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Man Fled Debts, Not Homicide, Jury Told

Trial: Hugh 'Randy' McDonald, a Newport Beach attorney, killed a client's wife, then faked suicide, prosecution says. Defense denies killing.

September 11, 2002|MAI TRAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Prosecutors on Tuesday described attorney Hugh "Randy" McDonald as a manipulative man who murdered his client's wife, abandoned his family and then faked his death by pretending to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge.

But on the first day of McDonald's murder trial in Santa Ana, his attorney offered a far different picture of the former Newport Beach lawyer.

McDonald, Michael Molfetta said, was overwhelmed by trying to keep up with the "Newport Beach lifestyle."

In debt and depressed, he drove to the Golden Gate Bridge but at the last moment decided not to jump.

Instead, the attorney said, McDonald started a new, simpler life in Utah, unaware he was wanted for murder.

The sharply diverging views come more than a year after McDonald was arrested in the shooting death of a Villa Park woman.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Walt Schwarm told the seven-man, five-woman jury that McDonald chased Janie Pang around her home on May 30, 1997, with a gun and fatally shot her.

A housekeeper fled the house with Pang's children and ran next door to call police. Officials found Pang dead in a closet, crouched in the fetal position.

Schwarm did not offer a motive for the murder but pointed out that Pang's husband, Danny, was a client of McDonald's law firm. At the time of the murder, Pang owed the firm $20,000, of which McDonald was to receive $4,000, the prosecutor said.

McDonald fled to the Bay Area three days after the shooting.

According to authorities, he placed his watch with his business card attached on the ledge of the Golden Gate Bridge to make it look like he jumped off.

But Schwarm said it was a ruse designed to make authorities think he was dead so he could start a new life in Utah.

That same day, McDonald's wife (they've since divorced) received a Federal Express package from him that contained two cassette tapes, documents transferring property ownership and two books on how to cope with suicide.

In the tapes, played to jurors on Tuesday, McDonald laid out their finances and told Karen he took $2,500 from their checking account.

"I just wanted to throw myself a party for my last two days on Earth," McDonald said. "I'm sorry I put you in a horrible position. I just feel sick about it."

Police eventually tracked McDonald down in Utah, but he left before they could arrest him. In his apartment, they said they found hair dye, mailbox agreements, letterheads with fake names and a book titled titled "How to Completely Disappear and Never be Found."

He was arrested last year in Reseda.

But Molfetta said that McDonald isn't a murderer and that he left Orange County to escape depression and a loveless marriage. He denied the lawyer ever tried to disguise himself.

The defense says several witnesses, including the maid and Pang's 6-year-old son, pointed to another man during a photo lineup.

McDonald fled because his wife "wanted to live in Newport Beach where she could live the life that Randy wanted nothing to do with," Molfetta said.

"He's not running from law enforcement," Molfetta said. "He's running from his life in Newport Beach."

McDonald's ex-wife, Karen, testified for the prosecution Tuesday, saying the family was going through financial hard times when her husband disappeared. They owed $65,000 in credit-card debts and had to come up with tuition for their daughter's school.

She said McDonald is not capable of hurting anyone. His son, John, also testified for the prosecution. He waved at his father as he entered and left the courtroom.

"I still love him. Absolutely," he testified. "I feel anger toward the situation. I feel anger at the abandonment, but it doesn't diminish that I love him."

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