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Star Witness Recounts Cold Facts of Tay Killing : Courts: Youth who admits his part in O.C. honor student’s death testifies that friend Robert Chan orchestrated it.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Before he was slain on New Year’s Eve, 1992, honors student Stuart A. Tay begged for help and cried, “What did I ever do to you?” as two teen-agers beat him with baseball bats and a sledgehammer.

Those details came Thursday from an 18-year-old Fullerton resident who recounted the final, brutal night of Tay’s life as the murder trial unfolded for Robert Chan, the first of four teen-agers facing trial for the killing.

Calmly, almost clinically, the prosecution’s star witness described how Chan, 19, orchestrated the assault, joined the beating, then poured rubbing alcohol down Tay’s throat before sealing the boy’s mouth and nose with duct tape.

“He told me he had a grave ready for Stuart Tay,” Charles Bae Choe testified before an Orange County Superior Court jury. He said he helped Chan and the others wrap Tay in a sheet before burying him in a Buena Park back yard.

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In a county weary of gang crime and juvenile violence, Chan’s trial stands out because both victim and accused were seemingly model youths who came from well-off, loving families. Chan, was a candidate for valedictorian at his high school; Tay, 17, had the grades to become a physician, like his father.

But defense and prosecuting attorneys in the case told jurors the evidence will reveal darker sides to the youths, who were apparently engaged in a high-stakes game of one-upmanship that involved “power trips” and bragging about gang involvement, counterfeiting and buying and selling weapons--criminal activities that may or may not be true.

As the trial got underway Thursday morning, Chan’s mother slid down in her seat and appeared to pass out in the courtroom’s front row. The judge halted the defense attorney’s opening statements as Suh Chan was helped from the courtroom by her husband, Tony, and treated by paramedics. She did not return to the trial.

When Choe took the witness stand later in the day, the youth sat with his hands and ankles shackled, frequently exchanging glances with Chan, who sat nearby at the defense table.

Choe has pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and was sentenced to the California Youth Authority, rather than state prison. He is helping prosecutors make their case against his childhood friend.

Three others charged in the case, Abraham Acosta, 17, of Buena Park, and Mun Bong Kang and Kirn Young Kim, both 18 and of Fullerton, face a separate trial.

But under questioning by prosecutors, Choe insisted that Chan was the ringleader. He said Chan arranged to have the grave dug in Acosta’s back yard, and lured Tay to the family’s garage under the guise of a meeting to sell Tay a handgun.

And he said it was Chan who bought the rubber gloves to eliminate telling fingerprints from the crime scene, and concocted a scheme to made Tay look like the victim of a carjacking by dropping Tay’s sports car in Compton--with the keys still in the ignition.

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During a dress rehearsal the day of the slaying, he said, Chan made it clear he would give a sign--a nod--to Acosta, who would then attack Tay. Kim was assigned as a lookout by Chan, Choe said.

Choe said he stood by as the attack unfolded, but did not join in.

When Chan gave the prearranged nod, Acosta landed the first blow of the bat on Tay’s head and was then joined by Chan, Choe said.

Tay “was crying, he was asking for help,” Choe told the jury.

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When one of the bats broke, Chan continued with a sledgehammer, Choe said. But even after a beating that Choe said lasted about 20 minutes, Tay was still breathing. He said that Chan turned the boy over, lifted his head and poured rubbing alcohol down his throat, then taped up Tay’s mouth and nose. Tay ultimately choked to death on his own vomit.

Choe testified that it was Chan’s idea to hose down the garage, which was splattered with blood, and to give all the murder weapons and bloodied clothing to another man to destroy, Choe said.

“The concrete floor was covered with blood and there was blood on the portraits, on the wall--basically, there was blood everywhere,” he said.

Choe is expected to be released from the youth authority when he turns 25. On Thursday, Superior Court Judge Kathleen O’Leary refused to allow pictures of Choe in court out of concern for his safety in CYA.

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When he continues cross examining Choe this morning, defense attorney Marshall M. Schulman is expected to portray Choe as a youth who will say anything to save his own skin. The attorney is trying to discredit Choe with his own admission that he cheated on his SAT test and originally agreed to join the other teens in a computer robbery in exchange for $1,000.

During questioning, Choe admitted that he has considered withdrawing his guilty plea and finding a new attorney because his parents believe his sentence is too severe.

In his opening statement Thursday, Schulman portrayed his client as suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. Chan was convinced that his own life was being threatened by Tay, who on occasion claimed he was a Secret Service agent or a member of the CIA, Schulman said.

In his fragile mental state, Chan, then 18, had come to believe Tay was a powerful gang member who had countless followers at his command, Schulman told jurors, setting the stage for a defense that will lay some of the blame on the victim.

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Tay “didn’t know Robert Chan was a mentally distressed man,” Schulman said, adding that Tay was “feeding that mental distress to the extent he ended up in a grave” in Buena Park.

While prosecutors dispute whether such criminal activity or gang membership is true, Schulman told jurors that his client believed the claims and in many ways came to worship--and fear--Tay.

Chan, who is expected to testify, faces life in prison without parole if convicted.

During his opening statement, Schulman did not dwell on the killing itself, but instead outlined for jurors Chan’s mental demise--and highlighted his first meeting with Tay as an example of the sway the victim ultimately had over him.

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In late 1992, Chan was surprised when someone handed him a playing card--the ace of spades--with no explanation during an academic decathlon at school.

He did not know Tay at the time. But that night, Tay used Chan’s private pager number and stunned Chan by mentioning the card and other personal details--such as what Chan wore that day, and his relationship with a cheerleader, Schulman said.

Impressed, Chan agreed to meet Tay and was immediately presented with a plan: Tay was looking for a partner to rob an Anaheim computer-parts dealer, Schulman said. The planned robbery fell apart when Chan found out Tay had given a phony name and told other lies, officials said.

Schulman sought to dispute the prosecution’s attempt to portray his client as the mastermind, telling jurors that Acosta had in the past bragged about killing two people using bats, rubbing alcohol and tape--the same methods used to kill Tay. Prosecutors, however, said they there no evidence that any such killings occurred.

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After killing Tay, the teen-agers carefully cleaned up the crime scene and buried the body in a shallow grave, Choe said. Then, he said, he and Chan went out looking for New Year’s Eve parties.


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