The gold miners and antique dealers and loggers who dot the sparse foothills of Calaveras County call him simply by his last name: Ng. They snarl as they say it. Wind your way through the county Mark Twain made famous in 1865, and it won’t take long to find someone with a chilling connection to the man they say defamed this place 120 years later.
There’s Danny Schembri at the car shop, who had to plow over the mound of makeshift graves with his tractor. And Mel Schell at the local diner, who considers himself lucky to be alive after he answered an ad that brought him out to the murder scene just a few weeks before the bones and bodies were discovered.
And there’s school superintendent John Brophy’s 17-year-old daughter, who just gave a talk on the gruesome case for an academic decathlon a few months ago, reliving the strange sight of police and media helicopters flying overhead en route to the burial ground.
Old memories--13 years old. But with Charles Ng set to go to trial in two weeks in Orange County for allegedly torturing and murdering a dozen people in one of the state’s most horrific murder sprees, many here see their best chance to finally put the memories to rest.
“It used to be, people thought of Calaveras County and they thought of Mark Twain, frog-jumping and not much else,” said county Administrative Officer Brent Harrington. “But now there’s Charles Ng. . . . It never goes away. It’s absolutely absurd. People just want this to be over.”
The agonizing years of legal delays in trying Ng (pronounced “Eng”), now 37, have only deepened the community’s wounds and fueled its bitterness.
The delays are now notorious, chronicled faithfully by small local papers in the Sierra foothills and blared reproachfully on network TV shows as an outrageous example of a legal system run amok. Some of the victims’ relatives have sat through more than 70 hearings. The death penalty case, which has generated more than six tons of paperwork, is considered one of the longest-running and most expensive in the state’s judicial history.
The case has been plagued by years-long extradition battles, elaborate security measures, fired defense lawyers, accidentally destroyed evidence and a transfer to Orange County in 1994 because of pretrial publicity in Calaveras County. There has been an endless stream of legal arguments and delays over such mundane issues as the strength of the defendant’s eyeglasses, the temperature of his lunches and his right to practice origami--the Japanese art of paper-folding--in his jail cell.
Justice System Faulted
The laborious case has included all that and more--at a cost to state and Calaveras County taxpayers of $9.5 million and rising--and there are still many here who doubt that it will go to trial this time, no matter what the lawyers say.
“The real injustice here is the justice system,” said Tad Folendorf, mayor of the only incorporated city, Angels Camp, in a rustic county of 36,500. “This should have been over and done with long ago. . . . The drain on public funds, that’s almost a crime in itself.”
The biggest villain here in the Mother Lode region was once a legendary Gold Rush-era robber nicknamed “Black Bart,” a romanticized figure who held up more than two dozen stagecoaches at gunpoint in the late 1800s and sometimes left poems for his victims.
Then came the morbid discoveries of that first week in June 1985. This time, there was nothing romantic about the crimes or the alleged murderers, who authorities said sadistically tortured and killed at least 19 random victims from the Bay Area and the local community before burning and dismembering their bodies and burying them in the accused’s yard.
It was the routine arrest of Ng’s alleged accomplice, Leonard Lake, that set the case in motion. The 39-year-old survivalist was picked up in South San Francisco for stealing a $75 vise from a lumberyard. Once in custody, he swallowed a cyanide pill while police weren’t looking and died a few days later.
Ng was at the lumberyard too, police said, but the ex-Marine fled the scene and remained on the lam. Investigators managed to track Lake’s steps back to a rural home where he and Ng allegedly lived in the Calaveras County town of Wilseyville, population 500. They were shocked to discover the remnants of a brutal killing spree over the previous year.
On the sloping grounds of the modest two-bedroom home, investigators would unearth 45 pounds of charred bone fragments and teeth, along with jewelry, torn clothing, Lake’s rambling diary, a body in a sleeping bag and a videotape showing two women being tortured. A cinder-block bunker, thought to have been used as a torture chamber, stood as a symbol of the madness.
Terry Parker, who doubles as the elected coroner and the operator of the area’s only two mortuaries, remembers the grim beginnings of the search.
“When that first started, we didn’t have a clue what we were getting into,” he said in an interview. But then more and more evidence kept turning up--a bone here, a shoe there, an entire body in a ditch. “It got to the point where you were thinking: ‘Am I walking on [someone’s remains] now? There could be more under every rock. How much longer could this go on?’ ”
In a county that suffers perhaps a handful of murders in a bad year, he said, “we’d never seen anything like this. . . . It was amazing.”
For weeks, shellshocked residents asked: Where is Ng? Will he be back?
“I think it startled a lot of people out of their feelings of security around here,” said California Highway Patrol Officer Bill Claudino. “People started locking their doors and listening for noises and wondering who lives next door. You still see that.”
A month after the first remains were discovered, Ng was captured in Calgary, Canada, when he tried to shoplift a soda. That ended a worldwide manhunt, but it began the 13-year marathon to his trial date next month.
Because Canada does not have a death penalty, it took a ruling by that nation’s highest court six years later, in 1991, to force Ng’s extradition.
Ng’s return to California triggered a legal proceeding at Calaveras County’s small, rural courthouse that was unprecedented in its security and celebrity.
Ng was driven in from Folsom State Prison with a helicopter escort for a cavalcade of pretrial hearings that would span three years. Spectator spots were at a premium--"You had to know someone,” Harrington recalls--and the county had to find a portable metal-detector to use for onlookers because of security concerns spurred by the communitywide animosity toward Ng.
Armed officers stood watch on the roof of the courthouse, and Cheryl Scheftner, who owns a Western-style clothes store in town, remembers her surprise at how aggressively she and other potential jurors were searched as they strolled into court for duty.
“They were real concerned that someone would sneak in and try to kill [Ng],” she said. “He probably wasn’t 10 feet away from me in court. It gave me the chills just to be that close to him.”
Bolstering the argument for transferring the case to Orange County, one defense survey several years ago found an extraordinary 98% of Calaveras County’s residents familiar with the case--with half believing Ng is guilty.
If the acidic sentiments of the diners at Station 49 in San Andreas one recent morning are any indication, those feelings haven’t softened much today.
The mere mention of Ng’s name evoked bitter profanities as the breakfast crowd, made up mostly of graying miners and retired laborers, lingered over the morning’s eggs and coffee.
“You want justice?” asked one diner in a weathered Raiders cap. “Let ‘em bring him back up here [from Orange County] and see what happens. We’ll give him justice.”
Seventy-two-year-old Charlie Segale chimed in: “People in Calaveras County just want to hang him and get it done with.”
At the counter, 63-year-old diner owner Schell was more thankful than vengeful.
He remembers answering Lake’s ad for car parts a few weeks before the murder spree was discovered, talking to Lake and checking out a few of his cars on the property. The killers had allegedly used advertisements to meet several victims.
“It was pretty scary to think I could’ve been one of the victims,” Schell said. “Those guys touched a lot of people around here.”
Touched more than most are the people around the murder scene in Wilseyville, a sparsely populated, downtrodden area that boasts mock street signs like “Poverty Lane” near the general store, the post office and the dump at the center of town.
A Lingering Presence
Some locals are so tired of the infamy that the subject has become taboo, and they shoo away the passersby who inevitably seek a glimpse of the tree-shrouded murder scene. A thick, padlocked gate and a “Keep Out” sign buffer the desolate site, and townspeople say they aren’t even sure who, if anyone, lives there now.
“We just try to forget it,” said Shirley Brown, who runs the general store in Wilseyville.
In nearby San Andreas, waitress Patty Hook says she can’t even drive through that area without “getting the creeps. . . . Just the word Wilseyville, when I hear that, I go uuugh.”
Schembri, a jack-of-all-trades whose car shop sits just a few miles down the road, summed up the attitude of many when he said: “Enough is enough. Everyone just wants an end to this whole thing.”
That could come next month if Ng’s trial gets underway in Orange County as planned. But first there is a pretrial hearing Friday, and Ng--acting as his own lawyer--will be making a new run at an old theme: He wants the trial delayed six months.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
The 13-Year Trek to Trial
July 1984-May 1985: At least 12 people in Northern California disappear.
June 2, 1985: Leonard Lake, 39, is arrested at a Bay Area lumberyard for shoplifting and dies a few days later, after ingesting a cyanide pill while in custody. Charles Ng, 24, flees the lumberyard.
June, 1985: Lake’s arrest leads authorities to a rural home in the foothills of Calaveras County that he and Ng allegedly shared. There they find the buried remains of at least 19 people that allegedly had been tortured, killed, dismembered and burned.
July, 1985: Ng is captured in Canada after shoplifting a soda.
September 1991: After years of international haggling, the Canadian Supreme Court allows Ng to be extradited to California to stand trial in the capital case, even though Canada does not have a death penalty.
October 1992: Ng files a $1-million civil malpractice lawsuit against two of his U.S. lawyers.
September 1994: The case is moved to Orange County because of extensive pretrial publicity in Calaveras County. Bankrupt Orange County would later worry that it can’t afford the litigation’s hidden costs, but the case has remained there under an agreement that calls for the county to be reimbursed by the state and Calaveras County.
May 1997: In the latest in a wide-ranging series of motions by Ng over his accommodations, an Orange County judge rules that the defendant may not do origami paper-folding in jail because of the possibility that contraband will be smuggled to him in the paper.
October 1997: It is disclosed that key evidence, including bullets and blood samples, was accidentally destroyed by San Francisco police who mistakenly listed the case as closed. The prosecution would later suffer another setback when a key witness is killed in a car accident.
June 1998: Ng debuts as his own attorney in Orange County after fighting to remove numerous court-appointed lawyers over the years. He wins a one-month delay after complaining about bad eyeglasses.
Sept. 1, 1998: Ng is scheduled to stand trial on charges of murdering 12 people.