Sambo Nou, a Central High School graduate with a supportive family and a once-promising future, wept in court yesterday as he pleaded guilty to two counts of first-degree murder in the April 2007 stabbing deaths of two Cambodian women in their South Philadelphia apartment.
Nou, now 22, who worked in real estate and has two years of college, said he regretted killing his mother's friend, Soy Taing, 47, and Taing's roommate, Nimol Tep, 40, over a money argument.
"I sincerely apologize for the crimes I have committed," he said in a soft voice as he faced Common Pleas Judge Benjamin Lerner. He said he wished the victims' families could forgive him.
Sadness enveloped the quiet courtroom as five women, including Nou's mother, softly wept, and Nou's brothers, including his twin, somberly looked on.
The victims' families were not in court. Taing's family is in Cambodia. Tep has family in Cambodia and siblings in New York, Connecticut and California.
Reached by phone after the hearing, Tep's brother, Sunheang Tep, 53, of Rochester, N.Y., said he had not been aware that the guilty plea would be made.
"That's good news," he said when informed of the plea. "I'm just happy that justice has been served."
Assistant District Attorney Ed Cameron said outside the courtroom after the hearing that authorities believed Nou's financial distress had been caused by gambling.
Nou went to "Atlantic City frequently, causing him financial problems," the prosecutor said.
Asked if Nou had gambling problems, Nou's older brother, Thon Nou, said: "I don't know," before he was rushed into the elevator by other family members.
In a statement to police, Nou said he needed money to make a payment on a house closing.
Nou, of Jackson Street near 4th, lived a few blocks from the victims' apartment. He knew Taing, but did not know Tep.
At about 5 p.m. on April 25, 2007, he went to Taing's second-floor apartment on 7th Street near Jackson. Inside, he asked Taing if he could borrow $500. She said, "No," according to the statement.
Nou claimed Taing "took out a knife." He said he grabbed it and "first, I stabbed her stomach."
He said he "started to lose it a little" and was "just going crazy, stabbing, stabbing," according to the statement, partly read in court yesterday by Cameron.
Nou said Tep then came out of the bathroom and threw a pot or pan at him. He said he then started stabbing her with the knife in his hand, then with another.
He said he changed knives because the first one wasn't cutting "real good."
Describing Taing's injuries, Cameron said she was stabbed once in the heart, four times in her back, including in a lung and kidney, and had four superficial slash wounds on her neck.
Upon hearing this, Nou, his head and shoulders slumped forward, cried.
The prosecutor said Tep suffered three stab wounds in her chest cavity, with one entering her left lung; six stab wounds in her back; punctures to her abdomen, side and hip; and superficial slash wounds to her neck.
In the statement, which was read in full at Nou's preliminary hearing last year, Nou said he took a gold-chain necklace from Taing's room and a gold chain from Tep's neck before he fled.
In return for the guilty pleas, prosecutors agreed not to seek the death penalty against Nou. They also withdrew charges of robbery and possession of an instrument of crime.
The judge sentenced Nou to life in prison without parole.
Before he left the courtroom, Nou shook his attorney Fortunato "Fred" Perri Jr.'s hand and said farewell to his family with a hand salute to his forehead.
The victims, both Cambodian immigrants, had worked together at a clothing manufacturing company. Their bodies were discovered the morning after their slayings by a resident who lived above them.
In an interview at the door of the apartment two days after the murders, two of Tep's brothers, Sunheang and Sivhuot Tep, said their sister came legally to the United States in 2005 from Cambodia. She first lived with Sivhuot and his family near Bristol, Conn.
Nimol Tep moved to Philadelphia in early 2007 to earn more money and because the Connecticut suburbs were too quiet.
Sunheang said "the saddest thing" about his sister being murdered here was that their whole family had survived the "killing fields" period in Cambodia in the late 1970s when an estimated 1 to 2 million people died from starvation and disease or were executed under the regime of Khmer Rouge dictator Pol Pot.
Yesterday, Sunheang said that after his sister's body was cremated here, her ashes were taken back home to Cambodia in July for a proper funeral ceremony. It is customary there to have a ceremony about 100 days after a person's death, he said.
Her ashes were placed in a family tomb in their hometown in Kampong Cham province, about 60 miles northeast of the capital of Phnom Penh.
The brothers also had a funeral ceremony for Tep at a Buddhist temple here shortly after her death. Sunheang said Nou's parents "came in and apologized."
"They kneeled in front of us" and "I had to console his father," who was banging his head against the floor, Sunheang said.
Sunheang said that at that time, he already forgave Nou.
"The way I look at it, no matter how angry I was, no way you could change anything," he said. *