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Danny Pang dies at 42; accused O.C. financier

Danny Pang, an Orange County financier who faced charges of massive international fraud and whose wife's unsolved murder 12 years ago prompted questions about his possible ties to organized crime, died Saturday. He was 42.

Paramedics arrived at Pang's Newport Beach home Friday afternoon and found him not breathing, police said. He was rushed to Hoag Hospital, where he was revived, but he died Saturday morning. The cause of death was undetermined, and an autopsy is planned for today.

Pang faced civil charges from the Securities and Exchange Commission that he defrauded millions of dollars from investors through his Irvine-based Private Equity Management Group, or PEMGroup.

A court-appointed receiver for the firm alleged that Pang took at least $83 million in inflated fees, salary and loans from his investment firm before it was seized by federal regulators in April.

That month Pang was arrested on criminal charges that he hid more than $300,000 from the government by evading currency-reporting laws meant to prevent money laundering. The FBI also alleged he stashed gold bullion in a hidden safe. Pang denied wrongdoing and was free on bail.

"Our entire family is shocked by Danny's sudden and tragic passing. Danny was a wonderful husband, loving father and an honest businessman," Charles Sipkins, a Pang family spokesman, said in a statement. "For the past five months, Danny was subjected to a relentless attack of innuendo and false allegations, and was denied any opportunity to defend himself."

It was not immediately clear how his death would affect the civil and criminal probes into Pang's business affairs. The U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles said Saturday that it had not confirmed Pang's death and therefore could not comment.

Pang, a Taiwan native who immigrated to the U.S. as a teen, first made headlines in May 1997 when his 33-year-old wife, Janie, was shot to death in the couple's Villa Park home.

A Corona del Mar attorney, Hugh "Randy" McDonald, went to trial for the slaying in 2002, but his defense attorneys pointed a finger at Pang. They described him as an abusive husband and shady businessman who hired a hit man to kill his wife as their marriage frayed.

The attorneys pointed to police reports in which she had portrayed Pang as a hot-tempered gambler who cheated on her, beat her and lost $70,000 at a card club in a single night.

At the trial, Lucretia Ross, a Pang family friend, testified that after the killing, Pang pressed her for "things that Janie had told me about his business and their relationship."

When she refused, Ross testified, "he just looked at me and he said 'You know, I can have anybody killed I want.' "

The trial's most explosive moment came when an Orange County sheriff's detective, Yvonne Shull, testified about a 2001 report that she had possessed for more than a year but had failed to divulge.

The report, compiled by the FBI and the Orange County and Los Angeles County sheriff's departments, concluded that "Danny Pang should remain as having a possible role in her death."

It raised the prospect that Pang worked as a money man for the Taiwan-based United Bamboo Triad. Foreign Policy magazine listed the triad as one of "the world's most dangerous gangs," with 10,000 members and tentacles in drug smuggling, human trafficking and assassinations.

The report, which was detailed during court testimony but was later sealed, examined possible links between Pang and the triad. It cited the group's 11-item "code of ethics," which called for discretion: "We must not divulge our plans and affairs to outsiders, for example our wives, girlfriends, etc."

According to testimony, the report said: "Money laundering or washing money through use of casinos and bringing cash into the country would at first glance appear to be the assigned responsibility of Danny Pang if one took the United Bamboo Gang code of ethics literally."

The report said agents had found no proof tying Pang to the triad, but recommended steps that should be taken "before a definite answer can be ascertained" -- steps such as subpoenaing his telephone records and examining his business records. Shull testified that she had not followed those recommendations.

Pang's attorney, Allan Stokke, said the report mistakenly connected his client to suspect businesses and confused him with another man named Danny Pang.

"Mr. Pang had absolutely nothing to do with Janie Pang's murder, and it would be false and defamatory for anyone to suggest otherwise," Stokke said in a statement to The Times. He described her death as "the most traumatic event in his life."

Pang's possible ties to the underworld had been raised as early as 1993, when the Pangs contacted the Huntington Beach police saying that a man was trying to extort money from them with a semi-nude photo of Janie Pang, taken when she was a stripper at the Tropical Lei in Upland.

According to the police report, Pang said he was a loan broker representing Taiwanese investors in the purchase of an Orange office building. Pang said he initially thought the investors were "just businessmen" but now knew they were "actually smugglers," apparently spiriting goods to the U.S. from China through Taiwan, a detective wrote.

"These investors are now taking that money and reinvesting it basically through Danny into legitimate businesses," the report said.

The police speculated that Pang had lost his investors' money. "I advised [Janie Pang] that if this was in fact the case and if he was dealing with some sort of organized crime figures with regards to this international money laundering, that he could be in big trouble and might turn up dead very soon," the detective wrote.

Pang's lawyer said the detective misinterpreted his client's remarks, and Pang was not involved in "this alleged illicit business activity."

Investigators said Pang cut off talks with detectives during the probe into his wife's slaying. He took the 5th Amendment rather than testify at McDonald's trial, which culminated in October 2002 with a jury deadlocked 10 to 2 in favor of acquittal. Prosecutors decided not to retry the case.

Some jurors believed the defense's assertions that Pang had had his wife killed, juror Monica Bartolone said after the trial. Nearly seven years later, Bartolone's suspicions haven't changed.

"There were several of us on the jury who thought he killed her," Bartolone, 74, of Newport Beach, said in a recent interview. "Not with his own hands, but he had her killed because they were supposedly in the process of getting in a divorce and she knew where the bodies were buried."

Stokke said that Pang took the 5th reluctantly and only then at his lawyer's insistence, and that he had granted multiple interviews to police. Pang, he said, had invested a considerable sum in trying to find his wife's killer.

As the murder case sank out of public view, Pang's notoriety in the financial world began its steep ascent. In 2003, he launched PEMGroup, an international money management company that ultimately attracted hundreds of millions of dollars from Taiwanese banks and individual investors.

Pang left the firm in April after a news article cited allegations that he had misappropriated investor money. The SEC obtained a court order freezing the company's assets.

A court-appointed receiver accused Pang of using his investors' money "like his own personal piggy bank" to finance "a lifestyle that only the richest individuals enjoy."

christopher.goffard @latimes.com

stuart.pfeifer@latimes.com
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