Charles Chitat Ng Trial: 1998-99
Charles Chitat Ng Trial: 1998-99
Defendant: Charles Chitat Ng
Crimes Charged: Murder, kidnapping, unlawful restraint
Chief Defense Lawyers: Allyn Jaffrey, Carl C. Holmes, William Kelley
Chief Prosecutor: Sharlene Honnaka
Judges: Robert R. Fitzgerald, John J. Ryan
Place: Santa Ana, California
Date of Trial: October 26, 1998-February 24, 1999
SIGNIFICANCE: At stake was whether a truly monstrous criminal, who would almost certainly get the death penalty if convicted, could escape extradition by fleeing to Canada, which has no death penalty. This case established that he couldn't.
Acustomer in a South San Francisco hardware store on June 2, 1985, saw an Oriental-looking man stuff a $75 bench vise under his jacket and walk out. He told a clerk, who called the police and followed the man out. The shoplifter put the vise in the trunk of a car and, after glancing back, quickly walked away. The police arrived minutes later. In the car the clerk pointed out, they found a burly man who looked like an aging "hippy." The man said he didn't want any trouble and offered to pay for the vise. He said a friend of his, who was Chinese and didn't know any better, had stolen the vise.
But when the officers looked in the trunk, they found, besides the vise, a loaded pistol with a silencer. The car's license plate had been issued for a Buick owned by a Lonnie Bond. This car was a Honda. The driver showed them a driver's license issued to a Robin Stapley. The Honda's vehicle identification number was for a car owned by a Paul Cosner, a San Francisco auto dealer reported missing almost nine months before. The police took the driver to headquarters.
Further checks showed that Bond and Stapley were also missing. The driver admitted that his real name was Leonard Lake. His companion was named Charles Ng. Lake said he was thirsty and asked for a glass of water, a pen, and a piece of paper. He drank the water and on the paper wrote a note to his ex-wife, Claralyn Balasz: "I love you. Please forgive me. Please tell Mama, Fern and Patty I'm sorry." (Fern and Patty turned out to be Lake's sisters.) Then he passed out. He had taken two cyanide capsules with the water.
The police rushed Lake to a hospital, where he was put on life support. Meanwhile, they searched the car thoroughly. They found blood stains and bullet holes in the car, as well as a utility bill addressed to Claralyn Balasz in Wilseyville, California, a hamlet in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada range.
The Wilseyville Horror
Police checked the Wilseyville address and found a cabin Balasz's parents had purchased as a retirement home. Balasz did not live there. In the cabin they found Lake's belongings, including a 250-page diary. In it, Lake detailed his plans for surviving a nuclear holocaust: he'd build bunkers and stock them with food and weapons. He'd also capture young, nubile females to be his slaves. With them he'd repopulate the world. The cops also found evidence in the diary that he'd been doing his best to depopulate the world. They found human remains in shallow graves around the property. A few were complete. The first remains identified were those of a homeless man police believe had helped Lake and Ng build a cinderblock shack next to the cabin. Most were fragmentary: charred bits of bone no more than three inches long. Lake and Ng had chopped up bodies and burned them in an incinerator. The police dug up 45 pounds of bone fragments.
They also dug up a videotape showing two shackled young women being stripped and threatened by Lake and Ng. One was begging for her baby. Two of the bodies found were later identified as theirs. Behind a bookcase in the cinder block shack, police found a secret door to a torture chamber. In addition to handcuffs, leg irons, a whip, and other torture devices, the torture chamber contained a score of photos of naked young women.
Checking lists of missing persons, police found that at least 25 of them had known Lake or Ng. But it seemed later that many of the pair's victims were homeless people who had never been reported missing.
"Every time this guy [Lake] met somebody," said Calaveras County deputy Jim Stenquist, "they wound up gone." Ng was gone, too. So was Lake. Lake survived four days, alive, but brain dead. Then the hospital pulled the plug. Lake and Ng were the only two people who could explain the Wilseyville Horror.
"If Mr. Ng isn't caught," said Calaveras County coroner Terry Parker, "this is going to be impossible to solve."
Charles Ng Captured in Canada
Ng was caught. He was shoplifting again, this time in Calgary, Canada. A security guard grabbed him. Ng shot the guard in the hand, but another guard wrestled him down. He was convicted of robbery and assault and sentenced to 4 and one-half years in prison. Canadian authorities ruled that he'd have to finish his sentence in Canada before he could be extradited. Meanwhile, California authorities filed charges of murder and kidnapping against Ng. Digging at the cabin continued, with 11 more-or-less intact remains found in addition to the pile of bone fragments.
Ng spent his prison time studying Canadian and U.S. law. Son of a wealthy Hong Kong businessman, he had been expelled from several schools, including a private boarding school in England. He came to the United States but joined the Marines after a hit-and-run accident. He stole a number of guns from the Marine Corps, deserted, was caught but escaped from the marine brig. He met Lake, a former marine, through a survivalist magazine and moved in with him and Balasz.
The United States and Canada had an extradition treaty. Under it, neither country was obliged to extradite someone who might face the death penalty. At the time it was signed, Canada had the death penalty, but U.S Supreme Court decisions had made the death penalty almost impossible to apply in the United States. Since then, Canada had abolished the death penalty and the U.S. Supreme Court had relaxed its restrictions on executions. California again had the death penalty. If American authorities had guaranteed that Ng would not be executed, he could have been swiftly extradited. But with what was known of Ng's crimes, no California official would dare to give such a guarantee.
On October 26, 1989, Justice Minister Douglas C. Lewis of Canada said Ng would be extradited. Ng's Canadian lawyer, Donald MacLeod, said he'd fight extradition. The Ng extradition became a major civil rights case in Canada. Opponents maintained that the law forbade extraditing a person who could be executed as a result. The government said it had a choice, and with someone accused of Ng's crimes, the choice was not difficult. The fight went on up to Canada's Supreme Court. On September 26, 1991, the Court voted 4 to 3 to send Ng back. Within minutes, he was on a plane to California.
That was hardly the end of the story. Ng filed motion after motion from his cell. One was for a million dollar suit against his current defense attorneys. Another was to dispense with counsel and defend himself—a motion he withdrew within a week. He tried to sue the state over conditions of his imprisonment. The Ng case went to the California Supreme Court five times and involved a dozen judges.
Change of Venue
On April 8, 1994, Ng got a change of venue from Calaveras County, in Northern California's "Mother Lode" country, to Orange County, between Los Angeles and San Diego. A poll had shown that 98 percent of the population of Calaveras County was familiar with the case, and most of them thought Ng was guilty.
But soon after the change of venue, affluent Orange County went bankrupt as a result of financial mismanagement. Ng's lawyer, Allyn Jaffrey, a public defender, told Judge Robert Fitzgerald, "This is a case that will cost the public millions upon millions of dollars" that were not available. The case could not be tried in Orange County, she said. By this time, the murders were 10 years old. California attorney general Dan Lundgren demanded that the county try Ng. But there was no money. Eventually, the state agreed to pay all expenses. William Kelley, the public defender who was to try the case, said that with the volume of records involved, it would take the defense at least 2 and one-half years to prepare its case. There were 350 boxes of documents, containing 100,000 pages and weighing six tons.
When the trial began on October 26, 1998, Ng pleaded not guilty. He contended he was only helping Lake, and didn't know anything about the murders. Lake was the leader in everything, he said. A psychiatrist, Dr. Stuart Grassian, testified that Ng was "a classic dependent personality." But jurors also heard from Richard Carrazza, who was shot and saw his roommate murdered by Ng in a robbery that did not involve Lake. Shown the videotapes by Prosecutor Sharlene Honnaka, Ng contended the threats he made to the victims on tape were only bluffs.
On February 24, 1999, the jury deadlocked on one of the 12 murders Ng was charged with, but found him guilty of the other 11. They also found that the circumstances warranted the death penalty. On June 30, Ng was sentenced to death for the murder of six men, three women and two babies. By that time, the case had cost $6.6 million, making it the most expensive homicide prosecution—even including the O.J. Simpson case—in California history.
Suggestions for Further Reading
Harrington, Joseph, and Robert Burger. Justice Denied: The Ng Case, the Most Infamous and Expensive Murder Case in History. New York: Perseus Publishing, 1999.
Owens, Greg. The Shocking True Story of Charles Ng. New York: Red Deer Press, 2001.