As Jury Meets to Decide His Fate, Ng Expects Death

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As his attorneys prepare for the difficult task of persuading 12 jurors to spare the life of a man they already have convicted in a horrendous series of killings, Charles Ng says he is resigned to the probability that he faces death.

"I know I'm in Orange County; this is the most conservative county in the state," he said in a recent jailhouse interview with The Times. "I have no delusions about why they brought me here. They have accomplished their goal."

Ng, whose 14-year legal saga has frustrated victims' families, said he is equally frustrated. He says the media vilified him, and that the system railroaded his case by sticking him with a lawyer he doesn't trust and by sending his case to a tough-on-crime county.

"The whole system seems to want to move forward rather than doing it right," he said.

Today the defense starts its portion of the penalty phase of Ng's murder trial, which will decide whether Ng, 38, must die for his crimes or spend the rest of his life in prison. Ng's parents, who flew in from Hong Kong over the weekend, are expected to testify on his behalf. And his lawyers will introduce, among other things, Ng's proficiency in the paper-folding art of origami as a sign that he still has redeemable qualities.

But despite the ominous fate confronting him, the pudgy, bespectacled Ng seems more focused on his scorn for the man entrusted with defending him, Orange County Deputy Public Defender William Kelley.

"Kelley is your typical business-as-usual performance lawyer who doesn't care about the outcome," Ng said.

Kelley declined to comment on his relationship with his client.

"We will continue to make our best efforts on Mr. Ng's behalf, whether he realizes it or not," said Kelley, an 18-year veteran of the Orange County public defender's office.

Ng's grievances underscore a case that has been mired in legal entanglements for more than a decade and provide a window into the psyche of the man at the center of one of the longest and costliest prosecutions in state history. Since his arrest in Canada and eventual extradition to California, Ng has filed numerous legal motions complaining about everything from the conditions of his incarceration to the judges and lawyers assigned to his case.

To the families of the victims, they were the obvious delaying tactics of a guilty man. Ng says he is just trying to safeguard his rights. And he has not run out of complaints yet.

A seemingly run-of-the-mill shoplifting incident in Northern California in June 1985 led authorities to the discovery of a virtual killing field in a remote cabin by the Sierra Nevada foothills. That resulted in an international manhunt for Ng. He was arrested a month later in Calgary.

Prosecutors charged that Ng and his friend Leonard Lake, 39, lured their victims to the cabin in Calaveras County and killed them either for money or after forcing them into sexual slavery. It is believed that as many as 25 people perished on the property, and forensic experts combing the area found more than 40 pounds of charred human remains scattered on the grounds.

Ng fought extradition from Canada, which does not have the death penalty, but was eventually brought back to California after much political pressure was exerted on both sides of the border. His case was transferred to Orange County in 1994 because of pretrial publicity in Northern California.

All along, Ng has maintained his innocence. He testified during the trial that Lake, who committed suicide shortly after being arrested, was the true culprit in the murders.

"When Lake died I took his place as the sacrificial lamb," Ng said during the interview.

But the jury did not buy his story and convicted him in February of 11 of the 12 murders he was charged with. Jurors deadlocked on one count.

Ng talks about very little beyond the evidence presented in his trial. He frequently prefaces his statements with, "as I testified during the trial," and at times sounds more like a lawyer arguing a case than a man fearing for his life.

Asked about some of the most damning evidence--a videotape of Ng and Lake threatening two women that if they did not become sex slaves they would be raped and shot--Ng was almost academic.

"There is a difference between what I'm thinking at the time and planning to kill people," he said. "You can make only so many inferences from that tape. If I was Kelley I would have attacked the evidentiary value of the tape."

Ng's defense team did in fact try to convince jurors that the tape provided no direct proof of Ng's involvement in any of the murders. Ng said his attorneys should have done a better job.

Ng came to the United States from his native Hong Kong in 1978 on a student visa to attend the College of Notre Dame near San Mateo. He was studying biology, but dropped out after the first year because of poor grades, he said.

Ng then joined the Marines. He said he grew up watching American war movies and that he had always been fascinated by the military. In San Francisco, he met a recruiter who enlisted him even though he was not a citizen or a permanent resident.

He eventually ended up at the Kaneohe Marine Corps Air Station in Hawaii, where he ran afoul of the military authorities when he and three other soldiers raided a weapons depot.

"It was just a chance for gun enthusiasts to get their hands on things that you couldn't get in the outside world," he said.

Rather than face a court-martial, Ng fled. He made his way back to Northern California, where he met Lake, a fellow Marine and a Vietnam veteran.

"Part of me saw him as the father or big brother I always wanted," Ng said.

Their friendship was interrupted in 1982, when federal authorities raided their mobile home and seized a large stash of weapons and explosives. Ng, still wanted by the military, was court-martialed. Lake jumped bail and became a fugitive.

Ng served time at Ft. Leavenworth, Kan., then rejoined Lake in 1984. That's when the killing started, authorities say.

Lola Stapley, whose son Scott Stapley, 26, Ng is convicted of killing, said she is not surprised by Ng's second-guessing of his trial.

"He has had a long time to think about it" to get his story straight, Stapley, 70, said. "By fair trial, I don't know what else he wants. He's had 14 years."

"I think it is the last attempt to save his life," an angry Dian Allen, younger sister of murder victim Kathi Allen, said from her home in San Jose. "How does he expect anyone to believe that he feels any remorse when he sat in that courtroom stone-faced, showed no reaction, and now he's going to turn around and say he felt bad? Give me a break."

On the other hand, Michael Burt, a San Franciso deputy public defender who was originally assigned to Ng's case, said Ng has a legitimate claim that his rights were denied.

"These lawyers were thrust upon him over his objection," Burt said.

Ng seems sure of his fate. He passes the time reading and doing his origami, which he was allowed to do again after jail authorities banned it for years over concerns about contraband.

When asked what he thought of his prospects, Ng paused, traced his fingers around the cold metal table and said "Life without parole is a slow death, and execution is death on their time, on their terms."

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