The daughter of a woman who fled violence in El Salvador, only to be shot dead by a younger man who Nassau prosecutors said exploited her “financially and emotionally,” on Wednesday called the triggerman a “coward” who deserved harsh punishment.
“We would like it to be more severe, but we understand there are laws,” Vanessa Cortez Ayala, 38, of Westbury, told a judge who sentenced her mother’s killer to 20 years to life in prison.
The Mineola court sentencing of Dung Tran, now 44, of Hempstead, came after his October guilty plea to murder and more than five years after authorities said he shot Maria Ayala, 62, once in the head in May 2011 and left her body in her car in a Lynbrook parking lot.
Prosecutors said the two had been dating and Tran murdered Ayala after she discovered he’d been stealing from her. Besides murder and weapon counts, a 2012 indictment also had charged Tran with stealing about $5,500 from her.
The case included several psychiatric exams of Tran before health professionals for the prosecution and defense declared him mentally capable to proceed.
Even so, prosecutor Ania Pulaski told Nassau Supervising Judge Christopher Quinn on Wednesday that Tran recently denied involvement in the murder when speaking to probation officials, and instead said a fictitious person was responsible.
Defense attorney Christopher Devane told Quinn he had no explanation for what his client told probation officials, but that Tran had pleaded guilty, was “very sorry” and “has some mental issues.”
Tran was the last person to speak to Ayala by phone on April 30, 2011, court records show. They say she then dropped off her grandchildren at a neighbor’s home and said she’d be back in 45 minutes but never returned.
Authorities said Ayala said she was going to a grocery store, but also had plans to meet Tran that night. Her family called police when she didn’t come home.
The next morning, a Lynbrook police officer found the body of Ayala in her Toyota Corolla in a Merrick Road lot.
Authorities said that after a tip from Ayala’s family, detectives went to Tran’s apartment later that day and found him climbing out a window with three of her credit cards and her jewelry in one of his pockets. They also found the murder weapon in his mattress, according to prosecutors.
Ayala’s family has said she received political asylum in the United States to escape persecution by guerrillas in her home country.
And despite her pain, Ayala’s daughter also said in court Wednesday through a Spanish interpreter that she forgave Tran for his actions.
“Now my mom is resting in peace. I’m nobody to judge. My God will judge you,” she said.
The Westbury woman said later that Tran had lied to her mother and told her he had served in the U.S. Army, and would help her become a U.S. citizen. She said the two met when he stayed at the motel where her mother was a housekeeper.
“It’s not enough,” she said of his punishment. “It will never be enough.”