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Calaveras County Residents Still Haunted by '85 Slayings

Courts: Many remain angry that accused serial killer Charles Ng has managed to avoid trial--until Sept. 1.

August 17, 1998|ERIC LICHTBLAU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WILSEYVILLE, Ca. — The gold miners and antique dealers and loggers who dot the sparse foothills of Calaveras County call him simply by his last name: Ng. They snarl as they say it. Wind your way through the county Mark Twain made famous in 1865, and it won't take long to find someone with a chilling connection to the man they say defamed this place 120 years later.

There's Danny Schembri at the car shop, who had to plow over the mound of makeshift graves with his tractor. And Mel Schell at the local diner, who considers himself lucky to be alive after he answered an ad that brought him out to the murder scene just a few weeks before the bones and bodies were discovered.

And there's school superintendent John Brophy's 17-year-old daughter, who just gave a talk on the gruesome case for an academic decathlon a few months ago, reliving the strange sight of police and media helicopters flying overhead en route to the burial ground.

Old memories--13 years old. But with Charles Ng set to go to trial in two weeks in Orange County for allegedly torturing and murdering a dozen people in one of the state's most horrific murder sprees, many here see their best chance to finally put the memories to rest.

"It used to be, people thought of Calaveras County and they thought of Mark Twain, frog-jumping and not much else," said county Administrative Officer Brent Harrington. "But now there's Charles Ng. . . . It never goes away. It's absolutely absurd. People just want this to be over."

The agonizing years of legal delays in trying Ng (pronounced "Eng"), now 37, have only deepened the community's wounds and fueled its bitterness.

The delays are now notorious, chronicled faithfully by small local papers in the Sierra foothills and blared reproachfully on network TV shows as an outrageous example of a legal system run amok. Some of the victims' relatives have sat through more than 70 hearings. The death penalty case, which has generated more than six tons of paperwork, is considered one of the longest-running and most expensive in the state's judicial history.

The case has been plagued by years-long extradition battles, elaborate security measures, fired defense lawyers, accidentally destroyed evidence and a transfer to Orange County in 1994 because of pretrial publicity in Calaveras County. There has been an endless stream of legal arguments and delays over such mundane issues as the strength of the defendant's eyeglasses, the temperature of his lunches and his right to practice origami--the Japanese art of paper-folding--in his jail cell.

Justice System Faulted

The laborious case has included all that and more--at a cost to state and Calaveras County taxpayers of $9.5 million and rising--and there are still many here who doubt that it will go to trial this time, no matter what the lawyers say.

"The real injustice here is the justice system," said Tad Folendorf, mayor of the only incorporated city, Angels Camp, in a rustic county of 36,500. "This should have been over and done with long ago. . . . The drain on public funds, that's almost a crime in itself."

The biggest villain here in the Mother Lode region was once a legendary Gold Rush-era robber nicknamed "Black Bart," a romanticized figure who held up more than two dozen stagecoaches at gunpoint in the late 1800s and sometimes left poems for his victims.

Then came the morbid discoveries of that first week in June 1985. This time, there was nothing romantic about the crimes or the alleged murderers, who authorities said sadistically tortured and killed at least 19 random victims from the Bay Area and the local community before burning and dismembering their bodies and burying them in the accused's yard.

It was the routine arrest of Ng's alleged accomplice, Leonard Lake, that set the case in motion. The 39-year-old survivalist was picked up in South San Francisco for stealing a $75 vise from a lumberyard. Once in custody, he swallowed a cyanide pill while police weren't looking and died a few days later.

Ng was at the lumberyard too, police said, but the ex-Marine fled the scene and remained on the lam. Investigators managed to track Lake's steps back to a rural home where he and Ng allegedly lived in the Calaveras County town of Wilseyville, population 500. They were shocked to discover the remnants of a brutal killing spree over the previous year.

On the sloping grounds of the modest two-bedroom home, investigators would unearth 45 pounds of charred bone fragments and teeth, along with jewelry, torn clothing, Lake's rambling diary, a body in a sleeping bag and a videotape showing two women being tortured. A cinder-block bunker, thought to have been used as a torture chamber, stood as a symbol of the madness.

Nightmare Unfolds

Terry Parker, who doubles as the elected coroner and the operator of the area's only two mortuaries, remembers the grim beginnings of the search.

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