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Death Penalty Called Possible in Tay Slaying

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The 18-year-old high school honors student accused of masterminding the gruesome slaying of Stuart A. Tay could face the death penalty for his role in the murder, prosecutors said Wednesday.

Even as Robert Chan and four juvenile co-defendants made their first appearance in court, police acknowledged that they are investigating the relationship between Chan, Tay and a Foothill High School cheerleader who may have introduced them to each other.

Orange police spokesman Timm Browne confirmed that Chan and Tay “had a mutual acquaintance.”

Pressed for details, private investigator Lee Roberts--hired by the Tay family--said he believes the boy’s murder “was a crime of passion.” Roberts said Chan had previously dated Tay’s girlfriend. “Tay had won her affection away from Chan. . . . She dumped Chan for Tay.”

But Browne said his detectives don’t believe rivalry for the girl’s attention figured into the murder.

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“We don’t feel that--based on the story as I know it--(she) was an influencing factor in this homicide,” Browne said.

The Tay family’s attorney, Edward Djang, said Wednesday that the female student was Tay’s girlfriend and that she introduced Tay to Chan about two months ago. Chan and the girl had met two years ago at driving school, Djang said.

Djang said the girl is distraught over Tay’s slaying and would not be available for comment.

In court, three of the four juveniles entered formal pleas of innocent. Arraignments for the fourth juvenile and Chan will be conducted later this month.

Police and prosecutors say that Chan and his co-defendants rehearsed their roles before the actual murder and even dug a grave for their victim a full day before the actual crime. Deputy Dist. Atty. Lew Rosenblum said Chan was the driving force behind the slaying.

Some sources close to the investigation said Chan told other suspects that he didn’t know Tay was dating the girl until they searched through the dead boy’s wallet and saw a picture of her.

Chan expressed surprise, according to interviews with the suspects.

“Hey I know her. I used to go out with her,” Chan supposedly told the other suspects.

Police contend that Tay--a 17-year-old student at Foothill High School in Santa Ana--and the defendants were planning to steal computer parts. The suspects allegedly killed Tay because they learned he had used an alias and they feared he would betray them to police.

Chan faces a special allegation of “lying in wait,” which could bring him the death penalty if he is convicted. Prosecutors said they want to try the four juveniles as adults because of the brutal and premeditated nature of the slaying.

Djang said the Tay family was upset by reports that their son was plotting a crime. He also said the police theory--that Tay was killed because he couldn’t be trusted--was weak. “If a person read that story, logically it makes no sense at all,” Djang said.

“The (police) story seems to want people to believe that (Tay) was a bad kid, and that is rather hurtful. To say that even he was associating with bad kids is wrong. These kids were Asian kids of his same age group--why shouldn’t he associate with them?

“There could be something more,” Djang said. “We feel there is probably something more, and the something more could be that Robert Chan is a kook: he simply flipped.”

Police are officially focusing on suspicions that Tay had gone to the Buena Park home of one of the suspects to pick up a gun and help plan the computer heist.

As he bent over to examine a box he was told contained the gun, Tay was repeatedly beaten with a baseball bat and sledgehammer, police said. When the attackers saw he was still breathing, they forced Tay’s mouth open and poured rubbing alcohol down his throat, police said. His mouth was then covered with duct tape.

Police said he was asphyxiated by his own vomit and his body was hurriedly buried in a shallow grave under a rubber tree. Later that night, some of the five suspects--all of whom are charged with murder--went to a New Year’s Eve party in Irvine, said Deputy Dist. Atty. Lew Rosenblum.

“It’s very bizarre and it’s very frightening to see that children with such good backgrounds, from strong families, would be willing to partake in these type of activities,” Rosenblum said. “It’s very disturbing.”

The suspects in the Tay case were more accustomed to finding their names on the honor roll than on a police blotter.

According to an acquaintance, Chan was tied with another student to become Sunny Hills valedictorian. Charles Choe, 17, was a volunteer in the child care section of a local YMCA. Kirn Young Kim, 16, is a doctor’s son, as was Tay.

Also charged with murder are Mun Bong Kang, 17, of Fullerton and Abraham Acosta, 16, of Buena Park.

Acosta and Chan are the ones who beat Tay, according to police. Kim served as the lookout, police said.

Choe, Kang and Kim entered not guilty pleas in Orange County Juvenile Court on Wednesday and were ordered to return Feb. 5 for a hearing to determine whether they should be tried as adults. Acosta’s arraignment was continued because his attorney was not present.

The teen-agers stared at the floor as their parents and relatives looked on, many of them sobbing and unable to make sense of the tragedy that has unfolded.

“I’m still finding out what’s going on,” said Choe’s mother, who declined to give her first name. “I don’t know. He was a good boy. Never in trouble.”

She said her son had applied to several University of California schools and had scored extremely high on his SAT college entrance exams. She said she talked to her son since his arrest and quoted him as saying, “I can’t get a job. My life is messed up.”

Police say Tay was killed after a plot to steal computer parts from an Anaheim distributor went awry. Investigators said his accomplices killed them after they learned he had been using a fictitious name and concluded they couldn’t trust him.

Chan has boasted of belonging to Wah Ching, a national Chinese gang centered primarily in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Police were investigating whether Chan had gang ties.

Browne said Tay and the five suspects had apparently bought computer parts together before. The suspects would not tell investigators when they planned to rob an Anaheim distributor of computer parts, Browne said.

Times staff writer Matt Lait contributed to this story.

THE SUSPECTS: Profiles of the five teens charged in Tay murder. A23


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