By Paul Thompson
Tearful testimony and a dramatic health scare marked the sentencing hearing of arsonist of Thu Hong Nguyen on Friday, September 21, which concluded with the announcement of a 74-year prison term for the woman convicted of causing a deadly blaze at her Independence Avenue nail salon on October 12, 2015.
The fire killed KCFD firefighters John Mesh and Larry Leggio, while severely injuring fellow firefighters Dan Werner and Chris Anderson.
Judge Joel P. Fahnestock handed down consecutive 30-year sentences for the 2nd Degree Murders of Mesh and Leggio, along with consecutive seven-year sentences for the 2nd Degree Assaults of Werner and Anderson. Arson counts related to the deadly October 12, 2015 fire, along with a separate 2013 Lee’s Summit fire, will be served concurrently.
Nguyen had been found guilty of six charges – including two counts of Murder in the Second Degree – in July of 2018, following a five-day bench trial.
At one point during the sentencing hearing, Nguyen began audibly gasping for breath, prompting Fahnestock to clear the room while paramedics rushed in with a stretcher to administer treatment. Though there was some thought that the sentencing may have to be delayed, the paramedics ultimately left the courtroom without the defendant, who managed to make it through the rest of the proceedings without incident.
In the end, the 74-year sentence was justice three years in the making for those most affected by the tragic Independence Avenue fire.
“We’re just happy that the day is over with and we’ve got a verdict that we’re satisfied with,” said Jim Mesh, John’s brother. “It was proven in court that this individual did what she was accused of doing. Unfortunately we had to lose John and Larry, but now she has paid the price for those actions on that night, and we’re very satisfied with the outcome.”
Fahnestock’s sixth-floor chamber, located in Division 9 of the Jackson County Courthouse, was packed to the brim for the hearing, as friends and family of deceased firefighters John Mesh and Larry Leggio waited in anxious anticipation for Nguyen’s sentencing. Other notable attendees included Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker, Kansas City, Missouri Mayor Sly James, KCPD Chief of Police Rick Smith, current KCFD Fire Chief Gary Reese and his predecessor, Paul Berardi.
Nguyen staggered into the courtroom pale and beleaguered – a marked departure from her cool demeanor during the bench trial. By this time, prosecutors had already issued a memorandum asking Fahnestock for a strong 89-year sentence.
The crowd waited for roughly 20 minutes – beginning with soft, nervous chatter before evolving into a near-silent anticipation – before Fahnestock entered the courtroom to begin the proceedings.
From there, witnesses began tearfully describing how their lives have been irrevocably altered by the October 12, 2015 blaze. Jim Mesh began the witness testimony by pleading for closure.
“On the night of October 12, her actions gave my brother John a death sentence,” Mesh said of Nguyen. “She has created a void in my family that can never be filled.”
Alyssa Mesh, the 19-year-old daughter of John Mesh, read an emotional letter penned by her older sister, Adriana. In the letter, Adriana described the shock of hearing the tragic news about her father.
“He never got hurt, or sick, or anything,” Alyssa read. “He was a rock; he was bulletproof; he was always okay. He always took good care of himself. He was a superhero, the world’s best dad.”
Mesh continued reading her sister’s words, which described how she could hardly stand hearing from everyone about how sorry they were about the loss of her dad. To the Mesh family, the reality was beyond unfair.
“She made it out safely,” Alyssa read. “The people who were hurt? The heroes; the firemen.”
Missy Leggio – the widow of Larry – had her own strong words about Nguyen, who prosecutors revealed during the trial had accrued $268,000 from 24 insurance payments, related to 16 separate claims over a seven-year time period.
“It’s obvious how she was earning a living, and it obviously wasn’t from giving manicures and pedicures,” said Leggio, who appealed Fahnestock for lengthy consecutive sentences. “I don’t think you can change a person like that.”
Leggio recounted her perspective from the night of the fire, beginning with her arrival at the scene, and her frantic attempt to account for Larry.
“All I wanted to do was get a glimpse of him, make eye contract, and tell him I love him,” Leggio said through tears.
Leggio also described in stark detail the fate of her husband.
“My husband was literally crushed from head to toe,” she said. “I am so thankful that his death was considered instant and that he felt none of it.”
Though Chris Anderson didn’t testify during the hearing, he did provide a written statement that was included in the prosecution’s 31-page memorandum. Anderson described the heartbreak of watching his friends and colleagues pulled out of the rubble while he suffered from a litany of his own injuries, which have led to a dependence on alcohol and medications in an effort to suppress the many resulting symptoms.
“I watched as two of my brothers’ lifeless and broken bodies were pulled from beside me, and another unburied and transported to the hospital with significant injuries,” Anderson wrote.
Werner also provided a statement ahead of the sentencing hearing. He described how he continues to live with physical aches and pains, though that isn’t the worst of it.
“It’s the nightmares that still come and go; it’s the restless nights and the unexplainable waves of depression that come on without warning. It’s the memories and sadness I feel when I think about the two friends that were lost that day,” Werner wrote. “And for what? This senseless crime has affected so many lives in so many different ways.”
The only witness brought forth by the defense was Davis Nguyen, the defendant’s son. Nguyen disputed that the fires at his mother’s businesses were beneficial, stating that the reality was that “those bits and pieces that were used and exploited were giant obstacles” for his family.
“I ask myself this all the time,” Nguyen added. “Why is this gray cloud just hovering over us?”
It was after this testimony that Thu Hong Nguyen suffered the apparent health scare, causing Fahnestock to temporarily vacate the packed court room. After everyone returned, the prosecution proceeded with their closing statement, which was delivered by assistant prosecutor Dan Nelson.
Before getting into the plight of the firefighters, Nelson pointed out that the residents of the apartments above Nguyen’s business were placed in grave danger by the blaze. Though those tenants escaped with their lives, they lost all of their belongings, their pets, and their homes.
“This defendant also imperiled the lives of everyone in the 16 apartments above her shop,” Nelson said. “These were working-class people, and unlike the defendant, they had no insurance.”
Nelson added that Nguyen was motivated by money, suggesting that she would continue to pose a danger to the general public if she was not incarcerated.
“These insurance proceeds allowed the defendant to keep her lifestyle intact, including the Lexus that she drove,” Nelson said. “(The nail salons) were worth more to her burned than operating, and the State has proved that.”
A lengthy prison sentence, he argued, would serve as a deterrent for anyone considering this type of insurance fraud in the future, while also providing justice to the families of those affected by the deadly blaze.
“In considering your sentence, please consider their pain,” Nelson said. “She should not receive any benefit for being lucky before, merely because she was not caught and punished earlier.”
Defense attorney Molly Hastings declared early in her closing statement that there was no evidence presented during Nguyen’s bench trial that she intended to hurt or kill anyone.
“This was not a premeditated murder, but they are essentially asking for that kind of sentence,” Hastings said. “The truth is they never ask for sentences like this; not for a case absent of intent.”
In a defense that Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker later described as a step over the line, Hastings also suggested that the firefighter victims contributed to their own deaths by staying within the collapse zone in an effort the keep the flames from spreading to the neighborhood Snyder’s grocery store. She pointed to a 71-page report issued by the fire department which concluded, in part, that KCFD needed to do more to prevent firefighters from entering collapse zones when there is no risk of loss of life.
“This is not victim blaming; it is the truth,” Hastings said.
She concluded her statement by promising that she would continue fighting on behalf of her victim.
“My notice of appeal will be filed Monday.”