Rare federal murder trial begins in Dana Point Harbor killing

The Ronald Reagan Federal Building and Courthouse at 411 W. Fourth St. in Santa Ana.
(Meghann Cuniff)

An unusual federal murder trial began this week in a Santa Ana courtroom, with jurors hearing of a midnight boat excursion off the Dana Point Harbor that left one man dead and unraveled an Orange County underworld of drugs, gambling and guns.

Hoang “Wayne” Xuan Le is accused of the gunshot slaying of Tri “James” Minh Dao on Oct. 15, 2019, in what prosecutors say was a planned execution driven by debt and a life insurance policy Le thought would finally get him what he was owed.

A second defendant, Sheila Ritze, is to be tried separately after Le. Both have been in jail since their arrests in late 2019.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office is prosecuting the case under federal maritime law because Tri “James” Minh Dao’s body was discovered in the Pacific Ocean, and investigators believe he was killed at sea.

But Dao’s lawyer offered jurors another explanation for the federal attention, and it has to do with a brother of the victim who knows the lead investigator well and operates an illegal poker operation out of his upscale home in Irvine.

“Alex Dao used to be a confidential informant for the FBI, and he made this agent’s career with the biggest case of his life,” said defense attorney Craig Wilke. “When Alex Dao wanted the FBI’s involvement, he went to his friend and got him involved.”

Wilke told jurors Le was defending himself from Dao after Dao threatened him with a gun during a lobster fishing trip because Le refused to lend him money. Wilke said Dao was still screaming, “I’m going to kill you” at Le as he fell into the ocean. The lawyer noted that while Dao was shot several times, a medical examiner concluded he died from drowning, though his manner of death was still ruled to be homicide.

The men were friends and partners in a large-scale marijuana business who Wilke said were well known in Little Saigon. Wilke described Le and Ritze as drug and drinking buddies who shared a love of cocaine and alcohol but weren’t romantic partners.

Body camera footage released by Tustin police sheds new light on the fatal police shooting of a homeless man who reportedly was suffering from mental health issues.

Wilke questioned Dao’s girlfriend of 16 years on Wednesday about Dao’s drug use and penchant for gunplay, which included domestic violence reports to police and a 2012 conviction in Nebraska for possessing 75 pounds of marijuana. Wilke also questioned Nguyen about her meetings with the FBI, and he implied she was pressured into lying about Le’s interest in Dao’s insurance policy because prosecutors needed a motive for their murder case.

Wilke was building on what he told jurors in his opening statement: Dao was a seasoned gangster whom Le admired, and Le embraced their lopsided relationship by accepting the nickname Wangster, which means wannabe gangster.

“He looked at James like an older brother and was always willing to help him,” Wilke said.

Wilke said Le was afraid to tell authorities about his act of self defense because he feared Dao’s brother, Alex.

“If Alex learned Wayne had gotten in this fight with James and left him out in the ocean, there would be retribution,” Wilke said.

But prosecutor Greg Scally said Le murdered Dao over a debt he believed could be paid through a life insurance policy that benefited Nguyen, and he and Ritze spoke of their plans to friends, some of whom will testify.

Authorities arrested Le nearly six weeks after another fisherman found Dao’s body floating in the ocean, based on a conversation Le had with a man who was secretly working with investigators.

They also found his DNA on a GPS tracker placed on Nguyen’s car; Nguyen testified Wednesday that she learned of the tracker through TV news reports.

In his opening statement, Scally described for jurors conversations Le had in which he bragged about the boat being a perfect place to “off somebody.” He said Le placed the GPS device on Nguyen’s car “to track her every move” as he tried to monitor the life insurance situation.

“But when James didn’t return from the boat trip with Wayne and Sheila, Natalie wasn’t concerned about settling up James’ accounts with Wayne,” said Scally, who’s prosecuting the case with Assistant U.S. Atty. Greg Staples. “She was naturally concerned about what had happened to her longtime boyfriend and the father of her two children.”

The trial is expected to continue into next week at least. U.S. District Judge David O. Carter is presiding.

Meghann M. Cuniff is a contributor to Times OC. She’s on Twitter @meghanncuniff.

Support our coverage by becoming a digital subscriber.