Dramatic O.C. Murder Case to Jury

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The murder case was already filled with intrigue: A young stripper turned housewife is slain in the closet of her home in Orange County's wealthy horse country by a stranger in a business suit who carries a briefcase and pistol.

The prime suspect, a Newport Beach lawyer, allegedly fakes his suicide off the Golden Gate Bridge and spends four years on the lam, working menial jobs in Utah before being run to ground by detectives who refuse to let the case grow cold.

But if the story of Hugh "Randy" McDonald seemed like fodder for a television movie to begin with, his trial this week only added to the mystery surrounding the case.

Prosecutors brought murder charges against McDonald even though they could not supply a motive for the killing and established only a tenuous link between McDonald and the victim, Janie Pang, 33. McDonald, a man whom colleagues described as mild and controlled, allegedly called on Pang seeking payment for a $20,000 legal debt her husband owed his firm.

Hoping to establish reasonable doubt, defense lawyers have pointed the finger at Pang's husband, Danny, a Taiwanese businessman. Describing him as an abusive husband with ties to Asian organized crime, defense lawyers claim that Danny Pang hired a professional hit man to kill his wife. McDonald disappeared several days after Pang's death not because he committed the crime, defense lawyers say, but because he was in the throes of a "Walter Mitty" midlife crisis and chucked his troubled marriage and faltering practice for a life on the road.

And Danny Pang's own lawyer has suggested that neither McDonald nor Pang is guilty of the killing. The real culprit, he said, is a man who grew obsessed with Pang when she danced as a stripper. This man, attorney William Baker says, stalked and menaced the woman even as she moved on to a new life.

"I haven't seen any evidence that Randy McDonald has anything to do with the murder," he said.

On Wednesday, a jury began deliberations in the tangled case. Among the few solid facts the jury has to work with is that Janie Pang died around noontime on May 30, 1997, in her spacious Crestview Circle home in Villa Park.

According to the family maid and two of Pang's children, a clean-cut man with a pencil-thin mustache arrived at the door asking for her husband. The pair talked casually for a couple of minutes, until the man drew a semiautomatic pistol. Pang began running and the maid, terrified, spirited Pang's children out the back door.

Within minutes, the killer caught up with Pang, who tried to hide in her bedroom closet. The killer fired several .380-caliber rounds and left her to bleed to death as she lay in a fetal position.

A Suicide Staged

Several days later, whether by coincidence or consequence, McDonald left his own family and staged an elaborate fake suicide, prosecutors alleged.

Telling his wife he was traveling to the Bay Area for business, McDonald placed his watch and business card on a ledge of the Golden Gate Bridge. He also mailed cassette tapes to his wife and son that suggested he was going to kill himself. But McDonald headed to Utah, where he began a new, anonymous life.

During his four-year absence, McDonald combed the obituaries of local papers for aliases, took jobs as a meat-plant laborer and construction worker and once worked as a paralegal.

Prosecutor Walt Schwarm said the reason for his flight is obvious--he needed to hide after killing Pang. McDonald's lawyer, Michael Molfetta, offered a radically different explanation.

Far from being a successful Newport Beach attorney, McDonald was a man in a deep personal crisis. Trapped in a loveless marriage, McDonald turned to the personal ads and prostitutes for companionship, his lawyer said. His personal credit card debts swelled to more than $60,000, and he owed substantial tuition for his children's schooling. He attempted business ventures that failed and aided in money laundering schemes.

"We had a Newport Beach lifestyle and tended to spend every dollar we made," a subdued and monotone McDonald told the jury. "I married a woman who came from a social status.... I felt I never met their expectations."

McDonald told jurors that he absolutely did not kill Janie Pang but that he did seriously intend to kill himself. He said he changed his mind on the bridge. "I looked down. I was a coward. I couldn't do it," he said.

At the time of Pang's death, McDonald said, he was with a $400 prostitute, looking for a "little emotional connection." The prostitute has not been found to corroborate his story.

Prosecutors have scoffed at the alibi. "If everyone was able to [give that alibi] when they were accused of a crime, the system would break down," Schwarm said.

'This Was a Hit'

But McDonald's lawyer says that what really broke down in this case was the investigation into Pang's murder. Arguing that the investigation was conducted in an incompetent manner, Molfetta said that local investigators ignored a report compiled by the FBI and the Orange County and Los Angeles County sheriffs.

That report, according to court testimony, noted that Danny Pang was suspected of being a member of the United Bamboo Triad, an Asian crime group from Taiwan. Molfetta and co-defense counsel Michael Reed portrayed Danny Pang as a shady businessman and million-dollar gambler who abused his wife.

The defense also introduced evidence that Janie Pang had reported to police that her husband had broken her nose and made death threats.

"This was a hit," Molfetta said. "This is somebody who does this professionally."

Authorities reject the defense theories, saying they don't believe Danny Pang was connected to the mob or had anything to do with his wife's death.

Lawyers for the defense and the prosecution have been barred from discussing the case outside the courtroom. However, Danny Pang's lawyer defended his client against the accusations.

"This claim that Danny Pang was connected with organized crime is ridiculous," said attorney William Baker. "Maybe he was involved in some dot-com institutions that failed, but that doesn't make them illegal. They were just unsuccessful. I've never seen anything suspicious."

Baker said that the Pangs were happily married and that at the time of her death, Janie was packing for a trip to Hawaii to celebrate their fifth wedding anniversary.

Baker said that he believes that neither McDonald nor Pang was involved in the killing. He instead believes it was the work of another man who was stalking Janie Pang. (Investigators acknowledge that Pang was being stalked, but say that individual was ruled out as the killer.)

"I haven't seen evidence pointing to anyone else but the stalker," Baker said.

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Times staff writer Mai Tran contributed to this report.

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