SANTA ANA — Denouncing their crime as senseless and savage, an Orange County judge Friday sentenced two teen-age killers to 25 years to life in prison for the 1992 New Year's Eve killing of a young honors student, while a third defendant was committed to a detention facility for juveniles.
The sentencings brought to a close one of the most stunning crimes in Orange County history, in which five youths from loving, mostly well-off families bludgeoned and suffocated a fellow teen and buried him in a shallow grave in a Buena Park back yard.
The case revealed a troubling dark side to a seemingly idyllic teen life in the suburbs: The victim, Stuart A. Tay, 17, was bound for Princeton and wanted to become a doctor like his father, but in his spare time plotted to rob an Anaheim computer parts salesman, a scheme that ultimately led to his death.
At the close of a four-hour Superior Court hearing, the victim's mother, Linda Tay, made an emotional plea for the harshest sentence possible for her son's killers.
"Not a day, not an hour passes when I don't relive it all in my mind," said Tay, who sat stoically through two trials as pictures and graphic details of her son's killing were presented. "We are consumed with grief. Our house is like a tomb.
"Justice will and must prevail. Let the justice system work for us," she pleaded, asking the judge to send a message to violent juveniles.
According to court testimony, Stuart Tay was lured to a Buena Park house and beaten with baseball bats and a sledgehammer as he pleaded for his life in the garage. He was forced to drink rubbing alcohol before his mouth was taped shut and he was buried.
Prosecutors said the teen-agers decided to kill Tay because they learned he was using an alias while plotting the computer heist with his new friends. Tay had depicted himself as a local crime boss involved in counterfeiting and weapons trafficking, false claims that authorities attributed to a desperate attempt to gain respect.
Prosecutors alleged that the youths learned Tay's real name when he dropped his wallet one day. Fearing he was an undercover police officer, they decided to kill him, prosecutors said. After the slaying, the defendants abandoned his car in Compton to make it appear he had been a victim of a carjacking.
Addressing a crowded courtroom, Superior Court Judge Kathleen E. O'Leary called the sentencings one of the hardest decisions she has ever had to make in her 13 years on the bench.
O'Leary cited the inherent conflicts between rehabilitation and punishment before concluding that her priority was to protect the public as she sentenced Mun Bong Kang, 19, and Kirn Young Kim, 18, both of Fullerton, to 25 years to life in prison.
The judge used her discretion to hand Kang, who faced life in prison without parole, a more lenient sentence. She said she was also exercising her authority when she sentenced Abraham Acosta, 18, of Buena Park, who also faced life without parole, to the California Youth Authority, where he will be released when he turns 25.
Acosta, who suffers brain damage and was recruited by the others, was the youngest of the defendants but was also accused of being a key player in the killing.
The judge acknowledged she will be called to answer if Acosta is released from custody and commits another crime, but she said sending such the mentally deficient young man to prison would amount to a murder sentence, because she fears he would not survive the harsh environment.
The judge said she found herself at a loss to reconcile the defendants' background with their "senseless, savage" crime. She attributed the crime to misguided youths who had difficulty fitting in and were trying anything to get respect from their peers. She questioned whether any sentence could be appropriate in such tragic circumstances.
"The bottom line is, these kids were excluded by their peers and decided to take another life to gain acceptance, and I don't know how you fix that," she said, shaking her head.
O'Leary ordered that Kang and Kim be incarcerated at CYA until officials determine they can be sent to prison to serve the remainder of their sentence. They will likely become eligible for parole when they are in their early 30s.
O'Leary said people should not consider CYA a light sentence. "It's prison for juveniles. It's not Boys Town," she said.
The judge urged the youths to take advantage of rehabilitation programs while in custody and urged them to do what they can to ease their parents' pain. She noted that Kim wants to study toward a master's degree in business administration.
All but one of the defendants were tried as adults because of the severity of the killing.
In all, five youths were convicted, including Robert Chan, 20, of Fullerton, who was a candidate for class valedictorian and was destined for an Ivy League education before he was arrested and convicted for orchestrating the killing. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.