Accused serial killer Charles Ng faces justice over 12 grisly murders

TOM FENNELL February 15 1999


Accused serial killer Charles Ng faces justice over 12 grisly murders

TOM FENNELL February 15 1999



Accused serial killer Charles Ng faces justice over 12 grisly murders

For the victims’ relatives watching in Courtroom 45, Charles Ng’s brutal jailhouse cartoons were almost too much to bear. The sketches, introduced as evidence as Ng’s gruesome murder trial drew to a close last week in Santa Ana, Calif., were drawn in an Alberta prison following his arrest in Calgary in 1985. Police across the continent had been desperately searching for Ng when he was captured. He was later charged with the sex-and-torture murders of 12 people at a remote mountain cabin north of San Francisco. Two of the victims were children, who were torn from the arms of their terrified mothers. In one of his drawings,

Ng depicted himself smashing a baby against a wall; in another he is shown cooking an infant in a wok.

Prosecutors said the chilling words Ng penned under the drawings provided a glimpse into the demonic mind behind the slayings.

“Daddy dies,” wrote Ng, “mommy cries, baby fries.”

Justice for the relatives of the dead has been painfully slow in coming. Hong Kong-born Ng, 38, a former U.S. marine, has been struggling to avoid a murder conviction and possible death sentence in California for almost 14 years. He spent five years fighting his extradition from Canada before he was finally returned in 1991. He then successfully delayed going to trial by raising dozens of procedural issues. When his trial finally began last October, the jury was told—by both sides—that Ng did not act alone. Investigators believe the mastermind behind the murders was Leonard Lake, also a former marine, who drafted an elaborate plan, code-named Operation Miranda, to kidnap women and force them to become his sex slaves. Lake, who lived at the isolated cabin where the murders occurred, cheated justice by committing suicide when he was arrested in 1985. But in their final appeal to the jury, prosecutors played a terrifying half-hour videotape that placed him at the centre of activity. In it, Ng and Lake torture two women in succession. “You can cry like the rest of them,” says Ng as he coldly slides a knife between the breasts of one of the victims and cuts off her brassiere, “but it won’t do you no good.”

Evidence like that was likely to weigh heavily in the minds of the

12-member jury, nine of whom are women, when they deliberated their verdict, expected this week. The video was reminiscent of the notorious tapes made by Canadian killers Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka. In one sequence, Kathleen Allen, one of the doomed women, is forced to dress in scanty lingerie as Lake photographs her; Ng gets a massage from her. In another, Lake is heard telling victim Brenda O’Connor that he has killed her boyfriend, Lonnie Bond, and is planning to give away her infant son, Lonnie Jr. When O’Connor protests about the child, Ng taunts the anguished woman, saying: “It’s better if he’s already dead, right?” Lake also makes it frightfully clear on the video what the two men want. ‘You’re going to wash for us, cook for us, f— for us,” says Lake. “It’s not much of a choice unless you have a death wish.”

Police believe that as many as 18 people, mostly from the San Francisco area, may have been murdered at Lake’s isolated cabin. The killings began in 1984 and ended only by chance on June 2, 1985, when Ng and Lake were caught stealing a vice from a San Francisco lumber store. Ng fled, but Lake was taken in by police. He asked for a glass of water and used it to wash down a cyanide pill he was carrying. His dying words to San Francisco police Det. Daniel Wright were: ‘You’re looking for Charles Ng.”

A receipt in Lake’s pocket led police to his home in Wilseyville, a remote community in the mountains 210 km north of San Francisco, where they discovered two bodies. Before they were done, investigators would collect 20 kg of charred bone fragments and teeth from other victims, some still unidentified. Inside the house, they found the torture video and Lake’s diary, in which he mapped out his sadistic plans. Even more chilling, police found a secret room in a concrete bunker that included a two-way mirror through which Lake could watch his victims suffer. “It was a killing field,” prosecutor Sharlene Honnaka told the jury. “A mass graveyard.”

An arrest warrant was immediately issued for Ng, who fled north with an ex-convict friend. Though he crossed the border at Detroit, he made his way to Calgary, where he was caught shoplifting. In the scuffle he shot a security guard in the hand, and when police arrived

they were surprised to find they had arrested one of America’s most wanted men.

The U.S. state department sought Ng’s extradition. But his lawyers appealed his case all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada, arguing that he should not be returned to a state that has the death penalty for murder. After the Supreme Court finally ruled against him, he was extradited to California in 1991 and charged with the murder of seven men, three women and two children. But his trial would be delayed for another seven years. The case had to be moved from San Francisco after authorities decided publicity surrounding the murders made it impossible to find an impartial jury. The venue was shifted to Orange County, south of Los Angeles, in 1996, but only after the state government agreed to cover the cost of prosecuting Ng—which has soared to more than $20 million. Ng also slowed the case by repeatedly dismissing his lawyers; at one point he even tried to represent himself.

Throughout the trial, prosecutors and the defence faced the same challenge—defining the relationship between Lake and Ng. Defence lawyers led by William Kelley, Orange County’s deputy public defender, argued that their client was a victim who had been manipulated by Lake. Ng himself, testifying against his lawyers’ wishes, said that while he may have done horrible things, and even helped Lake bury two bodies, he never actually killed anyone. But prosecutor Honnaka told the jury the two were bloodthirsty partners. Their relationship, she maintained, was “a union of intent—an evil bond.” And she noted that under state law, every principal participant in a crime is “equally guilty.” She declared: “You don’t have to be the triggerman.”

Ln their attempt to shift the blame, Ng’s lawyers painted a disturbing portrait of Lake and his twisted world. His father, a U.S. navy seaman, walked out on his young family. And when Lake was just 8, his mother also abandoned him after an argument, leaving him standing alone on a train platform as she left with her other children. Raised by his grandmother, Lake joined the U.S. marines when he was 18 and became an accomplished soldier with two tours of duty in Vietnam. But his first wife testified that shortly after they were married he became increasingly violent in their sexual life and she eventually left him. She told the court his favourite book was The Collector by John Fowles, the story of a loner who acts out his fantasy by abducting a young woman named Miranda and then holding her captive in his home. Hence the name Operation Miranda, Lake’s own plan to abduct women and hold them as sex slaves at his bunker in Wilseyville.

The male victims, prosecutors said, were killed and robbed to help finance the operation. The court was also told that Lake may even have killed his own brother, Donald, who disappeared after visiting Lake in Wilseyville, and used his identity at times. Ng is not charged in that death.

Before he moved to his chamber of horrors in the mountains, Lake managed a motel near San Francisco with his wife, Clarafyn Balazs— and it was there, prosecutors said, that he teamed up with Ng. A mutual friend in the military introduced Ng to Lake, who promptly hired him to work at the motel. The motel’s groundskeeper, Ernie Pardini, testified that from the outset Ng seemed to become Lake’s servant and that he seemed to hold Lake up as a father figure.

While Ng was working at the motel, he was arrested and jailed for stealing weapons from the military and being away from the marines without permission. The jury saw letters Ng received from Lake and Balazs while he was in prison, which included photographs showing the construction of the bunker in Wilseyville. Upon his release from jail in July, 1984, Ng phoned Balazs, who picked him up at the airport in San Francisco. That, Honnaka told the court, was when the killings began.

Despite her own close relationship with Lake—the pair divorced in 1982 but remained sexually intimate—Balazs received blanket immunity from prosecution in exchange for information on the grisly events. A teacher’s aide known as “Cricket,” she met Lake at a fair north of San Francisco in 1980 and the two became involved in pornographic photography. Jurors heard from half a dozen young women who testified that Balazs tried to pressure them into posing nude for Lake. Also entered as evidence, while the jury was absent, was a home sex tape in which Lake and Balazs are seen in bed flipping through a photo album of young women and casually discussing which ones they might entice to Wilseyville. Balazs, prosecutors said, owned two guns: a James Bond-style Walther PPK used in another murder not involving Ng, and a fully automatic machine gun with a silencer. She was also allowed to remove a large bag of her property from Lake’s home shortly after his death, which she told a friend to hide.

Due to complex legal manoeuvring, the jury never got to hear from Balazs. The prosecution chose not to call her—despite her seven years of police interviews—and the defence later blocked her testimony while focusing on a comment she allegedly made in 1985, saying she planned to pin it all on Ng. But in closing arguments, defence lawyers reminded the jury of Balazs’s intimate ties with Lake. “Cricket was not called as a witness because of the harm she could have done to their case,” said Ng attorney Lewis

Clapp. “She’s even got one of the murder weapons.”

Throughout the often brutal testimony, Ng, his face pasty from years in prison, remained impassive. Each day, he shuffled into court and took a seat between his two lawyers. Even when the damning torture videotapes were shown, Ng never glanced at the monitor. Ng’s lawyers had also insisted that he not take the stand. But just as they were preparing to deliver final arguments, Ng demanded to be allowed to testify. That gave prosecutors a chance to question him directly about the violent drawings and videotapes. During his incarceration in Edmonton, Ng met Maurice Laberge, a lifelong criminal, to whom he gave the cartoons. Laberge then turned them over to police and told them everything he knew about Ng in exchange for a lighter sentence. Released into the witness protection program, Laberge died last year in a car accident outside Calgary.

Ng, who attended private schools in Hong Kong and England when he was growing up, speaks in broken English but was articulate on the stand. He was shown a drawing titled “Slant’s Daycare” that depicted a woman leaving a day-care centre with the microwaved remains of a baby. But Ng said the drawings were meant as satirical comments on life in the prison. “This cartoon is a comment on the allegations and wild accusations against me,” he testified. “Inmates would taunt me—one of the things they told me was about babies in microwave ovens.”

Ng also told the jury he was merely playing a role when he assaulted the women. “I did it to show solidarity with Lake,” he said. “I dovetailed it to make it look like we were together.” Honnaka then asked Ng to explain what he meant when he told one of the victims, “You can pass out but we will just wake you up.” Ng said the statement was made in the heat of the moment. “What I was saying,” he testified, “and what I was feeling are two different things.”

The closest Ng came to expressing remorse occurred when Clapp suggested to his client that he “did some pretty outrageous things on the tape. It’s very offensive.” Ng agreed. “It is,” he testified. “I certainly regret it. I surrendered my independent judgment—I am always going to regret having known Leonard Lake.”

Nothing Ng could say would appease the relatives of the victims who filled the court each day. Sharon Sellitto’s brother, Paul Cosner, was shot to death when he tried to sell his Honda Prelude to Lake. Sharon and her mother, Virginia Nessley, had collapsed into each other’s arms when a firearms expert explained how someone sitting in the backseat of Cosner’s car had shot him. “I hope they don’t keep Ng on the stand too long,” said Sellitto. “I don’t want the jury to start seeing him as a human being.” Certainly, the crimes seemed much more the work of a monster.