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28 years after stabbing at Salt Lake dance, killer sent to prison

SALT LAKE CITY — Twenty-eight years ago, a young Utahan originally from Laos was stabbed to death by a member of his own community.

On Friday, his killer was finally sentenced to prison, bringing to an end a case that dragged on longer than 26-year-old Youthaloth Oudanonh had been alive.

Even as Vienphet Sundara was ordered to serve up to life behind bars on a conviction of murder Friday, he maintained his innocence, requesting a public defender to argue his appeal.

"All I know is I'm innocent. I don't care what people say," a shackled Sundara told the judge.

Salt Lake prosecutor Matthew Janzen called Sundara's decision to stab and kill his foe nearly three decades ago "ridiculous."

Sundara attacked Oudanonh at a dance at 120 W. 1300 South on May 19, 1991, stabbing him in the back, shoulder and neck as payback for punching his brother in the face at a wedding, Janzen said.

"For 25 years, they didn't know who killed their child and their brother and their friend. And he continues to fail to take responsibility," Janzen said.

The night of the killing, Oudanonh stumbled between cars before a security officer spotted him. He later died at a hospital.

His attorney, Brenda Viera, requested probation instead of prison, noting her client had a domestic violence case in 2011 but no other criminal history. Before his arrest, Sundara returned to Laos often to take care of his ailing father and married a woman there, she said. He worked a construction job in the U.S. and sent money home.

"He supported his family and he tried to pretty much live a blameless life," Viera said.

Third District Judge Todd Shaugnessy ordered Sundara to serve at least five years and up to life in the Utah State Prison under Utah law at the time of the crime. Guidelines now recommend a minimum of 15 years.

A short time after the attack, police stopped a car with Sundara and two other men inside at the 900 South on-ramp to I-15. All three men had been at the dance, police said, and they spotted blood on Sundara's hands, face and clothing and a bloody knife was found inside the vehicle.

The men were booked into jail for investigation of murder, but they were released a few days later after denying any knowledge of the stabbing. Investigators said they had too little evidence to charge them with the killing. Even though a crowd of people witnessed the incident, no one would admit to it, frustrating police officers.

The case languished for more than two decades until investigators reexamined the case and put together enough evidence to support criminal charges, with help from advances in technology and a federal grant. Detectives tested evidence for DNA and found the blood on the men's clothing matched that of Oudanonh.

Federal funding provided by the National Institute of Justice helped cover the cost for testing of the possible genetic link.

Investigators eventually tracked down Sundara in Oklahoma City. Salt Lake police interviewed him again, and he initially said no fight had occurred at the dance 25 years ago, according to earlier testimony in the case. When a detective told Sundara that blood on his clothing from that night matched the victim's, he said a kind of "rumble" or "gang fight" broke out, and he may have been spattered with blood as he tried to get away.

Someone at the dance must have thrown the knife into his car before he left, he explained, after first saying it may have been left there from a fishing trip.

In April, a jury returned the guilty verdict against Sundara after less than two hours of deliberation.

The other two men involved in the killing took plea deals.

Hoomphanh Vanvilay pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of manslaughter, a second-degree felony, as part of a plea bargain with prosecutors in which he agreed to testify against Sundara. Shaugnessy suspended a prison term last year and ordered him to three years of probation, court records show.

Sundara's brother Viengkeo Sundara pleaded no contest to manslaughter last year after prosecutors acknowledged that his memory had degraded over time. A warrant for his arrest has been issued after he violated terms of his probation, court records show.

Outside the courtroom on Friday, Sakdaded Oudanonh said he felt relieved and at peace now that his brother's killer is headed to prison. But he noted many in his family have grown old or passed away as they awaited closure.

"We're happy that it's justice," he said.