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Family, friends remember man gunned down; killer sentenced to 50 years to life

By Darrell Smith

dvsmith@sacbee.com

December 01, 2017 02:21 PM

UPDATED December 02, 2017 07:58 AM

The man who gunned down a patron of a south Sacramento cafe during a predawn Chinese New Year celebration in February 2015 was sentenced to 50 years to life in state prison Friday in Sacramento on murder and gun charges as the shooting victim’s grief-stricken family watched on.

Minkha Hoang Phan, 37, of Rancho Cordova sat calmly, his hands clasped at the defense table as tearful family and friends of Cheng Saeteurn recalled the morning they learned of the deadly shooting and the void left in its wake.

Saeteurn left a wife, an infant son and a daughter just weeks old when he was shot dead early Feb. 20, 2015, inside Cafe Monaco, a strip mall coffeehouse and bar near Stockton Boulevard and the 65th Street Expressway that sheriff’s detectives later said had been the site of an after-hours party. Witnesses said the cafe’s manager was trying to clear out patrons and close shop when shots rang out, felling Saeteurn, according to a sheriff’s report.

Witnesses soon tied Phan, a cafe employee, to the deadly shooting, saying the man known as “Buddha” fired the fatal shots as some 20 to 30 people fled for the parking lots. Sacramento County sheriff’s deputies arrested Phan days later on Feb. 23.

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On Friday, friends and family filled the rear rows of a fifth-floor courtroom at Sacramento County Courthouse. Many wore gray hooded sweatshirts emblazoned with the hashtag “JusticeforCheng.”

“Cheng was my best friend. He was a son, a brother, a friend, a husband, but most important, he was a father,” said Johnny Saeteurn, asking for the maximum sentence. “His daughter was only a month old. His son is too young to be able to remember him.”

Sister Rebecca Saeteurn read a letter from Cheng Saeteurn’s 13-year-old nephew at the Friday sentencing before Sacramento Superior Court Judge Sharon Lueras. The boy wrote that he was playing video games when older family members told him his uncle Cheng was gone.

“I tried to hold it all in. I thought about his son and his newborn daughter,” the letter read. “I cried an ocean and more. I’m still very angry but I hope I can find some peace.”

Phan sat in the quiet manner that earned his nickname listening to the emotional testimony, then insisted he was innocent, telling Lueras in an 11th-hour plea for a new trial that though he was armed, “killing was never on my mind.”

Lueras denied Phan’s request, but told him his attorney could file to appeal the ruling. Lueras sentenced Phan to 25 years to life for Saeteurn’s murder and a second 25-years-to-life term for using a gun to commit the crime.

“I don’t know how or what happened. Your (nick)name is ‘Buddha.’ You sat here in the same calm manner, but one man is dead at your hands, (you) left a devastated family. Because of that, there are consequences,” Lueras said before Phan was led from the courtroom.

Darrell Smith: 916-321-1040, @dvaughnsmith