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Agents Caught Mass Murder Suspect Once Before : FBI Has Head Start in Hunt for Ng--Experience

Times Staff Writer

Mass murder suspect Charles Chitat Ng--linked by police to the disappearance of at least 19 people--is considered elusive, armed and extremely dangerous.

But the FBI, which is leading a worldwide law enforcement search for him, nonetheless has one potentially decisive advantage: It has sought him--and caught him--before.

The experience gained in tracking down Ng in 1982, after he helped steal weapons from a U.S. Marine Corps base in Hawaii, gives the FBI a head start in piecing together a profile that could make it easier to find him again, authorities say.

Together with some home-grown clues, including tips from friends and former Marine Corps buddies, that experience is helping the FBI narrow the scope of the international manhunt.

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“We have information from that (previous case) which we can use to base our search for him this time,” said Scott A. Nelson, assistant special agent for the FBI in San Francisco, ". . . and hopefully get one step up on him.”

Ng is the suspected accomplice of Leonard T. Lake, who apparently committed suicide in police custody by taking poison. Ng and Lake have been linked by police to 19 missing people and three murder victims, who authorities fear were kidnaped, tortured, murdered, burned and dismembered at a remote cabin occupied by Lake near Wilseyville, Calif., 125 miles east of here. Authorities at the site already have recovered six unidentified bodies and more than 20 pounds of charred human bones.

Ng, 24, is important to capture not only as a suspect and a potential threat to others, but because police believe he is the only person who knows exactly what happened in that Wilseyville cabin. “Without Ng,” said San Francisco Police Chief Cornelius Murphy, “we’ll never clear up this case.”

FBI agents are trying to narrow the focus of the manhunt because they say every police agency in the world cannot be asked to dedicate investigators to this one case without some indication that the suspect is in their jurisdiction.

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The Royal Canadian Mounted Police and Scotland Yard already have reportedly been asked to join the search for Ng. The RCMP became involved when citizens reported seeing Ng in the provinces of British Columbia and Ontario. Scotland Yard has jurisdiction over Hong Kong, where Ng was born, and England, where he was educated.

However, the FBI will confirm only that Interpol, the international police agency based in Paris, has issued an “international red notice” for Ng. Any more detailed information, Nelson said, could help Ng elude capture.

He suggested that news reports of Ng’s sighting in Canada already may have warned him that authorities were closing in and given him a chance to flee.

He did say that 500 posters with Ng’s photograph and description have been sent to Canada for distribution there. Another 1,000 posters are being mailed to 59 FBI field offices throughout the United States. Phillips added that FBI agents have been to Hong Kong, but declined to give further details.

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Until the FBI uncovers some evidence that Ng is headed in one direction or another, Interpol and its members will simply be asked to more carefully watch for Ng at the usual points of entry, such as airports and border crossings.

“The main value of Interpol to us is that his description and known aliases are in their computer,” said John Phillips, the FBI Fugitive Squad supervisor in San Francisco. “So if anyone in the world queries about (someone fitting Ng’s description), he will pop out.”

Anticipating Moves

The key to the manhunt, however, is neither the computers nor international cooperation, Nelson and Phillips said. It is the basic job of learning as much about Ng as possible, then using that knowledge to anticipate his next move.

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The successful 1982 manhunt--details of which the FBI keeps secret--is the foundation on which Ng’s file is based. That information was enough to lead the FBI from Hawaii to a remote Mendocino County farm town where Ng was staying with Lake.

In addition to that file and the recent tips from Ng’s friends, the FBI has ordered a full psychological profile from the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Criminals, a Quantico, Va., agency that studies mass murderers.

Together, the dozens of individually meaningless bits of information being collected and cross-referenced are expected to help investigators understand how Ng thinks and perhaps let them anticipate how he will act.

“Those are the things we’re interested in--how he is likely to act under certain circumstances,” Nelson said.

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Inspector John Hennessey of the San Francisco Police Department, which has a special hot line to collect tips on Ng, said a great deal of useful new information has been called in by the public.

Mixture of Calls

“Some of them (the callers) were space cadets with nothing helpful,” Hennessey said, “but a lot of them were legitimate and very, very, very helpful. And we’re always willing to sort through the garbage to get the good stuff.”

Hennessey added that his department believes Ng, who received some survival training in the Marines, still could be hiding in California, perhaps in one of the four rural counties--Calaveras, Amador, Mendocino and Humboldt--where he and Lake are known to have operated. The FBI also is coordinating the 10 law enforcement agencies involved in the search for Ng within California.

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One difficulty in this case, both local and federal investigators agree, is that Ng has no particularly identifiable physical features, and his appearance is very different in each set of photos taken of him.

Some 1982 photos taken after his arrest at Lake’s Mendocino County ranch on the weapons charge show him as slightly built, almost schoolboyish. But photos taken when he was arrested last October for shoplifting sheets from a Daly City, Calif., store show a huskier, more self-assured man.

Ng’s life has been the subject of intense interest, not only by the police, but also by reporters. This is what is known about him so far, according to police and news accounts:

He was born on Christmas Eve in 1961 to a well-to-do Hong Kong businessman. He attended high school in Yorkshire, England, where his father had business interests. After graduating, he went to live with relatives in San Leandro, 10 miles southeast of here. He entered the country on a student visa, but flunked out of the College of Notre Dame in the peninsula city of Belmont after one semester.

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Later, in the autumn of 1979, he was convicted of fleeing a non-injury auto accident and ordered to pay restitution. Instead, he enlisted in the Marines, falsely listing his birthplace as Bloomington, Ind.

As a lance corporal, he led three other Marines in an October, 1981, burglary at the Kaneohe Marine Corps Air Station armory in Hawaii, stealing three grenade launchers, two assault rifles, seven pistols and a night-vision rifle scope.

Flees Islands

The weapons were recovered and Ng arrested, but he fled Hawaii and joined Lake, a former Marine he apparently met through a classified advertisement in a survival magazine. The two men lived, along with Lake’s wife, Claralyn (Cricket) Balazs, on a ranch near the small apple- and grape-growing town of Philo in Mendocino County, about 100 miles north of here.

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By piecing together Ng’s background--including, perhaps, information from one of his co-conspirators in the armory theft--the FBI was able to trace Ng to Philo and sent in a SWAT team to arrest him in April, 1982.

Ng was swiftly tried, convicted by a military court and imprisoned at Ft. Leavenworth, Kan. Lake, arrested when he voluntarily told authorities that he owned some of the illegal weapons found in the house, posted bond and fled, first to San Francisco, then to Wilseyville in Calaveras County.

In prison, Ng became known as “a very intelligent person with an obsession or compulsion for weapons,” Brad Chapline, a former Marine guard, told the Associated Press.

“I took 279 prisoners to the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth during a seven-year period. . . . Ng was definitely the most dangerous,” Chapline said. “He was most assuredly capable of doing what they think he did.”

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Ng was released from prison in June, 1984; a bureaucratic slip-up prevented the Marine Corps from telling the Immigration and Naturalization Service that Ng should be deported.

Shoplifting Arrest

Four months later, he was arrested again, for shoplifting in Daly City. The next day, a recently divorced Claralyn Balazs Lake paid Ng’s $1,000 bail, and Ng fled again.

Many of the people who met Ng over the next few months eventually disappeared and now are included on the list of potential victims.

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In April, for example, he was seen taking valuables from the San Francisco apartment of an entire family later reported missing. Later that month, he was identified as the driver of a motor home involved in an accident in Kern County; the vehicle owner has not been seen since.

Ng was last seen June 2, when he and Lake stopped at a South San Francisco lumberyard. Ng allegedly shoplifted a $75 vise, stashing it in the trunk of a car owned by Paul Cosner, another suspected victim.

When a security guard intervened, Ng slipped away, leaving Lake to face the police. Lake was arrested when police found an illegal handgun in the trunk of the car.

Dies in Custody

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Lake first gave police a false name, but recanted when challenged. He then wrote a note to his ex-wife--"Dear Lyn: I love you. Forgive me. I forgive you"--and told police he was wanted on a weapons charge in Mendocino County. Then he collapsed. He was taken to a nearby hospital, but was declared brain dead. He died after being removed from life-support systems four days later. No official cause of death has been released, but it is believed he took poison.

While Lake was being questioned by police June 2, Ng had called on Claralyn Balazs Lake, asking her to drive him to his San Francisco neighborhood, police said. She did.

A few hours later, police arrived at his basement apartment, where a number of weapons were kept.

A paycheck, from the moving company where he worked, was in the mailbox.

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But Ng was gone.


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