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Image in Death Doesn’t Match Stuart Tay’s Life

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The 17 years of Stuart A. Tay’s life could not have been more strikingly different than his last day alive.

The bespectacled honors student with a renaissance range of talent lay crumpled in a muddy back yard grave in Buena Park on a chilly New Year’s Eve, his reputation soon to be tarnished by whispers of a robbery plan gone sour and a love triangle involving his accused killer.

Police say that five teen-agers from Sunny Hills High School in Fullerton--most of them honors students from affluent families--planned and carried out Tay’s murder, having grown suspicious that he would betray them in a planned heist of computer parts.

They lured him into the garage at one teen-ager’s home, ostensibly to show him a handgun he wanted to purchase, then beat him with baseball bats and a sledgehammer. When he still showed signs of life after 20 minutes of beating, they poured rubbing alcohol down his throat and sealed his mouth with duct tape.

A private investigator hired by Tay’s family suspects that Robert Chan, 18, the alleged mastermind of the killing, was driven partly by a fury that Tay was dating a girl who spurned Chan some time ago. But police have explored and discounted that theory.

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Days after his death, those who knew Tay well struggle to grasp what happened, searching their memories to find the point when a life so brimming with promise was drawn into a deadly abyss.

Others, while surprised that Tay would come to such a gruesome end, are less than shocked by allegations that he was involved in illegal activity.

These were students who had exchanged scornful glances when Tay squealed into the parking lot in his parents’ silver Mercedes convertible. Again and again, they had heard the rumors that Tay carried $100 bills, that he boasted of being involved in illicit computer hacking and counterfeiting. One family friend said Stuart had a “fascination” with such shady pursuits.

His closest friends at Foothill High School in Santa Ana dismiss talk like that, saying anyone who believed it didn’t know Stuart. Maybe he was a little too cocky, a shade too arrogant, they say, and maybe he liked to talk big. But beneath the swagger was a sensitive and good-natured young man who was deeply loyal to his friends and unfailingly courteous.

Here was a teen-ager, after all, who avoided rowdy high school beer parties and didn’t smoke, preferring to spend weekends with the Safe Rides club, whose members took turns providing rides home for drunk classmates. Here was a student who occasionally wore suits and ties to school when peers sported baggy jeans and T-shirts; the one who prepared flash cards for his friends to use in studying for the college-entrance exams.

This was the son who unfailingly came home for dinner on time, took out the trash and did the yardwork at his family’s sprawling, gated home in Orange. Tay was the student who brought chocolate-covered raisins, wrapped with a bow for Christmas, to his guidance counselor, because he knew she loved them. He escorted his former English teacher to a lavish hotel brunch, making sure he drove his mother’s car because it was cleaner than his own.

That teacher, Joan Kasper, recalls wistfully how Tay recently treated her to a buffet brunch at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Dana Point. She said he was very upbeat that day, and was “gallant” and “charming.”

“We talked of so many things, especially of his future. He was very much focused on that, and it was a very bright future,” Kasper said of Tay, who had applied for admission next fall to Princeton, Berkeley and UCLA.

“He talked about how it felt to be in love for the first time (with fellow Foothill student Jennifer Lin) and showed me a pocket watch she had given him for his birthday.”

Kasper, who was Tay’s honors English teacher last year, remembers him as a student whose intelligence was so keen and restless that he took the lead in provoking and prodding classroom discussions. Friends recall he often sparked heated debates in civics class, testing how far he could take arguments on such controversial topics as the role of women in the military.

“He loved to play the devil’s advocate,” said friend and classmate Nathaniel Stracker, 17.

For a recent mock-trial exercise in class, Stracker, Tay and another student were assigned to play defense attorneys. Stracker said that he and the other student showed up with a few scribbled notes, but Tay arrived with pages of neatly typed statements they would deliver to the “jury.”

A Republican and supporter of President Bush in the recent election, Tay dizzied his classmates on another occasion with a detailed argument defending Bush’s environmental record, Stracker said.

“He’s one of those great thinker types,” Don Chennavasin, 18, one of Tay’s closest friends, said, still speaking of him in the present tense. “But a lot of people have the wrong impression of him. People think he’s some bad guy, but he’s not. It’s just his way of thinking. He’s provocative. He challenges people’s normal concepts.”

Tay’s friends say he offered not only an interesting mind, but a reliable and generous definition of friendship.

“When I needed help doing stuff, he was always there,” Chennavasin said, remembering how Tay came to fetch him when his car ran out of gas. Tay offered to drive recently when a bunch of friends went to see the rock group Erasure at the Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles, he said. “He was always doing stuff like that,” Chennavasin said.

Chennavasin and another friend, Jack Oak, 17, fondly recalled a skiing trip they took with Tay to the Mountain High ski resort over Christmas vacation. Oak said they dubbed Tay “Psycho Man” because he was braving jumps and zooming around the slopes.

Oak recalled Tay as a youth who was “always trying to please and comfort others. Like when we went to his house, he was always saying, ‘Have some food, have some more food.’ It was this homemade Chinese food that his grandmother made,” Oak said.

Tay was a distinguished student, carrying four honors classes and one advanced placement class this year. In his sophomore and junior years, he had already qualified for college credit in biology and U.S. history by passing advanced placement tests in those subjects, said his guidance counselor, Genevieve Koerner. He was planning to take the tougher of two AP tests in calculus this spring. He aspired to be an ophthalmologist or a plastic surgeon.

But to Koerner, Tay also stood out for his wide range of talents and interests. He was an amateur photographer, wrote poetry and played the piano in an alternative rock band. He climbed Mt. Whitney with his Boy Scout troop. He founded an Asian culture club on campus, and belonged to the politically conscious Junior Statesmen of America. He ran his own business buying, selling and repairing computer components. And he loved to tinker on computers himself, using as his password Depeche Mode, the name of his favorite rock group.

Koerner said Tay, with one younger sister, came from a close-knit family that put a premium on sharing conversation over dinner every night. His parents, a homemaker and an obstetrician, immigrated from Singapore years ago and worked hard to establish a secure lifestyle, moving from Fullerton to a large, custom-built home in Orange when Tay was midway through sixth grade.

So dedicated was his mother to her son’s school life that she drove every day from Orange back to Fullerton so Stuart could complete the sixth grade at his old school, one teacher recalls. News of Tay’s death and its seamy circumstances stunned his sixth-grade teacher at that school.

“It blows my mind,” said Ann Lehman, who taught Tay in his final year at Sunset Lane Elementary in Fullerton. “He was a loved, self-confident child.”

Koerner said she saw that same loving attitude years later in conferences with Mrs. Tay. She paid careful attention to Stuart’s schoolwork, occasionally calling to see if he was “on track” with the courses he needed, Koerner said. What also impressed her, however, was the mutual respect and openness with which mother and son spoke together.

“You could see he was free to disagree with her,” Koerner said.

The young man’s bewildered and grief-stricken family has been in seclusion all week, declining to talk to reporters. His girlfriend, reportedly in anguish, has not returned to school since the news of the killing came out on Monday. And as dozens of questions swirl unanswered, his classmates are intensely aware of his absence.

“There’s this parking space (in the student lot) where he always parked,” Stracker said, his voice growing soft. “Nobody is parking there.”

The Slaying of Stuart Tay

It is one of the most chilling murders in Orange County history. A bright Foothill High School senior from an affluent family is slain on New Year’s Eve and buried behind a house in Buena Park.

Stuart A. Tay

The victim was a 17-year-old honors student at Foothill High School and the son of a wealthy Orange physician. Friends say the computer enthusiast, like Robert Chan, had applied to attend Princeton University. But he was also rebellious, at times refusing to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. Police believe that a mutual interest in computers led Tay to Chan. The two were introduced by Tay’s girlfriend, a Foothill High cheerleader.

A KEY INVESTIGATOR

Lee M. Roberts, 44, a private investigator, was hired by Tay’s family and the first to uncover evidence of the murder. A former Newport Beach police officer, Roberts and 15 others from his firm interviewed 100 people and searched in dumpsters, open fields and along roadsides for clues. While not discounting the motive suggested by police--that Tay and Chan fell out while plotting to steal computers--Roberts suspects that they were also at odds over Tay’s girlfriend, whom Chan had previously dated.

IN COURT

On Wednesday, Kirn Young Kim, Mun Bong Kang and Charles Choe pleaded not guilty to murder charges before Orange County Juvenile Court Judge Francisco P. Briseno in Orange. They were ordered to return Feb. 5 for a hearing on whether they should be tried as adults.

Acosta’s arraignment was postponed because his attorney was not present.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Lew Rosenbaum described Chan as the driving force behind Tay’s killing. An arraignment for Chan, who is 18 and considered an adult, will be conducted later this month.

HOW THE CRIME WAS SOLVED

About 4 p.m., Dec. 31: Stuart Tay leaves his family’s sprawling home in an exclusive neighborhood of Orange, telling his sister that he must run “an errand.”

2:40 a.m., Jan. 1: Tay’s worried mother telephones Orange Police to report her son missing. She tells an officer that Stuart always calls if he plans to stay out more than a few hours.

9:50 p.m., Jan. 1: Compton police find Tay’s 1990 Nissan 300 ZX stripped and abandoned in an alley.

Jan. 2: Orange Police Detectives Matt Miller and Jorge Desouza interview a friend of Tay’s who says the youth mentioned buying a handgun from a student named Robert Chan. The friend says Chan and Tay agreed to meet at a restaurant about 4 p.m. on New Year’s Eve.

Just after midnight, Jan. 4: Private investigator Lee Roberts, hired by the Tay family, gives Miller information leading to Sunny Hills High School junior Kirn Kim. Kim tells investigators that he and four other Sunny Hills students met Tay at a house in Buena Park and that while Kim stood lookout the others “took care” of Tay.

A few hours later: The detectives drive to the house in Buena Park, the home of suspect Abraham Acosta. They learn that Acosta and some friends had talked of recently digging a grave for a dog in the back yard. The detectives find an area of “recently disturbed dirt.”

12:40 p.m., Jan. 4: Miller and four other detectives arrest Acosta, Chan and Mun Bong Kang, a junior, at Sunny Hills High School. Soon after, they arrest senior Charles Choe at his home in Fullerton.

Chan refuses to talk to investigators. But the others tell how they lured Tay to the garage of the Buena Park house, beat him with baseball bats, poured rubbing alcohol in his mouth and taped it shut, then buried his body.

Around 9 p.m., Jan. 4: Armed with a search warrant and a set of floodlights, police exhume Tay’s body from a shallow grave beneath a rubber tree.

THE SUSPECTS

Robert Chien-Nan Chan

The 18-year-old is accused of masterminding Tay’s murder. A senior honor roll student, he was on the Sunny Hills High School academic decathlon team. Chan aspired to attend Princeton University. Classmates say Chan boasted that he was involved in a violent Asian gang.

Abraham Acosta, 16, a sophomore at Sunny Hills. Police say he admitted striking Tay with a baseball bat at least three times. His attorney, Deputy Public Defender Denise M. Gragg, suspects that he is retarded and “may have been manipulated.”

Charles Choe, 17, a Sunny Hills senior who scored an impressive 1,350--out of a possible 1,600--on the Scholastic Aptitude Test for college admission. He is interested in computers and has volunteered time with Fullerton YMCA’s child-care program.

Mun Bong Kang, 17, a Sunny Hills junior and an especially unlikely murder suspect because he is quiet and very friendly, according to classmates. Police say Kang admitted helping carry Tay’s body to the grave in the back yard of Acosta’s house.

Kirn Young Kim, 16, shares a love for computers with the others. He is a sergeant-at-arms of Sunny Hills’ Key Club, a school service organization. Kim lives in an upscale subdivision of Fullerton. Like Stuart Tay’s, Kim’s father is a physician.

Source: Times reports


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