A 26-year-old man repeatedly stabbed another man he was smoking methamphetamine with behind a Walmart store in Santa Ana because the victim made a pass at him, a prosecutor told jurors Thursday while the defendant’s attorney said his client acted in self-defense.
Joshua Dean Smith is charged with murder with a sentencing enhancement for the personal use of a deadly weapon in the Dec. 18, 2016, killing of 41-year-old Dennis Quan Tran behind the store at 3600 W. McFadden Ave.
There’s no dispute that Smith killed Tran, but jurors will consider lesser charges of manslaughter.
Smith and his girlfriend, Luna Riekeman, were staying at sober living facilities in the county at the time of the killing, Smith’s attorney, Daniel Kim, said.
Smith had missed a few buses back to where he was staying so he ended up at the Walmart, where he chose to charge his phone battery. The plan was to wait at the store until dawn, when his girlfriend could meet up with him, Kim said.
Surveillance video shows Smith entering the store just after 11:34 p.m. Dec. 17, 2016.
Shortly after 1 a.m., when the store was closed, Tran could be seen approaching Smith and the two then go behind two tractor trailers nearby for about 35 minutes. Tran had asked Smith if he wanted to smoke methamphetamine with him, Deputy District Attorney Chris Alex said.
The autopsy showed that Tran had methamphetamine, amphetamine and Ecstasy in his system, Alex said.
At some point, Tran propositioned a sex act with Smith, who turned him down, Alex said.
Smith later relayed to his girlfriend that he told Tran, “I don’t swing like that,” Alex said.
Tran replied, “Nobody does until they need some dope,” according to Alex.
Smith said, “He got grabby and I wanted to keep him off of me,” according to Alex.
Smith stabbed Tran 31 times, Alex said.
“And I’m talking about 31 stabs landing,” Alex said, adding he wasn’t counting missed or blocked attempts.
The victim sustained 10 stab wounds to the upper chest, five to his head, one to his abdomen and 11 in the back and back of the neck, Alex said. Tran was unarmed, the prosecutor added.
Smith “rifled through Mr. Tran’s pockets to take his money and methamphetamine,” Alex said.
“He made a comment to his girlfriend to the effect, `I can’t believe he only had $15,”’ Alex said.
Smith would “laugh” about the killing when the topic came up in the ensuing months and threatened to kill his girlfriend if she ever alerted authorities, Alex said.
According to a pretrial motion filed in the case, Smith and Riekeman lived on the streets in the months after the killing, until they moved in with the defendant’s father in Washington state. She left him and returned to Orange County after Smith beat her up, according to the motion.
At some point, a manager of the sober living home where the girlfriend was staying when Tran was killed called police to report Smith as a suspect, according to court records. She also eventually made an anonymous call to police, according to court records.
When police went to interview Smith, he “disavows any involvement in what happened altogether,” Alex said.
Tran had left home about 5 p.m. the evening before he was killed despite his aunt’s admonishments to stay home, Kim said.
Smith, who has been diagnosed with autism, met Riekeman in New Mexico and both decided to enter into sober living facilities to “straighten out their lives,” but they had relapsed, Kim said.
Smith was trying to catch a bus back to his sober living facility but missed two of them and found himself “marooned” at the Walmart, Kim said. While waiting for his girlfriend to come get him, he helped two shoppers who were locked out of their vehicle, Kim said.
Just after 1 a.m., he started smoking drugs with Tran behind the trailers, Kim said, adding that Tran was aggressively groping him before the stabbing.
“He kept grabbing his private area and Josh said, `No, don’t,”’ Kim said.
At one point, Tran pushed Smith down and was trying to rip off his clothes, Kim said.
“He realized he was carrying a knife … and in fear of being raped, he resorted to the knife,” Kim said.
Smith said he “kept stabbing until (Tran) stopped moving,” Kim said.
“Predictably, as an addict, he took the methamphetamine, he took the money and he ran,” Kim said. A blood-soaked Smith called his girlfriend as he ran from the stabbing and said he messed up.
Smith had “no other motive” to kill Tran other than “self-defense,” Kim said.