Make us your home page
Instagram

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Trial opens in 2007 rape and murder of Seffner mother of three

TAMPA — After Cuc Thu Tran, a 50-year-old Seffner mother of three, was raped and fatally stabbed in September 2007, her killer set fire to her body inside a stolen van. The fire, a prosecutor said Monday, was the killer's attempt to destroy evidence that could lead to his execution.

But in opening statements for the death-penalty murder trial of Kenneth Ray Jackson, the prosecutor said a key piece of evidence was found "where the flames couldn't reach."

The evidence was DNA — "the very essence" of Jackson — Assistant State Attorney Scott Harmon told jurors. "It was the evidence this rapist-murderer was so desperately trying to get rid of."

So began a trial that is expected to last at least three weeks and involve about 50 prosecution witnesses.

Jackson, an unemployed ex-convict who is now 30, is charged with first-degree murder, sexual battery with a deadly weapon, arson and grand theft.

There are no eyewitnesses. Tran, who was among thousands of Vietnamese "boat people" who made their way to America after the Vietnam War, was jogging in the dark at 5:30 a.m. near the St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church on County Road 579 in Seffner when she was attacked.

Jackson lived about 100 yards from her trailer in the Grand View Mobile Home Park. He has denied knowing her.

In Monday's opening statements, Jackson's attorneys did not detail their defense for jurors.

But before the trial, attorney Greg Hill told the judge that Tran's widowed husband could make "a viable, alternative suspect."

Months after the murder, Tran's husband cut ties with his three sons. But he has never been charged with a crime.

On Monday, prosecutor Harmon described painstaking detective work — and a bit of luck — that led to Jackson's arrest.

After grass cutters found Tran's bloodied clothing at the Catholic church, Hillsborough sheriff's deputies set up a traffic stop on County Road 579, hoping to find motorists who had seen something.

It produced no leads. But when a tired detective stopped by a nearby BP station for a cold drink, he met a clerk who said she had heard about the murder from a frequent customer named "Kenny."

The customer talked about a stolen van and a spot in Gibsonton where the van was found on fire, details that hadn't yet been released.

"That is how the case broke," Harmon said.

Detectives tracked Jackson, who had recently finished a four-year prison sentence for grand theft, to the small Panhandle town of Carrabelle, where he had moved a few days after Tran's body was found.

In four hours of taped interviews that jurors will hear, Jackson denied any involvement.

But he allowed the detectives to take a saliva DNA sample.

Harmon said the DNA matched a semen sample found in Tran's body.

Jackson was then brought back to Hillsborough.

Harmon portrayed Tran as a struggling mother who worked six days a week as a nail technician at the Brandon mall.

Her oldest son, 23, lived out of state, but her two youngest sons, ages 16 and 10, "were her entire life," Harmon said.

Her only time to walk or jog was at 5:30 a.m.

Harmon told jurors that Jackson was waiting for her, in a van he had stolen from a nearby auto parts store.

Defense attorney Jennifer Spradley did not respond directly to the accusations in her opening statement, but urged jurors not to let the horrific nature of Tran's death keep them from objectively evaluating the evidence.

"You are not to base your verdict on sympathy," she said.

John Barry can be reached at (813) 226-3383 or jbarry@tampabay.com.

Trial opens in 2007 rape and murder of Seffner mother of three 10/15/12 [Last modified: Monday, October 15, 2012 10:53pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. Encounters: Trial by storm for a rookie principal

    K12

    DUNEDIN — When he nodded off to sleep, the hallway lights outside Michael Vasallo's office were on, so the sudden darkness woke him.

    The glow of his desk phone dimmed.

    Michael Vasallo, right, the first-year principal at Dunedin Highland Middle School, talks with the school's head plant operator Clint Case near the back-up generator on campus. The generator failed just as Hurricane Irma passed through Pinellas County, making for a stressful night. The experience made Vasallo long to return to his regular job, educating middle schoolers. [COLEEN WRIGHT   |   Times]


  2. Who is in charge during a hurricane? Hillsborough County and Tampa still can't agree

    Hurricanes

    TAMPA — Who has the authority to order an evacuation during a hurricane?

    Mayor Bob Buckhorn says he has evacuation authority.
  3. Gators rally past Kentucky, streak hits 31

    Blogs

    LEXINGTON, Ky. — For the second week in a row, Florida found itself storming the field in a game that came down to the last second. A 57-yard field-goal attempt by Kentucky kicker Austin MacGinnis came just a few feet short of making history and snapping a 30-year losing streak, as the No. 20 Gators escaped a …

    Florida wide receiver Brandon Powell (4) scores a touchdown during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Kentucky, Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017, in Lexington, Ky.
  4. Pen makes it way too interesting as Rays hang on for 9-6 win

    Blogs

    A couple of home runs provided the news pegs of the night for the Rays, but it was more topical to talk about what nearly happened as they hung on for a 9-6 win over the Orioles.

    Lucas Duda's three-run homer in the third inning was the Rays' record-breaking 217th of the season, as well as his …

  5. An attempt to project what Rays will look like in 2018

    The Heater

    BALTIMORE — We know what the Rays look like this year: a team that had enough talent but too many flaws, in construction and performance, and in the next few days will be officially eliminated from a wild-card race it had a chance to win but let slip away.

    Adeiny Hechavarria, high-fiving Lucas Duda, seems likely to be brought back.