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O.C. Murder Mystery: Why Tay Was Killed

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Robert Chan was one of the brightest students to ever walk the halls at Sunny Hills High School in Fullerton but he was also typical teen: He agonized over acne and clothes and had to work up the nerve to ask out a pretty cheerleader.

“I don’t date, you know, I don’t know any girls,” Chan told a Superior Court jury, shrugging shyly and looking boyish in a pale yellow sweater with a white collar peeking over the top. He aspired for the preppy look but felt humiliated when other kids made fun of his “high-water” pants and his habit of wearing white sweat socks with dress pants and shoes.

He and his buddies often hung out at a McDonald’s or Carl’s Jr. and needed their parents’ permission to stay out late on a school night. Chan lifted weights to get “buff” and spent hours on the phone getting help through the tough spots in computer games.

As he took the witness stand in his own defense, Chan sounded like any other youth grappling with that awkward stage of adolescence. Except that between attending honors classes, doing homework and watching rented videos of “Silence of the Lambs” and “Faces of Death,” Chan was plotting a murder.

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The 19-year-old was convicted last week of first-degree murder for masterminding the 1992 New Year’s Eve slaying of fellow honor student Stuart A. Tay, and jury selection is underway in a second trial for two of his friends. Two other teen-agers have already pleaded guilty.

Even after a monthlong trial, jurors in Chan’s case said they were at a loss to understand how such young, promising lives went so terribly wrong without warning.

“I feel for the Tay family, but I also feel for the Chans,” said juror Ulla Laing of Huntington Beach. “I’m a mother and I’ll tell you, I’ll never forget this case. It’s frightening to think something like this could happen, and you have no idea about it.”

In many ways, the murder mirrored the brilliance of its ringleader--Chan--and tactics culled from TV police dramas. But the near-perfect crime was bungled when Chan talked about the murder matter-of-factly at school.

“They almost got away with this,” Deputy Dist. Atty. Lewis R. Rosenblum told jurors in his closing argument.

A neighbor who testified that he stumbled upon the teens digging the grave helped police find the body in the back yard of one of the accused teen-agers. Police might never have found the neighbor, however, if Chan had resisted spreading the word about the crime, Rosenblum told the jury.

Chan offered fellow students $200 to help dump a body and was overheard saying he wanted to kill someone who had made him angry, according to trial testimony.

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Tay was lured to Abraham Acosta’s garage, beaten unconscious with baseball bats and forced to swallow rubbing alcohol before his body was crammed into a shallow grave in the back yard.

The murder was planned days, if not weeks in advance. Baseball bats and a sledgehammer were strategically hidden. A dress rehearsal ensured everyone knew his place. Rubber gloves were purchased to eliminate fingerprints. One of the suspects allegedly colored his hair blond before dumping Tay’s sports car in Compton to mislead police into believing that Tay, 17, had been carjacked, according to the trial testimony.

Chan coolly remarked to a friend that police would have no motive to link him to the crime. After one of the suspects learned from watching a police drama on television that a single clothing fiber could link a suspect to a crime, plans were made to ditch--or burn--all evidence, a prosecution witness testified during the trial.

But the charred remains of a bat, a plastic alcohol container and clothing were retrieved from a Newport Beach barbecue pit.

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Chan said he had believed the victim would fall unconscious after a single blow. But when Tay struggled to stay alive he was beaten so mercilessly that blood splatters were still visible on the walls and ceiling of Acosta’s garage when police arrived five days later, according to the trial testimony.

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Jury selection continues Monday in the murder trial for Acosta, 17, of Buena Park and Kirn Young Kim, 18, of Fullerton. The teen-agers have pleaded not guilty.

Defense attorney Allan H. Stokke, who represents Kim, contends that his client was not even present at the scene of the murder.

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The prosecution, however, contends that Kim played the role of lookout, while Acosta helped beat Tay to death. Acosta’s attorney, Deputy Public Defender Denise Gragg, is expected to argue her client is mentally retarded and was manipulated by others.

Two other defendants, Mun Bong Kang, 19, and Charles Choe, 18, both of Fullerton, have pleaded guilty for their roles in the killing.

When it was over, investigators say, Acosta turned in for the night after the body was buried in his back yard. Chan and Choe rang in the New Year party hopping, according to court testimony, while Kim went home and played computer games.

Tay had met the teen-agers after he contacted Chan and proposed robbing an Anaheim computer dealer, according to the trial testimony. Chan testified that his friend Choe helped recruit the others for the computer heist that was never carried out.

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The prosecution contends that the other teens turned on Tay after learning that the victim had lied about his name, age and background, and they feared a double-cross.

Most of the youths involved had bright futures and lived in comfortable neighborhoods with loving families who were prominent in Orange County’s Asian American community.

Both Tay and Chan had dreams of attending Princeton University.

But unknown to their families, Chan and Tay were seemingly fascinated with crime and danger.

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Chan allegedly bragged to others about his involvement in a powerful Asian gang, and was able to enlist fellow teens to provide the backup and “firepower"--including an AK-47 and other high-powered weaponry--for the robbery.

Prosecutors say he ran a side business arranging for smart kids to take SAT tests for the less academically inclined. In the weeks before the murder, Chan watched as several of his friends beat up another teen-ager who had made fun of Chan’s “high-water” pants--although Chan denied ordering the attack.

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A computer whiz, Tay often zipped around Foothill High School in Santa Ana in the 1990 red Nissan 300ZX his parents gave him for doing well in his classes. He also played keyboard for an alternative music band and idolized Martin Gore--a keyboardist for the group Depeche Mode.

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Chan’s defense attorney asserted that Tay had bragged about ties to the Secret Service and CIA and portrayed himself as a 19-year-old underworld crime figure with 100 followers at his command.

Tay sported a beeper and gave the impression it meant he was someone with connections, someone to be reckoned with, friends at school recalled. In fact, his mother had bought the beeper so he would always be just a phone call away.

All this bravado had been started by Tay during a bizarre meeting between Tay and Chan during fall 1992, and led to a deadly game of “one-upmanship” and “head games” designed to impress, according to Chan’s attorney, Marshall M. Schulman.

Chan told jurors he was at an academic decathlon when a stranger dumbfounded him by handing him a playing card--the ace of spades--a card supposedly associated with death. Later that night, Tay called Chan at home and identified himself as the sender of the card. He introduced himself using the alias Martin--the name of Chan’s musical idol, Schulman said.

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Tay claimed to have picked Chan to be his crime associate in the Fullerton area, according to trial testimony.

Chan told jurors he originally refused, but ultimately became too afraid to back out of the robbery plan that involved forcing their way into a computer dealer’s home, tying up the family and stealing thousands in goods.

Chan, who has been diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic, said he agreed to the murder only because he believed he would be killed by Tay. The jury returned a guilty verdict in less than three hours, rejecting Chan’s self-defense argument.

But jurors said they agreed with Schulman’s analysis of the case in closing arguments. No one would ever find a rational motive behind the tragic slaying, he told jurors.

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“Ask yourself why Stuart Tay got involved with this, and you’ll never find an answer. Ask yourself why Robert Chan got involved, and you’ll never come up with an answer,” Schulman told them. “These were a bunch of kids playing grown-up games.”

Tay Murder: Cast of Characters

The 1992 New Year’s Eve murder of honor student Stuart A. Tay shocked Orange County and gained nationwide attention as a troubling example of violent juvenile crime. Many of the accused were seemingly model Orange County youths.

Stuart A. Tay Age: 17 when murdered Residence: Orange Personal: Boy Scout and computer whiz; ranked 32nd in a class of 283 at Santa Ana’s Foothill High School. Aspired to attend Princeton University and follow in the footsteps of his physician father. Told his parents he was going to run an errand when he left home. Found bludgeoned and buried in a Buena Park back yard.

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Robert Chan Age: 19; 18 at time of murder Residence: Fullerton Personal: Named “Student of the Month” at Fullerton’s Sunny Hills High School shortly before the murder. Son of an engineer and a homemaker; lived in an affluent neighborhood and once listed his ambitions as “doctor, businessman, bodybuilder, actor.” Also wanted to attend Princeton. Status: Convicted of masterminding the murder, he faces life in prison without possibility of parole.

Kirn Young Kim Age: 17; 16 at time of murder Residence: Fullerton Personal: Sunny Hills classmates considered him a “nerd” who loved computers second only to computer games. Was a sergeant-at-arms at his school’s Key Club (a service organization). Helped Boy Scouts pack food for the needy at Thanksgiving. Lived in Fullerton’s upscale Islands section; son of a physician. Status: Jury selection underway. Being tried as an adult for allegedly acting as lookout during the murder. Could receive life in prison without parole.

Charles Choe Age: 18; 17 at time of murder Residence: Fullerton Personal: A popular senior at Sunny Hills. Scored high on SATs; known for his interest in computers. Volunteered at Fullerton YMCA’s child-care program; described by fellow students as “clean-cut.” Status: Only suspect to be prosecuted as a juvenile. Pleaded guilty and agreed to testify against former co-defendants. Expected to be released from California Youth Authority when he turns 25.

Abraham Acosta Age: 17; 16 at time of murder Residence: Buena Park Personal: Only one of the accused enrolled in special-education classes at Sunny Hills. Known as a loner who wore outlandish hats and clothes; loved to dance and attend “raves"--underground parties. Lived with his mother and four siblings in a rented home where Tay’s body was found. Status: Jury selection underway. Accused of joining in the beating and faces life in prison without parole. His attorney is expected to argue he is mentally retarded and was easily manipulated by the others.

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Mun Bong Kang Age: 19; 17 at time of murder Residence: Fullerton Personal: Quiet and kept to himself. Sunny Hills classmates knew little about him. Was scheduled for trial with Acosta and Kim, but abruptly pleaded guilty Tuesday to assisting in the murder. Defense attorney Ronald G. Brower said Kang’s parents wanted him to take responsibility for his actions and spare the Tay family additional pain. Status: Superior Court Judge Kathleen E. O’Leary must decide whether to sentence him as an adult or juvenile. Maximum sentence is life in prison without parole.

Source: Times reports; Researched by RENE LYNCH / Los Angeles Times


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