It was a simple dispute over 20 bucks and a game of pool.
But amid the tension bubbling up at Malina's Sports Bar that morning last June, it was enough to get Vone Moua killed.
On Tuesday, eight months after the 45-year-old St. Paul bar owner was fatally shot at the pub he ran in the city's Frogtown neighborhood, one of two men accused in his death testified that he pulled the trigger on the handgun used to shoot Moua in the head.
But even as Cheng Vang, 23, pleaded guilty in Ramsey County District Court to second-degree murder and two counts of second-degree attempted murder for killing Moua and wounding two other men that morning, he disputed important details of what allegedly happened.
At one point Tuesday, under questioning from prosecutor Dawn Bakst, Vang testified through an interpreter that he shot Moua in the head from a distance of 4 feet after Moua and two other men strangled him as they removed him from the bar.
But Bakst wasn't buying Vang's story.
Did you press the handgun to Moua's head? she asked.
"I did not," Vang said through an interpreter.
But Moua's wound and the presence of gunpowder suggested that the muzzle was pressed into his skin, Bakst argued.
Vang backed off, saying that he would not dispute the medical examiner's findings.
Later, under questioning from his attorney, Patricia Hughes, Vang admitted that he saw autopsy photos that showed what could be the imprint of a gun muzzle on Moua's head.
Heated words, shoving match
Moua, who was also a social worker, owned and operated the bar with his wife at 693 Dale St. N. for at least 10 years.
According to a criminal complaint, the shooting took place early the morning of June 9 after Moua told Vang's brother-in-law, Yia Her, that he couldn't continue playing pool after closing time and refused to refund his money.
Her left the bar, but later returned, pounding on a locked door. Moua then gave a waitress permission to open the door to Her and Vang, the complaint said.
After words were exchanged, Moua and Her got into a shoving match. Other bar employees and customers joined in and pushed Her to the door. At that point, the complaint said, witnesses said Vang shot Moua in the head.
Vang testified Tuesday that he and his brother-in-law went to the bar around midnight.
He said he later left but returned when Her called him about 2:15 a.m. and asked him to come back to the bar with his handgun, which Vang kept in his car.
Vang testified that Her and Moua argued over the $20 that Her had paid to use a pool table.
He said he got involved in the dispute when Moua and two other men tried to remove him and his brother-in-law from the bar.
Vang also testified that he not only fired at Moua, but also at a second man, who was struck in the left armpit, with the bullet lodging in his neck. He also said that he shot at a third man, wounding him in the neck.
None of Vang's victims was armed.
Bakst disputed Tuesday whether Vang was, indeed, strangled by Moua and two other men and forcibly removed from the bar. She said police did not find any injuries on Vang consistent with strangulation.
Vang again backed off that part of his story, saying he would not dispute those findings, either.
Moua's family, which sat in on the plea and listened to Vang's testimony, declined to comment Tuesday.
Vang is scheduled to be sentenced on April 7.
His plea agreement allows his attorney to seek a sentence of no less than 25 and 1/5 years, which includes concurrent sentences on all three counts. It allows Bakst, the prosecutor, to pursue consecutive sentences for up to about 46 years in prison.
Her, 27, of Oakdale, is charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder and two counts of second-degree attempted murder. He is scheduled to stand trial in March.