in-law Sahn Nguyen were sleeping. Sahn grabbed the phone to call the police, but Son managed to wrestle it from her grasp. She then ran into the hallway, but Son followed her and stabbed her repeatedly with a pair of broken scissors. His wife Minh attempted to pull him away from her mother, but she was also stabbed in the back of her left shoulder. Sahn managed to walk back into the main bedroom, but she collapsed there and died shortly after. She had received 25 stab wounds, four of which were lethal.
Son took his wife Minh and their son into the bathroom, and bound up their wrists and ankles. He tied Minh to the toilet, and put his son in the shower recess. He put a jacket over his son’s head, so that he wouldn’t see his grandmother’s body. He then untied Minh and attempted to treat her wound, after which he retied her wrists.
Son stayed in the house for another 12 hours or so, in a state of considerable distress. He thought of killing himself, and his wife. He wrote out a list of possessions that were to be given to his son. Minh eventually said that she would tell the Police she had been the victim of a home invasion. She told him to wipe down all the surfaces to get rid of his fingerprints, and then leave, so she could call the police.
Son did as she asked, and left the house. Minh and her son broke free of their restrains and went straight to a neighbour’s house. Minh was taken to Bankstown hospital to have her wound treated. She spoke to police there, and told them three men had broken into her home and stabbed her mother to death.
However two days later, Minh gave another statement to police, this time saying that her husband Son Tran was the killer. He was arrested shortly afterwards and agreed to be interviewed. He denied any knowledge of the killing, and gave police an alibi. This was quickly disproved.
He was charged with the murder of Sahn Nguyen, and the malicious wounding of Minh Pham.
Son was born in South Vietnam, and was 37 years old at the time of the killing. When he was 14 years old, the North Vietnamese government came to power in the South, and Son was placed in a labour camp. He was there for five years - once he tried to escape, but was caught and spent months confined alone in a small dark room with his legs chained.
He was eventually released from the camp in around 1984, when he met and married Minh Pham. They tried to escape Vietnam, but were arrested. Son spent one year in custody, while Minh was pregnant with their son. After his release, they attempted to escape again, this time on a refugee boat. They were successful, landing in Indonesia, where they were put in a refugee camp. Conditions here were poor, and they were detained for five years, before being returned to Vietnam. These hard years built a strong bond between Son and Minh, as well as their son.
Eventually they were sponsored to come to Australia by Son’s family. They arrived in November 1996 and stayed in Melbourne with Son’s relatives. After three months Minh left for Sydney, taking their son with her. She said she wanted to separate from Son, and stayed with relatives in Bonnyrigg.
After 10 days Son left Melbourne to join his wife and child in Sydney, and they were reconciled. They moved to Cabramatta and worked with a clothing manufacturer. Son worked the steam press, and Minh made garments. They were a hard-working couple.
In 1997 Son and Minh organised for her mother Sahn Nguyen to come to Australia. She arrived in November 1997 and moved into their Cabramatta home.
The clothing factory closed for Christmas, so Son went to Melbourne to visit his family. In that time, a man named Vanny So moved into the Cabramatta home, renting a room as a male boarder. This became a source of tension between Son and Minh when he returned from holidays.
Minh’s mother Sahn also began to undermine her daughter’s marriage, for a variety of reasons. A good friend of Sahn’s gave evidence that Sahn complained that Son did not buy her anything, while Vanny So was showering her with gifts. Vanny would openly take Minh and Sahn out from time to time, without any regard for Son.
Two months after Sahn arrived in Sydney, Minh and Son separated once more. In February 1998 Son moved out of the Cabramatta home and stayed with a friend in Canley Vale. Minh gave evidence that after Son left the house, she would sneak out after her mother and her son were in bed, so that she could meet Son. She said she still loved him, and cried in court that “my husband is the only man I love”.
There was evidence that Son had become depressed since separating from Minh. His productivity at work had declined. He was staying with his employer Doan. Doan returned to Vietnam to get married, and Son became even more lonely: “I just felt that I fell off from the sky to a very deep pit. I was agonising”.
Son would also come to Cabramatta each day, and sometimes slept outside the house. He repeatedly told Minh he loved her very much, and could not live without her. Minh felt torn between her love for her husband, and her loyalty to her mother. She told him to stay where he was for the time being, at least until her mother went back to Vietnam. After that, he could move back in to Cabramatta.
When Son would call in to see Minh at Cabramatta, Sahn would call the police. Sahn also intercepted Son’s phone calls to Minh. On two separate occasions, when Son was visiting, she assaulted him - once with a hammer, and once with the flat side of a metal cleaver.
Son persuaded Minh to leave the Cabramatta house, to minimise contact with Sahn. They moved to a house in Yagoona, but Sahn followed, and decided to move herself into Minh’s bedroom so could sleep with her daughter: “She moved to my bedroom and we stayed in one bedroom and I could not go out to meet my husband any more”.
Sahn persuaded Mihn to take out a restraining order (AVO) to stop Son phoning and visiting her at home: “My mum told me to go the Court to apply for the AVO so my husband would not be able to come see me anymore. I loved my mother but I also loved my husband, and I was in the middle of the two of them, but I loved my mother and I listened to her. Wherever she told me to go, I would go”.
On the 17th April Minh was granted an AVO at Fairfield Local Court. However she continued to contact Son. Vanny So also became a regular visitor to the Yagoona home.
On the night before the killing, Son had stood outside the Yagoona house, and while there he overheard a conversation between Minh and a friend. He heard her say that Vanny had taken her to Parramatta to file for a divorce. From this, Son guessed that his wife had begun a relationship with Vanny.
He left Yagoona, went to a friend’s place, and drank. He drank with his friend Lee and elsewhere in Cabramatta, and then returned to the Yagoona house in the early hours of the 21st. He managed to get into the garage, and tapped on the internal wall between the garage and the bedroom, hoping to wake up Minh. He wanted to talk to her, because he was thinking of going back to Melbourne and killing himself. He could get into the house through the door from the garage, but waited to hear from Minh.
Sahn was the one who heard the tapping, and got up. Son heard her coming, and left the garage. Sahn then picked up the phone in the bedroom to call the police, causing Son to smash the window and break through to grab the phone from her, even though he had already decided to leave.
He said his reason for grabbing the phone was only to stop Sahn calling the police, as he would be in trouble for breaching the AVO. When he followed her down the hallway, it was dark, and she struck him with something. He grabbed whatever it was from Sahn - it turned out to be the broken scissors. Son did not remember anything after that.
There was no evidence that Son had come to Yagoona armed. He had also been drinking, so his level of intoxication was taken into account when considering whether he really intended to kill Sahn. In addition to his depression and suicidal state, there was medical evidence that amnesia is not uncommon where people are in highly emotional or violent situations.
Psychiatrists gave evidence that at the time of the killing, Son had been suffering from a major depressive episode which was very severe. The various events leading up to the killing were considered to be psycho-social stressors, that had all contributed to the state of mind Son found himself in on that morning.
On the evidence, the jury found that Son lost control, as a result of a substantial impairment of mind. This allowed them to return a verdict of not guilty of murder, but guilty of manslaughter, on the basis of ‘diminished responsibility’.
He was sentenced to six years in prison for the manslaughter of Sahn Nguyen, with a non-parole period of three years and six months. He was sentenced to 12 months prison for maliciously wounding Minh Pham - to be served at the same time.
Son Tran was released on 22 October 2001.