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St. Petersburg strangler gets life sentence

Long Phi Le had been scheduled to go to trial Tuesday, charged with murdering a 63-year-old St. Petersburg man he had a history of stealing from.

Instead, he is going to prison for the rest of his life.

Le, 22, was sentenced after pleading guilty to murder on Friday. By doing so, he avoided a possible death sentence.

He was something of a neighborhood bully in St. Petersburg's Vietnamese community. Le had a habit of stealing a car belonging to Luyen Chi Pham, according to court records. He told one friend he stole the man's car "just for fun." He told another he was planning to tie the man up in a future robbery.

"He was tormenting the older gentleman," Assistant State Attorney Susan St. John said.

But this case went beyond robbery.

Pham was discovered strangled in his home in 2007, after he failed to show up for work. Police found Le's fingerprints on Pham's 1988 Honda Accord. They also found Pham's car keys in Le's pocket when they arrested him. And Le confessed to police.

A man named Brandon Thornhill said in court records that Le had spoken to a mutual friend of theirs before the killing, and the friend had told him of Le's plans: "Basically he said he's going to tie the guy up this time and rob him in front of his face."

But Le, a gang member nicknamed "Ghost," never mentioned anything about murder.

The Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender's Office last year filed a motion seeking to throw out the confession Le made to St. Petersburg police because at one point he was asked if he wanted to talk to them and he said no. But he later said he did want to speak.

Judge Nancy Moate Ley denied the request to throw out the confession, saying the St. Petersburg detective "was not threatening, coercing or attempting to change the defendant's mind."

Curtis Krueger can be reached at (727) 893-8232 or ckrueger@sptimes.com.

St. Petersburg strangler gets life sentence 06/01/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 1, 2010 11:16pm]
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