Because he brought a sword to a bowling alley, police say, this cold case is now solved

(Photo courtesy of the Salt Lake County jail) Tien Truong Nguyen

A man who was charged Tuesday with killing a pool hall owner more than 11 years ago may have gone undetected had he not brought a sword into a bowling alley where employees felt threatened in 2015.

Tien Truong Nguyen, 37, was charged Tuesday in 3rd District Court in two separate cases. In one case he is accused of first-degree felony aggravated murder and aggravated robbery in the 2007 slaying of 36-year-old Tri Xuan Phan.

In the other case, Nguyen is accused of aggravated assault, a third-degree felony, for the bowling alley incident.

On Jan. 10, 2007, police found Phan’s “severely beaten” body on the floor near the back door of his pool hall, Vui Vui Billiards at 1829 W. 3500 South in West Valley City, charges say. Phan’s pockets had been turned out and his Rolex watch was missing.

Police also found a bloody metal pole and a bloody barstool outside of the building, cleaning agent and swipe marks on the floor and a bloody glove and rag in the sink.

(Courtesy of West Valley City Police Department) Tri Xuan Phan, 36, was found dead inside Vui Vui Billiards, 1829 W. 3500 South in West Valley City on Jan. 10, 2007. Phan owned the business.

Phan’s autopsy noted that he’d suffered “several stab wounds” to his neck and “numerous” abrasions, cuts and trauma to his head and face. His skull was “severely” fractured, and his right forearm had also been fractured. Phan had also been stabbed in his left buttock and had a “large” laceration on his left elbow. Additionally, he had “patterned injuries” to his chest, shoulder and head consistent with the metal pole found at the scene.

At the time, police found a latent fingerprint in the blood on the barstool and entered it into a database, but found no match.

The case went cold, but on July 24, 2015, Nguyen went to Valley Bowling Lanes, at 3951 W. 5400 South in Taylorsville, charges state.

Because of the Pioneer Day holiday, the bowling alley was closing early, and an employee turned away Nguyen and others who arrived with him about 20 minutes before closing time.

Nguyen was upset, charges state. He “verbally threatened” the employee who turned him away, and another bowling alley employee told him to leave, charges state. Nguyen left the building but returned “a few moments later” carrying a “large” sword.

“He was holding it up in a threatening manner as he aggressively walked toward the employee counter, frightening other patron[s] and employees,” charges state. Nguyen’s friends grabbed him and “removed him” from the business, and police later arrested him as he was attempting to leave.

(Courtesy of the Salt Lake County jail) Tien Truong Nguyen

In an interview with police after that incident, he admitted that he’d been upset and retrieved the sword from his SUV before returning to the bowling alley.

Because of that incident, police entered Nguyen’s prints into the fingerprint database, and on April 22, 2016, police matched his right thumb print to the 2007 homicide scene, allowing them to reopen the homicide case.

In an interview with police earlier this month, officers noted that Nguyen gave “several conflicting and inconsistent statements,” according to charges. Nguyen told police he had been at Phan’s pool hall in 2011 when a fight broke out between him, Phan and another man.

The fight was about money — specifically gambling winnings, Nguyen told police, and he said he fled from the fight but returned a few hours later to clean up. He told police that Phan had been alive when he returned to the pool hall, and that Phan grabbed Nguyen’s legs and asked for help.

Nguyen told police that he had to fight to free himself from Phan, and that Phan then stopped moving and breathing. Nguyen attempted to clean up the scene, he told police, and took money that he said had been taken from him during the initial altercation.

Nguyen’s wife told police that on that night, Nguyen returned home between 11 p.m. and 1 a.m. with “scratches all over” his arms and was carrying a bag of money. Nguyen told her that he’d gotten into a fight with the owner of the pool hall in order to “get his money back,” charges say.

Nguyen told his wife that he’d forgotten something at the pool hall, and the two drove there together. The wife waited in the car while Nguyen went inside, she told police.

When Nguyen returned, he told her that Phan was dead. She told him to call 911 but he refused, the woman told police.

Police arrested Nguyen on Thursday and booked him into the Salt Lake County jail, where he is being held without bail.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) l-r West Valley City Police Lt. Kent Stokes and Detective David Greco give details regarding an arrest made, Thursday, March 8, 2018, in the 11-year-old homicide cold case of Tri Xuan Phan, who was last seen alive as he was closing the Vui Vui Billiards, 1893 West 3500 South, on January 10, 2007. Suspect Tien Nguyen was re-interviewed, arrested and charged with homicide Thursday after his fingerprint, newly added to the national database in connection with a more recent crime, was matched with a fingerprint left at Phan's murder scene.

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill commended the efforts of law enforcement officers who worked to solve the cold case.

“When [cold cases] are unsolved, they leave an empty hole, a lack of justice to our community,” Gill said Tuesday, adding that it’s because of the officers’ diligence that charges have finally been filed.