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Murder defendant claims self-defense in fatal high-seas confrontation

Dana Point Harbor.
The defendant testified in a rare federal trial in which Hoang “Wayne” Xuan Le is accused of the gunshot slaying of Tri “James” Minh Dao in 2019 in the waters off Dana Point Harbor.
(Karen Tapia / Los Angeles Times)

A man facing murder charges in a rare federal trial told a jury last week of a struggle for his life during a late-night lobster fishing trip that left him trying to figure out the fate of a friend who fell into the sea.

Part of Hoang “Wayne” Xuan Le’s solution was to plant a GPS tracker on the man’s van and track its movements. Le testified he did so because he feared if Tri “James” Minh Dao were alive, Dao would shoot him in revenge for the boat fight, but he also testified he was interested in collecting money from an insurance scheme he thought Dao was conducting.

Prosecutors, however, say Le was in reality tracking Dao’s girlfriend Natalie Nguyen because he knew Dao was dead and he hoped to collect on his life insurance policy. In cross-examination Oct. 19, Le admitted to Assistant U.S. Atty. Greg Staples that text messages he sent about tracking the van to Arizona weeks after the boat fight referred to Nguyen, not Dao.

Le, now 40 years old, also acknowledged quickly returning to his daily routine of rampant drug use, telling Staples he used drugs to try to escape his problems.

“And your problem, sir, was you left your friend out in the ocean to die, isn’t it?” Staples asked.

“I didn’t know what was going to happen,” Le answered.

“Sir, you were more than three miles off shore, weren’t you?” Staples asked.

“I’m not sure how far we were from the shore,” Le answered.

Staples and Assistant U.S. Atty. Greg Scally say Le, Dao and their friend Sheila Ritze were about 3½ miles off the coast of the Dana Point Harbor on Oct. 15, 2019, on a boat owned by Ritze when Le shot Dao and dumped him into the Pacific Ocean. Le and Ritze are charged with first-degree murder; Ritze is scheduled to be tried after Le and has not been in the courtroom for Le’s trial. Both have been in jail since their arrests in December 2019.

Hoang “Wayne” Xuan Le is accused of shooting Tri “James” Minh Dao on a boat in October 2019. The two had been friends and partners in a large-scale marijuana business.

In direct examination from his lawyer, Craig Wilke, Le described for jurors how Dao threatened him with a gun and a brief scuffle ensued in which Le fired his own gun in self-defense. Investigators only recovered Le’s firearm; Le testified he tossed Dao’s in the ocean and never saw it again.

Staples and Scally’s case for premeditated murder rests on testimony from Ritze’s former mother-in-law, Sandra Ritze, and several associates of Le’s who say the two planned to kill Dao. Sandra Ritze said Dao was with them on a trip to Las Vegas weeks before the murder, and when she asked Shelia who he was, she told him not to worry, that’d they’d be “offing” him soon.

Vinh Doan testified about Le insisting on meeting him three days after the killing at Frogg’s Bounce House in Fountain Valley, where Doan had taken his young daughter to play. Doan said Le told him he’d killed someone on a boat in the ocean and that he never said Dao threatened him or pointed a gun at him as he’s now claiming.

Tony Haung also testified that Le told him he’d shot someone over a $30,000 to $40,000 debt, as did another acquaintance of Le’s, Shawn Whalin, who also said Le foreshadowed the murder.

Haung later worked as a confidential informant for the U.S. Coast Guard and wore a recorder, though he testified that his recording did not capture the confession and instead begins immediately after.

Haung testified about wanting to contact Dao’s brother, Alex Dao, a drug kingpin and former confidential informant, to tell them what Le had done. “What Wayne told me was really gnawing at me. If it happened to my brother, I wish someone would come and tell me what really happened,” Haung said, adding that he was paid $25,000 by the Coast Guard.

Wilke, who’s defending Le with attorney Sheila Sarah Mojtehedi, has worked to discredit the testimony by showing jurors that each witness is motivated to lie.

Doan didn’t start talking to investigators until after he was arrested on federal identity theft charges on Dec. 23, 2019. He reached a plea deal in July, and he testified that his cooperation in Le’s prosecution could earn him a positive recommendation from prosecutors. Whalin was arrested shortly after Le’s arrest, too, and has since pleaded guilty to three felonies and is awaiting sentencing.

In his testimony last week, Le said he lied to Whalin about Dao owing him money because he “just trying to impress Shawn.” He said the $30,000 to $40,000 debt “just sounded cool.” But he denied ever telling Whalin he planned to kill Dao.

Le said he didn’t help Dao after he fell into the ocean because “I was just scared of the situation.”

“I didn’t know how to react,” Le said. “I was just still in shock, like, ‘What was going on?’ and I didn’t know what to do.”

Le said he didn’t learn Dao had died until he was arrested on suspicion of his murder.

Testimony continues Dec. 1. U.S. District David O. Carter is presiding.

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

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