When a welfare check on a fortune teller and her daughter leads to the discovery of a gruesome double-murder, police are baffled to find the victim’s heads and hands covered in a gallon of white paint. They didn’t, however, need to hunt very hard for their killers, who either didn’t care about being caught or were clueless that they were leaving a paper trail right to their door.
Ha ‘Jade’ Smith was 52-years-old and a respected Vietnamese fortune teller living with her 23-year-old daughter Anita Nhi Vo in the community of Little Saigon, Westminster in Orange County, California. The telling of fortunes in Vietnamese culture is a valued service and a popular one, with many visiting Ha Smith to discover their destiny in love or money. She had built a reputation over years of her work and people not only came to her from as far away as New York to have their fortunes told, but they also paid her a lot of money for the service running into tens of thousands of dollars.
Ha Smith was a regular in the jewellery district of Little Saigon and was known for her bold dress style and her expensive accessories. Her daughter, Anita Nhi Vo, was a college student and although she didn’t partake in her mother’s profession, she was fully supportive and was used to clients visiting them at their home.
The Day of the Murders
On 21 April 2005, Ha Smith welcomed Tanya Jamie Nelson, a Vietnamese shop owner who had grown up in a large wealthy family nearby before moving to North Carolina, into her home. Nelson had a friend with her, 55-year-old Phillipe Zamora who had come along to meet Ha Smith, Nelson told her. Soon after arriving, however, Nelson’s true intentions for the visit became apparent in an explosion of violence. Nelson took a large knife from the kitchen and began to stab Ha Smith multiple times. When the terrified woman began to shout out in fear and pain, she told Zamora, “Kill her! Kill her! Don’t let her scream!”
Phillipe Zamora then joined in the attack, smashing a nearby wine bottle over Ha Smith’s head to silence her before stabbing her himself. “I didn’t know what to do..I didn’t want her to scream,” he later testified in court. Anita Nhi Vo was treated to the same attack with an equal level of violence.
With Ha Smith lying in a pool of blood and dying on the kitchen floor and her daughter in the same state on the laundry room floor, Nelson and Zamora searched the house, trashing furniture and belongings as they pocketed cash, jewellery, mobile phones and credit cards. They then left the house, drove to a nearby Wal-Mart and purchased a tub of white paint. Returning to the property when their two victims had bled out to death, they poured the paint over their heads and hands and discarded the empty tub before leaving the house for the final time.
When police began to process the crime scene at Little Saigon, they discovered both Ha Smith and Anita Nhi Vo had been stabbed multiple times in the head, neck and upper torso, with both women having stab wounds on their hands indicating how they had tried to desperately defend themselves. The house was ransacked and detectives theorized early on that the motive for these murders was most likely robbery but a bizarre aspect to the crime was the use of the white paint poured over the victims. The paint had been directed only to the heads and hands of the victims and not simply poured haphazardly over their bodies. “This is by far the most bizarre thing I’ve ever seen,” said Detective Tim Vu. Was this simply an act to throw police upon the discovery of the bodies or did it mean something?
Ha Smith had been targeted for burglary previously in 2001 when she was tied up and over $300,000 worth of cash and jewellery had been stolen. As a result, she had strengthened the security in her home, installing bars on the windows and ensuring large amounts of cash and her most valuable jewellery were hidden. In this attack, there were no signs of forced entry and her hidden stash remained undiscovered by her attackers.
Upon checking Ha Smith’s appointment book for the day of the murder, the name Tanya Jaime Nelson stood out as someone who had visited Ha Smith for a fortune reading. Police quickly established that Nelson had flown into Orange County from North Carolina a few days prior to the murders and set about tracking down her whereabouts. Finding her was made easy when Ha Smith’s stolen credit cards were used in a variety of stores and to purchase a flight back to North Carolina in the days after the murders. Nelson, it seemed, was on a spending spree, and her image had been captured on multiple security cameras as she purchased items worth hundreds of dollars, handing over the credit cards of Ha Smith in payment each time.
Tanya Nelson was arrested on 30 May 2005 outside a hotel she was staying at in Santa Ana with the stolen credit cards in her purse. When police officers searched her home in North Carolina, they found thousands of dollars hidden around the house and a receipt for a flight in the name of Phillipe Zamora from North Carolina to Orange County on the same day that Nelson flew in, leading officers straight to her co-defendant in the murders. Officers also found a calendar in Nelson’s home with the words ‘horrible sin’ written in for the day of the murders, 21 April 2005.
When Phillipe Zamora was picked up and questioned, he confessed immediately to his part in the murders, telling officers how it had happened and blaming Nelson for instigating the crime. Both Tanya Nelson and Phillipe Zamora were charged with two counts of first-degree murder for taking the lives of Ha Smith and her daughter Anita Nhi Vo.
“At least we’ll have justice … it doesn’t matter what you do. Nobody deserves to die like this, and no family members should have to suffer like this.” – Ha Smith’s sister, Loan Ngo
Tanya Nelson had arranged to visit Ha Smith on the day of the murder under the guise of having her fortune told, however, it is believed her intention all along was to rob the fortune teller.
On Trial For Murder
Phillipe Zamora agreed to testify against his co-defendant, Tanya Nelson, and went on trial for murder in 2009. He testified in court that Nelson had told him she had targeted Ha Smith and her daughter because Ha Smith had told her in an earlier reading that her business would do well if she relocated from Orange County to North Carolina, which didn’t come true. According to Zamora’s testimony, this inaccurate prediction meant that Ha Smith “deserved to die” in the eyes of Nelson. Defence lawyers for Nelson, however, claimed in court that none of this testimony was true and was a ploy by Zamora to implicate Nelson to ensure that he did not get the death penalty for his part in the crime.
During Tanya Nelson’s murder trial the following year in January 2010, prosecutor Sonia Balleste called her, “the personification of narcissistic evil,” and told the jury, “She’s a monster. She doesn’t look like a bogeyman, but she is. That’s what makes her so dangerous.” while Nelson pleaded, “I am innocent,” in a statement to the judge via the probation department.
A number of different reasons have been put forward for why Nelson committed the murders and how the motive was wrapped up in the telling of fortunes and predicting the future. Some reports claim Nelson killed because a love spell Ha Smith cast for her did not work, whereas others state that she killed because her fortune did not come true, as suggested by Phillipe Zamora in his trial. Others claim she killed because she was not given the fortune she wanted to hear. Some believe it had nothing to do with fortunes at all, simply a selfish woman who knew there was money available and it was a robbery with a twisted element of murder.
The Mystery of the White Paint
The white paint on the bodies of Ha Smith and Anita Nhi Vo continued to perplex detectives working on the case. What is interesting is that both victims of this callous murder and the lead perpetrator, Tanya Nelson, were Vietnamese and the white paint may have been connected to their culture. At funerals, for example, in Vietnamese culture white is worn and not black, as is traditional in Western culture. Furthermore, the colour white is associated with “loss and the passing of life”.
The decision by Tanya Nelson to leave her victims to be found with their heads and hands covered in white paint may have been some form of symbolism and even remorse, however, for Nelson who had just brutally and viciously stabbed two women to death, to use the white paint as a symbol of mourning is a bizarre contradiction.
Phillipe Zamora pleaded guilty to two counts of first-degree murder on 12 April 2010 and in return for his guilty plea and testimony against Tanya Nelson he avoided the death penalty and was instead sentenced to 27 years in prison.
A Death Row Sentence
On 15 February 2010, Tanya Nelson was found guilty of two counts of ‘special circumstances’ murder, the special circumstances were multiple victims, murder by lying in wait and murder while carrying out a robbery. At her trial, the use of the white paint was concluded to be insignificant to the murder and simply an act carried by Nelson before she robbed her victims, however, this case remains on the minds of many not only for the brutality involved but for the bizarre aspects the murder carried.
The special circumstances in the double-murder meant that Tanya Nelson was sentenced to death on 23 April 2010 and became only the second woman in Orange County to be sentenced to death row. She is currently serving her sentence and awaiting execution at the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla, California.