The woman charged with arson and murder in the deaths of two Kansas City firefighters gave inconsistent information to investigators and, on one point, appears to have been untruthful, according to testimony Tuesday in her trial.
Thu Hong Nguyen, 46, allegedly ignited flammable liquid in the storeroom of her nail salon, starting a fire that destroyed a three-story building in the 2600 block of Independence Boulevard on Oct. 12, 2015. Firefighters John Mesh and Larry Leggio were killed when the eastern wall of the building collapsed.
A former electrical engineer for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives testified Tuesday that evidence from electric circuit panels at the building is consistent with the origin of the blaze being at the back of the nail salon.
The bureau interviewed Nguyen for more than six hours two weeks after the fire, some of which was conducted with the aid of an interpreter.
She insisted that her boyfriend, Nhat Pham, had been with her and an employee to close up the salon shortly after 7 p.m. on the day of the fire as he always was. But witnesses and surveillance video indicate she and the employee were alone and that Nguyen was the last one out of the shop. Callers to 911 began reporting smoke shortly after that.
Nguyen said she and Pham then drove separately to her home on St. John Avenue. But FBI special agent Ryan Williams testified that cell phone records from T-Mobile US Inc. show a flurry of calls between Nguyen’s phone and Pham’s phone from 7:30 p.m. to 8:06 p.m. that night when he was in the vicinity of the Argosy Casino and she was in the vicinity of her home.
It is not clear why Nguyen insisted Pham was with her.
“I am not a liar,” she told investigators at one point. “I am not a liar.”
Nguyen also told investigators that Pham owned the nail salon and she was just an employee who stood to gain nothing from insurance if the building burned.
“I have nothing to hide,” she said. “I get no benefit at all. The building is not mine. That shop is not mine.”
But Nguyen then told investigators she and Pham split the $20,000 cost to buy the salon and that she paid the one employee in cash. She said she did not want her name on the title because she would lose eligibility for food stamps.
She said Pham shared an insurance payout for water damage to the salon when firefighters were called in January 2015 to a fire in a vacant apartment directly above the salon.
Nguyen also said an insurance company paid out $20,000 to $30,000 after a fire at a nail salon where she worked in Lee’s Summit in 2013. She said that shop was in her son’s name. She is also charged with arson in that case.
On the day she was interviewed, Nguyen was also read her Miranda rights and was given a polygraph test. The results of that test were not entered into evidence at the trial.
Earlier Tuesday, Michael Keller, a former senior electrical engineer for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, testified the fire caused wire insulation to heat up and trip circuits in the building, a phenomenon called arc melting.
The electrical panel boxes were at the rear of the salon and the meters were on the outside of the building directly north of the salon.
Data from the electrical smart meters indicate the fire caused power to be cut off to 11 apartments on the upper two floors of the building by 7:17 p.m. the night of the fire.
Defense attorney Molly Hastings pointed out that the “Open” sign in the window of the nail salon remained on for several minutes after that, according to surveillance video. That indicates the origin of the fire could have been somewhere other than the salon, Hastings said. Power to the salon would have gone out sooner if that’s where the fire had started, she said.
But Keller said a fire in the storeroom of the salon, where flammable liquids were stored, would have risen quickly to the ceiling and traveled laterally through the space between the ceiling and the floor above to reach the electrical panel boards for the apartments. For a brief time, that would have spared the electrical panel for the salon, which was lower.
Nguyen has said she bought several bottles of acetone and isopropyl alcohol on the day of the fire and kept them in the storeroom of the salon.