Paper: SACRAMENTO BEE
Title: THE CALAVERAS MURDERS THREE YEARS LATER, ONE OF THE MOST HORRIFYING CASES IN CALIFORNIA HISTORY LINGERS ON
Date: May 22, 1988
A carpenter's vise was Charles ""Cheetah'' Ng's undoing. If he hadn't tried to steal it, police might still be searching for clues to the mysterious disappearances of more than a dozen Californians. Californians who were robbed, kidnapped and -- if they were female -- used as sexual playthings. Californians whose charred remains were later found at a remote hideaway in the Mother Lode.On a Sunday afternoon in June 1985, Ng (pronounced ""Ing'') tried to shoplift a $75 vise from a hardware store in South San Francisco.
Like nearly everything else he tried in life, Ng messed it up. When a store security guard yelled at him to stop, Ng tossed the stolen vise into the trunk of a parked Honda Prelude and kept walking.
The driver of the Honda told the guard Ng was with him and calmly offered to pay for the stolen vise. But by then it was too late. South San Francisco police arrived and searched the trunk of the Honda. Along with the vise, they found a loaded .22 revolver fitted with a silencer and a pair of gloves. The driver, a burly, bearded fellow, was arrested and taken to police headquarters. At first he identified himself as Robin Scott Stapley (who was later found murdered), but when police asked him his date of birth, he replied, ""You always lie to the cops.'' He said he had a powerful thirst, and police took him to the bathroom to get a drink of water.
After that, his demeanor changed suddenly. He told police his true name was Leonard Thomas Lake, born Oct. 29, 1945, now a fugitive wanted in for weapons violations, burglary and grand theft.
Then Lake began heaving and sweating. His eyes rolled back and he fell face-first on the desk. Along with the water, he had downed a cyanide capsule he carried for just this eventuality. He entered a coma and died four days later. Leonard Lake, survivalist, had made good on his vow to never be taken alive.
The last thing Lake told police was the name of his confederate: Charlie Ng.
If Lake hadn't ratted on his buddy, Ng might have put enough distance between himself and police to avoid capture. Instead, he quickly became the object of an international manhunt that ended, ironically, a month later when Ng was captured during another bungled shoplifting attempt (trying to steal war books and food) at a department store in downtown Calgary, Canada. Ng, who fancies himself a Ninja warrior (a Japanese assassin), was convicted of armed robbery, aggravated assault and il legal use of a firearm and sentenced to 4 1/ 2 years in Canadian prison.
This week in a courtroom in Edmonton, Canadian authorities will begin extradition hearings to decide whether Charles Ng should be returned to California to face 24 felony counts, including a dozen murders. Ng, a native of Hong Kong who joined the U.S. Marines illegally and was later discharged dishonorably, is perhaps the only person alive who holds the key to one of the most macabre, malevolent and puzzling mass murder cases in California history.
If convicted of murder, Ng, now 27, is a lead-pipe cinch to get the death penalty in California. But Ng's Canadian extradition hearings and subsequent appeals could easily take more than five years to resolve. Roger Yochelson, a U.S. Department of Justice lawyer who has processed 400 extradition requests, said, based on past experience, ""There is no way of knowing whether he (Ng) will come back at all.''
And when -- or if -- Ng is finally returned to California, he could ultimately become a free man. A thorough review of more than 900 pages of police reports -- including interviews with witnesses and transcripts of videotapes and a diary left by Ng's alleged accomplice, Leonard Lake -- indicates the evidence against Ng is largely circumstantial. In documents so far made public, there is nothing that physically ties Ng to any murders in Calaveras
Prosecutors in Calaveras and San Francisco -- where Ng's crimes allegedly took place -- claim they have plenty of ammunition to convict Ng. ''There's a mountain of circumstantial evidence to sink this guy,'' said San Francisco Assistant District Attorney Paul Cummins, adding that all the evidence against Ng hasn't yet been made public: ""We're still holding some cards close to the vest.'' Calaveras District Attorney John Martin, as cautious and circumspect as they come, commented, ""Direct and circumstantial evidence are both acceptable as proof.''
The prosecutors say time is their biggest enemy. Time erodes memories and evidence. Witnesses move away or die. Already dead are Calaveras Sheriff Claud Ballard, who led the Ng investigation, and James Norse, the father of victim Deborah Dubs and a key witness against Ng; their affidavits are no longer admissible as evidence. By the time Ng finally goes to trial in California, prosecutors are afraid the recollections of the remaining witnesses will have faded beyond all credibility.
""Cricket'' Balazs, Lake's ex-wife, who lives with her parents in South San Francisco. Before Lake swallowed the cyanide capsule, he had scribbled a farewell note to Balazs that read: ""I love you. Please forgive me. I forgive you. Please tell Mama, Fern and Patty (Lake's sisters) I'm sorry.''
Lake had jumped bail on weapons charges in in 1982 and fled to the Balazs property in Wilseyville. (Ng, who was arrested along with Lake in 1982, was convicted for stealing weapons in Hawaii and served 27 months in the military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.)
In Wilseyville, Lake assumed the identity of Charles Gunnar -- Lake's one- time best friend who disappeared from his Morgan Hill home in April 1982 and was never heard from again.
Lake transformed the nondescript wood-frame structure in the woods near Wilseyville into his personal chamber of horrors. Lake's hideaway served as a fortress, an arsenal, a movie studio, a drug-dealing den, a charnel house, funeral pyre and burial ground. Police found a semiautomatic rifle, 1000 rounds of ammunition and spent cartridges, razor-sharp, eight-sided throwing stars used in martial arts, Frederick's of Hollywood-style lingerie, an easy chair and bed fitted with manacles and le g irons, a cache of silver and gold coins, a library of Soldier of Fortune and Doomsday magazines and other, militaristic literature, a stack of pornographic videotapes and the personal belongings of numerous victims.
The most bizarre feature of the 2 1/2-acre property was a crude, 16-by-14- foot cinderblock bunker. The front of the bunker housed a workshop filled with portraits of women taken by Lake, who took pride in his skills as a photographer. But behind a back wall of removable shelves was a secret passageway leading to two tiny bedrooms. One of the bedrooms was equipped with a plastic toilet, and police believe Lake would imprison his female sex slaves in the room for days and spy on them thr ough a one-way mirror on the wall.
As Calaveras sheriff's deputies combed the property, they began digging up graves. What they found were corpses that had been dismembered and burned. More than 40 pounds of and fragments were recovered. By the time deputies finished picking up the pieces more than a month later, forensic experts estimated that no fewer than 11 bodies were buried at or near the Wilseyville place. Sheriff Ballard compared the carnage to the Nazi death camps. Then-San Francisco Police Chief Con Murphy called it the most significantmurder case he'd ever dealt with.
The deputies found two clues that helped explain the grotesque goings-on at the Wilseyville cabin: two homemade videotapes and a portion of Lake's personal diary.
Titled ""The Diary of Leonard Lake -- 1984,'' the account begins: ""Leonard Lake, a name not seen or heard much these days in my second year as a fugitive. Mostly dull day-to-day routine, still with death in my pocket and fantasy my major goal.''
The journal outlines the construction of Lake's bunker, which he dubbed Operation Miranda in honor of Miranda, the pretty young woman who was imprisoned for 30 days in an underground wine cellar by a love-crazed clerk in the 1962 John Fowles novel ""The Collector.'' Miranda died in captivity.
""For the moment, my life is lacking direction and meaning . . . life still is dull, dull, dull,'' Lake wrote, although he hoped Operation Miranda, once constructed, would change all that: ""It will provide a facility for my sexual fantasies. It will provide physical security for myself and my passions. It will protect me from nuclear fallout . . . Tapes, photographs and weapons will be hidden away.'' Lake added that Operation Miranda was the culmination of a dream he had harbored for 20 years. To finance the construction of his bunker, the outlaw Lake sold marijuana and held garage, sales in Wilseyville where he sold items belonging to his victims.
The diary also describes Lake's ideal woman as ""one who does exactly what she is told and nothing else. There is no sexual problems (sic) with a totally submissive woman. There are no frustrations, only pleasure and contentment.''
The diary hints darkly of violence, but huge sections are missing. One of the last entries reads, ""Nowhere to go, nothing to do beyond some very difficult targets that probably won't work out.''
The two videotapes provide perhaps the strongest evidence against Lake and Ng. According to sources, the first videotape shows the bearded Lake, sitting in his easy chair, comfortable as a talk-show host, launching into a rambling monologue about how he is getting ""older, balder and fatter'' and tired of playing games by society's rules to get what he wants. From here on out, Lake says, he is going to take what he wants, consequences be damned.
According to police records, the second videotape, titled ""Two Women,'' shows Lake and Ng taunting a pair of female victims. In the first segment, Lake's captive is Kathleen Allen, the 18-year-old girlfriend of Michael Sean Carroll, 23, a small-time drug dealer and thief who had been Ng's cellmate at Fort Leavenworth military prison.
In April 1984, Lake lured Allen,a supermarket clerk in San Jose, to Wilseyville on the pretense of helping her boyfriend, who Lake said had been shot and needed her.
On the videotape, Lake tells Allen that if she cooperates, ""in approximately 30 days . . . we will either drug you, blindfold you or in some way or other make sure you don't know where you are and where you're going and take you back to the city and let you go . . .
""If you . . . don't agree this evening, right now, to cooperate with us, we'll probably put a round in your head and take you out in the same area where we buried Mike . . . We never planned on ------- up, much less getting caught, and we're not intending to get caught. It's the old 'no witnesses.'''
Allen is to help Lake write letters to relatives of Carroll convincing them that she and Carroll have ""moved off to Timbuktu . . . basically we want to phase Mike out, just move him over the horizon . . . if anyone wonders (what happened to Mike), no one's going to wonder too hard. While you're here, we'll keep you busy. You'll wash for us, you'll clean for us, cook for us, you'll ---- for us. It's not much of a choice unless you've got a death wish . . . if you don't go along with us, we'll probably take you into the bed, tie you down, rape you, shoot you and bury you.''
Then, at Lake's bidding, Allen undresses, slowly and reluctantly. Ng enters the picture and says threateningly, ""the piece (gun) is on the table.''
""Don't make it hard for her, Charlie,'' Lake says, and Allen heads for the shower with Ng.
The second half of the tape features 19-year-old Brenda O'Connor, the common-law wife of Lake's next-door neighbor, Lonnie Bond, and mother of year- old Lonnie Bond Jr.
The Bond family and a friend, Robin Scott Stapley, had moved from San Diego to Wilseyville in early 1985 to set up a methamphetamine factory, police said. Brenda O'Connor had told a friend she thought Lake had killed a girl and buried her on his property.
On the tape, when O'Connor begs for her baby, Lake responds cryptically, ''Your baby is sound asleep, like a rock.'' Then Lake tells her the baby has been given to a family in Fresno. ""It's better than the baby's dead, right?'' Ng comments. Lake adds, ""Personally, I don't think you're a fit mother.'' Lake gives O'Connor the same choice he gave Allen: cooperate or die. He tells her that Bond and his sidekick Robin Scott Stapley have been ""taken away . . . for all I know, maybe they ar e dead right now.''
Then Ng cuts off O'Connor's blouse and bra with a bayonet and tells her, ''You can cry and stuff like the rest of them, but it won't do you no good. We are pretty, ha ha, coldhearted, so to speak.'' At Lake's instruction, Ng takes the manacles off O'Connor. ""I'll get my weapon handy (in case) you try to play stupid,'' Ng tells her. The tape ends with Ng getting the shower ready for himself and O'Connor.
Police believe Kathleen Allen and Brenda O'Connor met the same fate as the fictional Miranda in ""The Collector.'' Ng, who worked at a San Francisco moving company, would utter the terrifying rhyme, ""daddy dies, mommy cries, baby fries,'' co-workers said.
But there are no acts of violence shown on the videotapes, and nearly all of the incriminating statements are made by Lake (though Ng apparently revels in the sadistic scene). Nevertheless, the tape is a chilling record of the hatred Lake and Ng held for women -- a hatred that manifested itself in a compulsion to control, humiliate and dominate them.
Lake and Ng were both raised by disciplinarians, which had the opposite effect. Ng, a lifelong loner, got attention the only way he knew how -- by< breaking rules, challenging authority and terrorizing those around him.
Lake, who was far more glib and polished, made a good first impression, and he got dozens of women to agree to pose for his photo collection. But although Lake was married (and divorced) twice, he told his new neighbors in Wilseyville he had never been married ""because no woman ever liked me enough.''
Born in San Francisco to a family with a history of alcoholism, Lake was passed from relative to relative from a very early age. When Lake was 6, his squabbling parents sent him to live with his rigid grandparents. Friends nicknamed him ""Butch'' because he wore his hair in a Marine-style buzz cut, his father said in a newspaper interview.
Lake felt that he had been emotionally shortchanged as a child. Otter Zell, one of Lake's friends and neighbors in , recalled Lake claimed he was abandoned by his parents when he was a baby. ""He said he was given up for adoption.''
On Jan. 2, 1964, Lake joined the U.S. Marine Corps. He was trained as a radar specialist and rose to the rank of staff sergeant. He served seven years, including nine months in Da Nang, Vietnam, where he exhibited ''incipient psychotic reactions,'' according to military records. He was treated and sent back to Vietnam but never did any fighting.
When Lake got out of the service in 1971, he was treated in Oakland for ''impending schizophrenic reaction,'' military records show. But the Veteran's Administration won't provide any more information on Lake's mental problems.
After he left the Marines, Lake spent several years in San Jose where he attended San Jose State University, then moved to the Greenfield Ranch, a commune in , in 1976.
There he was Leonard Lake, hippie survivalist. Zell said Lake's 80-acre hilltop spread included ""pigs, chickens, goats, turkeys. He had a terrific orchard of apples and pears and peaches and cherries . . . it was absolutely primo, top of the line.''
Lake served as a volunteer firefighter and had a job with an employment agency, but was fired for stealing weatherizing materials and put on probation, police said. Although Lake occasionally dealt marijuana and even grew some, he disdained it as ""something that made you weak and silly,'' Zell said.
""Lake said civilization was going to collapse because of an earthquake or nuclear war, and he used to chide the rest of us for being naive,'' Zell said. Lake chose the hilltop site because ""his attitude was to find the highest vantage point you could, build a fortress and hold off others with cannon fire,'' Zell said. Lake named the place Alibi Run, a Marine expression meaning ''last chance to do better.''
Lake's interests ranged from science fiction to witchcraft to genetics -- he once grafted a horn onto the head of a goat and passed it off as a unicorn at a Renaissance Fair in Marin
It was in that Lake first began to act on his dream of Operation Miranda, Zell said: ""At one point he made plans to build this concrete, semiburied bunker and started pouring a foundation for it. People would ask him, 'Why do you call it that (Operation Miranda)?' and he'd just smile and say, 'You'll see.' ""
But as Lake began bulldozing his land, he ran into opposition from several women who co-owned the property. In January 1981 Lake abruptly sold his share of Alibi Run for $70,000 and bought a mobile home, which he quickly turned into an arsenal. He then got a job managing a motel in the Anderson Valley.
A couple of months later, Charles Ng came to Lake's motel seeking sanctuary. Ng, who was on the lam from the Marines, had been given Lake's name and address by a mutual friend. Thus began the star-crossed association that spelled death for a diverse group of people whose lives intersected with Lake and Ng. Many of the victims were drug dealers, thieves and drifters, but the rest were average folks whose only mistake was to place classified ads that caught Lake's and Ng's fancy.
Charles Ng was born Christmas Eve 1960, the only son of a middle-class Hong Kong family. Ng, nicknamed ""Charlie-boy'' by his schoolmates, was a sullen, combative child whose constant fighting led his parents to send him to a psychiatrist when he was 10, his sister said. He was expelled from several schools in Hong Kong.
When he was a teenager, his parents sent him to boarding school in England, where he had an uncle. He was arrested for shoplifting at a department store in Lancaster, England, and got into trouble at school for stealing $20 from another student. After a year, Ng returned to Hong Kong.
Ng, who went to all-boy schools, said he never had a girlfriend. ""Even if he had had a chance to meet girls, he might not have known how to socialize,'' said his sister. Instead, Ng spent his time going to Bruce Lee movies and fantasizing about becoming a Ninja. Ng once said: ""If you want to kill someone, make him think you like him. Then it will be easy. They never know who you are -- your best friend is your best enemy.''
When he was 18, Ng entered the United States on a student visa and went to live with an aunt in a suburb of San Francisco. He enrolled in the College of Notre Dame, a small private Catholic school in San Mateo. But he soon flunked out and traveled the country. On Oct. 25, , Charles Ng was inducted into the Marines with the help of an overzealous recruiter who falsified his application and listed Ng's birthplace as Bloomington, Ind.
A confluence of factors conspired to create the two-headed monster that Lake and Ng became. Chief among them is the U.S. Marine Corps. Ng dreamed of joining the Special Forces or some other elite squad of warriors. Instead, he was consigned to the boring life of an infantryman at a base in Hawaii.
In 1981 Ng led a midnight raid on a Marine armory in Hawaii and made off with two machine guns, three grenade launchers, seven pistols, four M-16 rifles and three Starlight scopes for night shooting. He was at large for nearly a month. Shortly after his arrest, he escaped through a window in the military brig and, acting on a lead from a fellow survivalist, fled to Lake's home. Ng's Ninja persona and soldier-of-fortune aspirations meshed perfectly with Lake's scenario of a doomsda y world where only the strongest and craftiest survive.
Six months later, in April 1982, a SWAT team of a dozen FBI agents and four sheriff's deputies in camouflage gear swarmed over Lake's compound in helicopters and seized a stash of TNT, machine guns, brass knuckles and coins and other items stolen from neighbors. Ng was arrested along with Lake and court-martialed by the Marines.
Ng served 27 months at the military prison in Fort Leavenworth, Kan., for the raid on the armory. Upon his release in June 1984, he was supposed to have been deported, but Ng's induction records were misplaced and he was turned loose.
Shortly after his release, Ng re-upped with Lake, who was living incognito at his ex-wife's place in the Mother Lode. Within a month, Ng allegedly answered a sex ad in a gay newspaper placed by Donald Guiletti, a San Francisco disc jockey. On July 11, 1984, Guiletti was shot to death and his roommate wounded during a robbery attempt that went awry.
Ballistics tests reveal that a pistol found buried near Lake's Wilseyville[ digs was used to murder Guiletti. Guiletti's roommate, Richard Carrazza, who was wounded during the incident, has tentatively identified Ng as the assailant. But police concede that Carrazza's identification of Ng was ''fuzzy, at best.''
Police say Guiletti was the first of Ng's dozen murder victims. They believe Lake and Ng shot or poisoned their hapless victims, then hacked up most of them, doused them with gasoline, burned them and then buried them in lime pits around the property.
But there is little that connects Ng to the house in the Wilseyville wilderness other than a few fingerprints on a bottle found in the bunker. An ax, a power saw, numerous firearms and a set of blood-stained shears were found on the property, but Ng's prints were not found on any of them, according to sources familiar with the case.
Himself a curious fellow, Lake had an insatiable curiosity that led him down many uncharted paths in life. But in the end, his curiosity led him, not to enlightenment and resolution, but to depraved violence and self- destruction. At first, he may have killed by accident. Then he murdered for profit. And finally, he became a thrill killer who had nothing to lose. Everyone and everything became fair game, including his German shepherd, Voden. ""Shot the dog,'' Lake wrote in his diary. ""A stupid thing to do . . . vengeance rarely makes sense.''
Leonard Lake's murderous legacy is still a part of everyday life for the families of his victims. Virginia Nessley, the mother of victim Paul Cosner, said she is furious ""that he (Lake) could take a (cyanide) capsule and get away scot-free. Dying isn't anything. Everybody does that.''
Nessley and her family are imprisoned in their private little hellbox by the murders. Her daughter, Sharon Sellitto, said: ""I think about it every day. I can't go downtown, I can't go to public places, I'm just afraid. When I walk my dog on the beach, and he digs in the sand, I think he's going to come up with a head. When we walk through Golden Gate Park, I think I'm going to come across a body. For the first year I could hardly leave the house. I don't feel like I have a lot of freedom anymore.''
Said Nessley: ""Friends and relatives no longer want to hear about it -- they want to put it in the past. It embarrasses them for me to talk about it, they shy away.
""I can't bury it,'' she said tearfully. ""There's more than one victim in my family.'' *