And Justice for All …
July 18, 2013
In Brandy’s March 8 post, she related the story of our first advocacy victory. Brandy described how she and I got our law school clinic to drop its civil rights representation of a notorious criminal our fellow law students seemed to know nothing about. “Who is Charles Ng?” they asked.
I’m gonna tell you who Charles Ng is, and I’m gonna tell you why I was so disgusted with our young classmates for not knowing. This is a long, gruesome story that you may not want to read. I’ve toned down the details, but it’s the details that caused my disgust.
In the summer of 1984, people around the City started to vanish into thin air. The San Francisco Police’s Missing Persons Unit appealed to the public for help. Long time residents said it was like Zodiac killings all over again. I was a student at San Francisco State University then, so I remember the fear that was palpable in the air.
Cable television was still an anomaly then. It was rare to know someone who had cable. CNN was the only 24 hours news channel, but it did not have then the ubiquitous market penetration it has now. Print journalism still reigned. If you wanted the news, you read the paper.
Each and everyone one of these sudden, unexplained disappearances was front page news. For days. The first headline grabbing story was about the Dubs family.
Husband Harvey Dubs, 30, wife Deborah, 33, and 18 month Sean disappeared from their San Francisco home on July 25 after two men came to buy used video duplicating equipment Harvey had advertised in the Penny Saver (which was then the print equivalent of Craigslist). Deborah was on the phone with a friend when their doorbell rang. She got off the phone so she and her husband could sell the equipment. They were never seen again.
Others in San Francisco subsequently went missing:
Paul Cosner, 39, was a used car salesman who never came back from a November 2 test drive. Before he left, he told his girlfriend that he was meeting a weird looking, bearded, obese man who wanted to test drive a 1980 Honda Prelude.
Clifford Peranteau, 23, disappeared from a Haight Street dive called the Rocking Robin shortly after winning a $400 Super Bowl bet. The bartender reported that Clifford and his coworker, Charles Ng, left the bar to celebrate Clifford’s winning bet, and the 49’s victory over the Dolphins, 38 to 16.
Drummer Jeff Gerald, 25, spent a lot of time on the road with his band Crash and Burn. When he was home, though, he worked at Dennis Moving Service with Charles Ng. On February 24, 1985, Jeff vanished after helping Ng move some furniture.
The next summer, the mystery of these disappearances came into focus in front page, above the fold, banner news headlines that told a strange and macabre story as it unfolded.
On June 2, 1985, a hardware store clerk spotted an Asian man shoplifting a bench vise. The police were called and the clerk followed the man to the parking lot, where the clerk saw the man put the vise in the trunk of a 1980 Honda Prelude. The Asian man ran off before police arrived, but the clerk was able to detain the car’s driver – an obese, middle aged, bearded man who stayed behind to pay for the vise.
South San Francisco Police Officer, Daniel Wright responded.
Officer Wright inspected the car and found not only the vise, but also a loaded .22 revolver with a silencer attached. When Officer Wright ran the license plate, he found it was assigned to a Buick. When Officer Wright ran the .22’s serial number, he found it was registered to someone named Robin Stanley. The man who was being detained then gave Officer Wright his driver’s license, which was that of a 26 year old San Diego resident named Robin Stapley.
Officer Wright arrested the man for owning the illegal silenced handgun.
During their interrogation of this obese, middle aged, bearded suspect, police discovered that the Honda was registered to a Mr. Paul Cosner. When the police made this discovery, the suspect went pail and said, “My friend’s name is Charlie Chitat Ng. Chitat, pronounced ‘Cheetah’. Ng pronounced ‘Ing’.”
The suspect told Officer Wright that his real name was Leonard Lake. He then took two cyanide capsules, which he had taped under the lapel of his shirt, and swallowed them. Leonard Lake went into immediate convulsions and collapsed.
Further inspection of the Honda Leonard Lake was driving revealed bloodstains, shell casings, and a bullet hole. The glove compartment was stuffed with bank and credit card statements from numerous other people, including a utility bill with an address in Calaveras County, 150 miles east of San Francisco in the Sierra Nevada foothills.
That address turned out to be a cabin near the town of San Andreas. The next day, San Francisco Police, and the Calaveras County Sheriff Department, went to the cabin. What they discovered would shock these veteran law enforcement officers.
When police arrived at the cabin, they found bullet holes in the walls and floors, and blood stains on the living room ceiling. The living room contained a television and video duplicating equipment, from which all the serial numbers had been scratched off. In the master bedroom, police found a four-poster bed bolted to the floor. Electrical cords were tied to each of its posts. The mattress was covered with dried blood stains. A 250-watt floodlight was attached to the wall. The dresser contained an assortment of bloodstained lingerie.
Outside of the cabin, police found an incinerator with thick fireproof walls, and a cinder block structure built into a hillside that police referred to as the bunker. Around the bunker, they saw a long ten feet wide trench. Officers could see pieces of clothing and traces of lye poking through its surface.
Officers returned the following day with a search warrant for the bunker, and with cadaver dogs to help them search the rest of the property. The landlord of the neighboring property told deputies that his tenants – Lonnie Bond, 27, Brenda O’Connor, 19 and their infant son, Lonnie, Jr. – had disappeared a few weeks earlier. He also said that a friend of theirs, Robin Stapley, had been staying with them at the time of their disappearance. It took a locksmith a full twenty-four hours to open the bunker.
Inside the bunker, police found a twenty-foot by twelve-foot workshop. Bloodstained hand and power tools hung on a plywood wall next to a workbench. Attached to the bench was a broken vise. Detectives later discovered that the plywood tool rack was a door to a smaller room.
Inside that room was a double bed, a bookcase and a reading lamp. Hidden behind the bookcase, between books on explosives and chemicals, was a small soundproofed window. A military night vision scope was nearby. A “Dennis Moving Service” shirt and hat was on the floor. On one wall was a wooden plaque with the words “Operation Miranda” carved into it.
On the bookshelf, police found “The Collector” by John Fowles. This 1963 novel tells the story of a non desrcript, socially awkward bureaucrat who collects butterflies. He is obsessed with a pretty art student named Miranda. After he wins money in a “football” pool, he kidnaps Miranda and keeps her locked in his cellar, where he hopes that she will fall in love with him. After Miranda eventually dies in captivity, the protagonist decides to kidnap another woman and try again.
Police found Leonard Lake’s diary, in which he described how he and Ng had selected, raped, and murdered their victims. It also described how he planned to build a series of bunkers across the country – complete with supplies, weapons and female sex-slaves to repopulate the world after a nuclear war.
The next day police found a door behind the bookcase that led to what they called “the hostage cell”, a three foot three inch wide by seven and a half feet long room with a six-foot ceiling room. Inside the cell was a bed, a chemical toilet, an air freshener and a water container. The window was “two-way” glass. Police later discovered that the occupants of the first room could hear any sounds coming from the smaller room.
On the fifth day, police found skeletal remains that had been sawed into sections, then burned. They also found Robin Stapley’s check book, jewelry, credit cards, driver’s licenses, wallets and a videotape marked “M. Ladies Kathy/Brenda.”
The videotape showed a young woman, later identified as Kathy Allen, 18, chained to a chair and forced at gunpoint to perform a striptease for Lake and Ng. Police surmised that Kathy was lured to the site by Lake, who told her that her boyfriend, Michael Sean Carroll, had been shot. Michael Carroll was a former cellmate of Charles Ng’s at the U.S. Penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas.
The second victim on the tape was Lake’s next-door neighbor, Brenda O’Connor. In the tape, Brenda begs for information regarding her baby. Police believe that her husband, Lonnie. and their baby were murdered by Lake and Ng before the tape was even made. Later in the tape, Brenda’s resolve breaks down and she succumbs.
The search uncovered the bodies of seven men, three women, two baby boys and forty-five pounds of bone fragments. Most of the bodies had been cut up, burnt and scattered around the site, making identification impossible. Personal property belonging to the deceased or missing, however, suggested that as many as twenty-five people may have been murdered.
Far from this bunker of horrors, on the fifth day of the search, doctors switched off Leonard Lake’s life support. He died within seconds. Now one suspect was dead and one was still on the run.
The FBI later determined that Ng fled San Francisco the day he failed to steal the bench vise. According to the FBI, Ng first flew to Chicago under the name Mike Kimoto, then four days later went to Detroit to walk into Canada. On Saturday, July 6, 1985, Calgary Metropolitan Police arrested Ng for robbery, attempted robbery, possession of a firearm and attempted murder.
Shoplifting continued to be his undoing. Two Calgary security guards caught Ng shoplifting groceries. Ng shot one of them in the hand before they overpowered Ng and took him into custody.
This triggered a whole new legal struggle. Under the terms of a 1976 extradition treaty with the U.S., Canada refused to extradite Charles Ng back to the United States if doing so would subject him to a death sentence. Ng was convicted to four-and-a-half years on the Calgary shoplifting and assault charges.
During his Canadian sentence, Ng spent most of his time studying American law and doodling on his cell walls. Meanwhile, the United States Justice Department remained engaged in a pitched extradition battle with Canada. Back in California, police officials continued to identify the bodies of victims whom Charles Ng and Leonard Lake were suspected of having brutally assaulted and murdered.
Finally, on September 26, 1991, and a full decade after Ng completed his Canadian sentence, Canada agreed to send Ng back to California.
His trial was to be in San Andreas, California, in the county where the crimes were committed, but the little Calaveras County Jail was not designed to hold a violent international escape risk like Charles Ng. Ng was instead held at the California Department of Corrections prison in Folsom to await trial. From this prison cell, working with his court appointed attorneys, Ng launched a legal battle to do everything he possible could to delay his own day in court.
First, he filed legal complaints alleging that the State of California was violating his constitutional rights. He cited cruel and inhuman treatment for everything from bad food to car sickness. One complaint in particular went into excruciating detail about the motion sickness he suffered during the 50 mile trip through the Sierra foothills he had to make for pre-trial hearings in Calaveras County.
Ng further delayed by firing his attorneys. According to him, they were all incompetent. Ng consistently used his next court appointed lawyer to file malpractice suits against his last. Each suit created another barrier between Ng and a speedy trial.
Finally, Ng wanted his trial moved from Calaveras County, arguing he could not get a fair trial there. His lawyers argued this issue before the California Supreme Court five times. At last, on April 8, 1994, they prevailed. Charles Ng’s trial headed south to Orange County.
At that time Orange County was bankrupt and unable to bear his trial costs. The state of California eventually agreed to pay Orange County any costs incurred, which was no small thing. Before the actual trial even began, Ng appeared before six different judges, generated over six tons of forensic evidence and legal documents, and racked up court costs approaching $10 million.
It was at this point that Brandy and I came in. All of this information was public knowledge. Why our law school classmates didn’t know any of this was beyond me. Young? Naive? Both?
To their sympathetic claims that Charles Ng had been denied the right to speedy trial and treated in a way tantamount to cruel and unusual, Brandy and I argued that evidence to the contrary was literally under their noses. We were sitting in a room filled with boxes marked “Ng” that contained copies of the massive evidence his case had produced, including information about the Ng case that was never made public: Charles Ng was kept in solitary confinement because he was considered highly dangerous and an extreme flight risk.
Ng was a black belt in three different marshall arts who joined the Marines (despite being a Hong Kong national) and became known for being something of a ninja.
Arrested for stealing weapons from the Kaneoha Marine Base in Hawaii, Ng escaped from the military jail by squeezing through a fourteen inch by fourteen inch window that was ten feet off the otherwise empty holding room floor. Ng then made his way to California, where he was soon captured again and sent to Leavenworth. Sadly, none of the killings in Calaveras County would have likely happened had Ng been deported after his release from Leavenworth, but the Marines did not discover that Ng was not a U.S. citizen until it was much too late.
Determined not to let facts deter them, our fellow student lawyers, earnestly committed to civil rights, journeyed to the Orange County Jail to interview Charles Ng. That is when he developed an attraction to our civil rights clinic director. He sent his tokens of affection for her to our clinic office: anatomically correct pornographic origami figures – a man and woman – that could be manipulated to perform coitus. These paper dolls, which represented Ng an our clinic director, were the final piece of evidence Brandy and I needed to make our case to the dean.
The law school clinic dropped Ng’s case shortly after our meeting with the dean.
A year later, in October 1998, thirteen years after the crimes were discovered, Ng’s criminal trial finally began. It lasted eight months but it took the jury only a few hours to convict.
Turned out, Ng’s creative expression was his own demise. Ever the artist, Ng drew cartoons of the crime scenes on his jail cell wall. These cell wall doodles were shown to the jury as an admission of guilt. Ng’s doodles depicted scenes that were never released to the press, only someone with intimate knowledge of the crimes could have known. That, along with the videotapes of victim torture, were all the jury needed to convict.
Charles Ng was sentenced to death for the murder of six men, three women and two baby boys.
His trial cost California tax payers $14 million. The extradition and pretrial appeals cost the U.S. tax payers another $6 million. Ng now sits on death row, where his legally required death sentence appeals could cost another $10 million but those appeals are on hold for now. A federal court order has blocked action on all of California’s death sentences, giving Charles Ng what he denied his victims – a chance to live out his life naturally. How’s that for justice.