TACOMA, Wash. — Linda Tran was six years old when she and her family moved to the United States from Vietnam in 1978.
She grew into a rebellious teenager who ran away and skipped school. She eventually dropped out of Lincoln High School when she became pregnant with Patricia, born in 1989.
Tran was not a good mother to Patricia during the girl’s early years, so Patricia lived with Tran’s father and mother. Tran’s mother later moved back to Vietnam.
When Tran’s second child, Austin, was born on Feb. 18, 1997, she settled down and became a devoted mother. She also became pregnant with her third child in 1998 and planned to name the baby Joshua.
Tran was close to her family, especially her father, Kiet Tran, and she visited him daily at his home and auto repair shop.
On Dec. 18, 1998, Tran, 26, and her children stopped by her father’s shop. He asked if they would like to dine at a Vietnamese restaurant on South 38th Street, and they said yes.
But an unexpected customer delayed Kiet Tran, so he stayed at work while Tran and her children went to his house to fix dinner.
When Kiet Tran returned home, he and Patricia watched “Wheel of Fortune.” She begged to stay the night; however, her mother insisted she come home because someone was coming to their house with Christmas gifts for the children.
Tran and the children left her father’s residence at 7:45 p.m. and stopped at a grocery store for fruit before heading home.
At 8:15 p.m., witnesses saw a man arguing with Tran in front of her duplex at 1703 E. 40th St. He then chased Tran into her home carrying a baseball bat and called the children to the porch, then ushered them in.
Witnesses said they heard banging noises, breaking glass, and crying inside the duplex. While a witness was on the phone with 911, they saw the house explode. The man fled the rear of the house as it burst into flames.
According to the News Tribune, “The explosion packed such force that the sky was visible through a gap between wall and roof.” The killer had poured gasoline throughout the house before setting it on fire.
Autopsies performed on the bodies revealed Trans, seven months pregnant, and her children died from severe blunt trauma, smoke inhalation, and thermal burns.
The witnesses provided a vague description of the killer — a black or dark-skinned man with a muscular build and around 30 years of age. They saw him enter a dark-colored sedan with a driver waiting for him. The police created a composite sketch based on their accounts, but it did not bring any leads.
Police thought the killer might have possibly received “burning injures or injuries as a result of the explosion because it was so violent, ” Retired Det. Robert Yerbury, the original lead on the case, told Fox 13 Seattle.
The investigation into the murders proved challenging to detectives, mainly due to a language barrier, the vague description of a suspect, and evidence burned in the explosion.
Tran’s family initially believed the father of her unborn child was responsible. However, investigators quickly ruled out the fathers of her children and an ex-boyfriend but remained convinced that Tran knew her killer.
The murders were brutal, and the killing of a toddler convinced investigators that the crime was personal.
The day before the fire, someone broke the window of Tran’s back door. She immediately called her cousin, who called the police. The cousin said Tran had checked the home for intruders and found none. Police could not determine if the vandalism was connected to the murders.
During the investigation, detectives dove into Tran’s personal life and discovered she had frequented bingo halls, pull-tab lobbies, and private card games. They theorized she might have owed money to some people and could not pay. However, they were unable to find a connection.
A thorough investigation and public appeals for information never led detectives to the killer. They were investigating the case as recently as 2015 but were still stumped.
Tacoma police Det. Lindsey Wade told Fox 13, “We do not have any real strong indication as to why this happened. I think based on the brutality of the crime, it seemed like a personal crime, and somebody who would have been in a personal relationship with Linda.”
Authorities mentioned DNA testing in 2015, but they have not released any more information as of this writing.
Tran’s house no longers stands on the corner of 40th and Q Street in Tacoma.
If you have information regarding the Tran family murders, please call Tacoma police at (253) 798-4721 or Crime Stoppers (800) 222-TIPS. You may also leave an anonymous tip online here.
True Crime Diva’s Thoughts
This was a quick crime. Linda and the kids left her dad’s house at 7:45 p.m. and stopped quickly at a grocery store before heading home. Witnesses saw the suspect arguing with Tran at 8:15 p.m.
Early reports say the police responded to a possible domestic violence call at Tran’s home at 8:30.
So, the killer argued with Tran, beat all three nearly to death, poured gasoline throughout the home, and started the fire, all within 15 minutes?
I think it’s possible if he poured the gasoline in the house before Tran and the kids arrived home. We know the day before someone broke the window on the back door. Maybe he entered the home that way or another, then came outside to wait for Tran. But how did the killer know when Tran would be home? That must be the person who was supposed to bring gifts, right?
If that person never came forward to the police, then maybe it was the killer, and he was romantically involved with Tran. But why kill her children? Only Patricia would have been able to talk to the police; Austin was not yet two years old, so if that was the case, why kill him? I would sort of expect the crime to be a murder-suicide if the killer was involved with Tran.
What were Tran and the man arguing over? You’d think the neighbors would have heard it. They were right there witnessing everything.
I did find it a bit interesting that Patricia begged to stay with her grandfather as if she did not want to go home. Maybe she did not like whoever was bringing the Christmas presents.
It feels like a personal crime, but could it be something else? Just because detectives never found a connection with gambling doesn’t mean there wasn’t one. Or maybe Tran used drugs, and her family did not know.
The killer had planned the crime, according to the police, and set fire to the home to destroy evidence. Furthermore, he did not try to shield his face from witnesses who were outside, as if he didn’t care if they saw him or not. There was also a getaway driver.
This doesn’t entirely feel like an amateur crime. I wonder if Linda saw something she should not have seen.
Several months before the murders, three Asian gang members entered Trang Dai Cafe, 3819 S. Yakima Ave., at 1:30 a.m. on July 5, 1998, and opened fire on the restaurant’s occupants, killing four men and one woman, wounding five others. All of the victims were around the same age as Tran. Two of the gang members were Vietnamese.
The restaurant was about two miles west of Tran’s residence and near the Vietnamese restaurant where her father wanted to take them on the night of the murders.
After an extensive investigation, law enforcement officials identified several people connected to the massacre. One killed his brother, one of the three gunmen, before turning the gun on himself. A third suspect committed suicide shortly after his arrest. Police subsequently arrested five other suspects, all between the ages of 16 and 19.
The massacre was a gang-retaliation crime, but the man the group wanted to execute had survived the shooting.
Here’s what I find interesting. Investigators later arrested two others, Prasoeuth Chantha, 22, and Johnson Saly, 20, in 2000. Chantha and Saly were accused of shooting and killing a key witness to the massacre, Kay Kosal Sin, 20, on April 11, 2000. Sin was set to testify for the prosecution at the trials. Saly denied taking part in the murder, saying he was only the getaway driver. Both were ultimately convicted.
In the Tran case, witnesses saw the man get into a car with a driver waiting.
I’m not saying the massacre and Sin’s killing are connected to the Tran family murders. But what if the killer murdered Tran and her kids in retaliation for something? That makes more sense than a romantic motive. And gang members or contract killers are not going to care if kids are involved.
Tran might have witnessed another crime or seen something else she should not have seen.