A 16-year-old charged in connection with the shooting of two Westlake High School football players failed to appear in court Friday and may have fled to his native Taiwan, prosecutors said.
Deputy Dist. Atty. John A. Vanarelli said in court that James Tung Lee and his parents are recent immigrants with extensive family ties in Taiwan. He told Superior Court Judge Lawrence Storch that the Lees have considerable financial means, and later said they could easily finance a trip out of the country.
The judge issued an arrest warrant for Lee and raised his bail from $5,000 to $100,000.
Lee’s attorney said in court that he has been unable to establish contact with either James Lee or his parents.
On Oak Grove Place in Thousand Oaks, where the Lees have lived for about five years, neighbors said the family has not been seen for at least two weeks, since shortly after James Lee was bailed out of Juvenile Hall.
“The only thing I can tell you is the parents were receiving hate mail, telling them to leave the country,” said the attorney, Thomas Messereau Jr., outside the Ventura court.
Lee first failed to appear for a Superior Court arraignment Wednesday. At the time, Storch rescheduled the arraignment and gave the teen-ager’s attorney until Friday to have his client make it to court.
Lee’s no-show Friday comes one day after another judge ordered three of the youth’s alleged accomplices in the Feb. 4 melee, all 16-year-old Asian Americans, to stand trial as adults in the matter.
The brawl occurred after Lee and football player Curtis Simmons agreed to meet after school at North Ranch Park to engage in a fight, according to court testimony. Investigators say Lee showed up with five carloads of supporters, some of whom were armed with bats, sticks and guns.
Authorities said Lee’s friends jumped out of their cars and announced, “We’re the Asian Mafia,” and attacked Simmons and his friends. Two were shot, but recovered from their wounds.
Lee was ordered to stand trial as an adult, but prosecutors dropped one of the two assault charges against him on Wednesday. He faces up to four years in state prison.
“I hope they haven’t gone,” prosecutor Vanarelli said. “I’m just shocked. I just never expected them to fail to appear like this.”
Vanarelli attributed Lee’s failure to appear in court Wednesday to miscommunication. But now he believes it may be more than that, he said.
“For them not to show up, and the attorney not to be able to get ahold of them is worrisome,” Vanarelli said. “I have to assume the worse: that they have left or are planning to leave.”
He said the case against the other three boys could be compromised if Lee does not show up, because he would expect their attorneys to blame everything on the missing defendant.
Defense attorney Messereau said his client’s absence from court surprised him, but Messereau refused to discuss his attempts to locate the family.
Authorities have been unable to locate Lee’s older brother, Frank, since the shooting. They believe he helped his younger brother arrange for the massive turnout of Asian American youths at the park and are considering filing charges against him, they said.
Messereau said he expected his client to appear Wednesday.
“I’m sorry he didn’t because I think the case has been looking better and better for the defendant,” said Messereau, noting that one of the charges had been dropped.
He said the case had caused Lee’s parents to experience some stress-related medical problems and that the family believed the charges were racially motivated.
The Lees’ Spanish-style compound, nearly hidden from sight atop a hill off a private drive, is guarded by a double, wrought-iron gate flanked by two red-brick columns. The gate was locked Friday and no one answered the security intercom at the six-bedroom house, valued at roughly $1 million.
One neighbor, who refused to be identified, said she last saw James Lee’s father, whose name was not immediately known, about 14 days ago.
“He looked like he had lost a lot of weight,” the woman said. “He looked very dejected.”
Since then, she said she has not seen the family, though the gate was opened several times last week, possibly by the gardeners. “It’s just kind of spooky,” she said.
A senior at Westlake High School who lives on the other side of the Lees’ house said she last saw the parents driving their Mercedes-Benz the day their son was released from Juvenile Hall.
Times correspondent Julie Fields contributed to this report.