Video-surveillance footage from a Tukwila casino — collected by the King County Sheriff’s Office more than 20 years ago and recently reviewed by a detective — led to the arrest Friday of a 62-year-old Kent man, who is charged with second-degree murder in connection with the killing of his ex-girlfriend.
Nguyet “Anna” Nguyen, who lived in Burien’s Shorewood neighborhood with her elderly mother and 11-year-old daughter, left her home to visit her fiancé in West Seattle in November 1998. She never arrived at his house and was never seen again.
Though Nguyen has long been presumed dead, her body has never been found.
From the beginning of the investigation, King County Sheriff’s detectives suspected Nguyen’s ex-boyfriend was involved in the 28-year-old’s disappearance but they didn’t have enough evidence to connect him to what later became a presumed homicide, said Sgt. Ryan Abbott.
That is, until Friday, when Phan Kim Seng, a retired car salesman, was arrested at his Kent home and booked into the King County Jail, according to the Sheriff’s Office. King County prosecutors rush-filed a second-degree murder charge against him and he is now being held in lieu of $2 million bail, a spokesman said.
Seng is accused of killing Nguyen because he was jealous of her impending marriage to another man and because he wanted to stop her from testifying in a domestic-violence case against him, according to the charges.
Nearly 300 hours of video-surveillance footage from a Tukwila casino — obtained by sheriff’s detectives in the days after Nguyen disappeared — was recently reviewed by a detective assigned to the sheriff’s Major Crimes Unit, which reopened the cold-case homicide investigation this year. The footage ultimately provided the missing link, placing Seng at the casino where Nguyen’s 1994 white Acura sedan was found abandoned on Nov. 11, 1998, two days after she disappeared, charging papers say.
According to the charges, Seng lied when, early on, he told detectives he had not been at the casino in the days after Nguyen went missing.
Nguyen, who worked as a hair stylist at a HairMasters salon in Burien, was last seen around 9 p.m. on Nov. 9, 1998, when she left her home in the 12600 block of 14th Avenue South in Burien. Her family reported her missing the next day, the day she planned to fly to Reno, Nevada, to get married.
During the original investigation, detectives learned Seng had used three debit cards belonging to Nguyen and her mother and asked his brother to provide him with a fake alibi, according to the charges. They also found Seng’s fingerprints on a piece of paper inside Nguyen’s glove compartment and found some of Nguyen’s belongings in a gym bag at Seng’s brother’s house, the charges say.
According to the charges:
On Nov. 9, 1998, Nguyen, her daughter and her fiancé went out to dinner. Afterward, Nguyen dropped her fiancé off at his house in West Seattle, then drove home to Burien. Nguyen left again around 9 p.m., telling her mother and daughter she was going to her fiance’s house but would be home later that night.
The next morning, Nguyen’s mother and daughter discovered she had not returned home, which was out of character since Nguyen took care of both of them. Meanwhile, Nguyen’s fiancé telephoned her mother when he couldn’t reach Nguyen on her cellphone and said he hadn’t seen her. The couple was to board a plane that afternoon to Reno, Nevada, then planned to go to California to visit friends.
Seng also called Nguyen’s mother, claiming he had seen her out the night before with her fiancé and daughter. He said he was still in love with Nguyen and “felt sick that he was no longer with her,” the charges say.
Nguyen’s mother and fiancé filed a missing-person report Nov. 10, 1998.
During the investigation, detectives learned Seng had been arrested that September for attempting to strangle Nguyen and breaking her phone when she tried to call 911 to report a domestic-violence assault during an argument at her house. At the time, Seng was apparently in the process of getting a license to work as a caregiver to elderly residents of an assisted-living facility and was concerned a domestic-violence conviction would make him ineligible for the job, according to the charges.
Detectives also discovered Seng had confronted Nguyen’s fiancé months before her disappearance and told him to stay away from Nguyen because Seng wanted her.
While interviewing Seng, detectives noticed a scratch beneath his right eye, which he said he got during a pickup basketball game at his gym. But photos of Seng — taken just before 4 a.m. Nov. 10 from an ATM where he had used Nguyen’s debit card — showed the cut on his face hours before he said he was injured. No one at his gym recalled him playing basketball that day.
When asked where detectives should look for Nguyen, Seng mentioned the Riverside Casino in Tukwila, but said he’d never gone there himself. Her car was found in the casino’s parking lot on Nov. 11, 1998.
A daughter’s search
In 2010, Nguyen’s daughter met with sheriff’s detectives and told them she had never stopped looking for her mother. After seeing Seng’s photo in ads for a Renton car dealership in 2008, the daughter told detectives she had occasional lunch dates with Seng and would question him about her mother’s disappearance. She said Seng claimed Nguyen was still alive and living in Vietnam, according to charging documents.
Detectives conducted a “due diligence search” for Nguyen, sending letters to agencies across the country to determine if she relocated, was declared alive or dead, was issued new identification cards or a passport, joined the military or won the lottery, the charges say. But there’s been no trace of her since she disappeared.
The King County Medical Examiner’s Office issued a death certificate in 2015.
After the cold case was reopened this year, a detective reviewed 283 hours of surveillance video from the Riverside Casino and found footage of Seng wearing a distinctive jacket. He was also photographed wearing the same jacket when he used Nguyen’s debit card at ATMs in Seattle and South King County in the days immediately after she disappeared. The jacket was found in a search of Seng’s brother’s car, the charges say.
Though detectives had previously reviewed the casino footage, “there was no known comprehensive record to reflect what had been viewed and analyzed,” say charging papers.
The Sheriff’s Office does not have a dedicated cold-case squad but so far this year, the Major Crimes Unit has solved three, decades-old killings, including Nguyen’s.
In February, two suspects were charged with first-degree murder in connection with the November 1995 shooting death of 26-year-old Kenneth Ruffer in White Center.
This month, DNA evidence on two cigarette butts led to the arrest of a 55-year-old Covington man, who is accused of attempting to rape 16-year-old Sarah Yarborough, a Federal Way high school student, when he fatally strangled her with her pantyhose in December 1991.