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Cold Trail of Suspect Warms Up

Crime: Lawyer Hugh McDonald, sought in a '97 killing, faked his death, authorities say.

July 21, 2001|JACK LEONARD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The trail of murder suspect Hugh "Randy" McDonald seemed to end at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Yards away, a car belonging to the Orange County attorney sat abandoned. His business card and watch teetered on the bridge's ledge.

The scene bore all the hallmarks of a suicide. And homicide detectives believed at first that McDonald had leaped into San Francisco Bay after becoming a suspect in the killing of a woman in Villa Park.

But four years later, Orange County Sheriff's Department officials announced Friday that they believe McDonald is very much alive.

The lawyer, they allege, staged his suicide and fled the state, starting a new life under a series of aliases in the hope that he would never have to look over his shoulder again.

"No matter how ingenious this attempt to escape was, it obviously didn't work," said sheriff's spokesman Jim Amormino. "In the end, it fooled nobody."

A unit devoted to cracking cold cases has taken over the probe, and Orange County prosecutors have issued an arrest warrant for McDonald, now 52, naming him as the prime suspect in Janie Pang's murder.

On May 30, 1997, Pang's maid opened the front door of the family's home to a clean-cut man in a business suit and pencil-thin mustache. Inside, the man talked casually with Pang for a few minutes, then drew a pistol.

As the terrified maid spirited two of Pang's three children out the back door, Pang ran upstairs to a bedroom. The gunman followed her, shooting her as she hid in a closet.

The killing horrified the wealthy hillside neighborhood where the Pangs had lived for two years, an area of Villa Park so remote from crime that neighbors even today sometimes leave their doors unlocked.

Within days of the killing, sheriff's officials released a sketch of the gunman. The man in the picture, officials said, bore a striking resemblance to McDonald, whose law firm had done work for a business owned by Pang's husband. Detectives at that point began to consider McDonald a possible suspect, but they never had enough evidence to charge him.

At the same time, McDonald disappeared, leaving a wife and three children in Corona del Mar, officials said. His family could not be reached for comment Friday.

Sheriff's detectives declined to detail what evidence they have linking McDonald to the case and said they remain unsure of a motive for the killing. Officials say it might have been robbery, but won't explain why.

According to detectives and police files, McDonald fled to Northern California days after Pang's death before staging his own suicide June 6, 1997. Investigators grew suspicious when they never found his body.

Then they received a call from Utah, where authorities were investigating a new attorney in town who they suspected was McDonald.

A local associate of the new lawyer had grown suspicious about his background and suggested to police that they look into who he really was.

Orange County homicide detectives flew to Utah to bring the man back, but he had disappeared. A few days earlier he had packed his bags and gone, without leaving a forwarding address.

Authorities say McDonald has managed to elude them ever since. He has changed his name and dyed his hair several times, sometimes growing a mustache or beard, officials said. In recent years, he has been sighted in states across the country, though investigators declined to name them.

Meanwhile, Pang's family has continued to hope that authorities will someday find whoever killed her. Janie Pang was gunned down on her fourth wedding anniversary, leaving three children, the youngest of whom was 6. Two of the children were hers from a previous marriage.

On Friday, husband Danny Pang declined through his lawyer to comment on the case.

"It's been tough enough on them for the past four years," attorney Bill Baker said. "It is very frustrating for everyone who knew Janie and who knows the Pang family."

Soon after the killing, Danny Pang forwarded a 20-page report to sheriff's investigators detailing harassment and vandalism that Janie Pang had suffered at the hands of a stalker years earlier. But sheriff's officials said they ruled out a link between the stalking and the killing.

Baker said the Pangs are grateful that the department has kept the investigation alive and are eager to find out what evidence investigators have found.

"We'd really like to see what it is that . . . they think links Mr. McDonald to the murder," Baker said.

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