Revised from DISGUISE OF SANITY Pepperbox Books ©Michael Cartel
Lush Highway 26 leads to Wilseyville, a saw mill town that survived when the lumber company pulled out. The area is warm, verdant, relaxed, just where vacationers escape from civilization. No people, noise or problems.
A couple driving near the town are lured into a trail by deep lines of shade trees. At the end of the road they meet Leonard Lake advancing from a clearing that looks like a screaming mouth.
No one would see the couple again until authorities played a video machine at Lakes’ cabin. On the TV tape a woman is chained to a chair screaming as Lake tears her clothes with a knife. Her husband has already been torched and buried. She will soon join many other vacationers who had also turned down the wrong road.
A week after he filmed his fantasy tape, Lake and his partner, Charles Ng went to a South San Francisco hardware store to replace a broken torture vice. Lake sat in his car as Ng (pronounced “Ing”) loaded the new vice into the trunk but ran away fast when the store manager moved toward him. Lake told the manager that he would simply pay for the lifted item.
Trouble was police were already at the scene where a cop ran the plates on Lake’s car, finding it belonged to a Paul Cosner who had been missing for several months. The face on the driver license (Robin Stapley) looked far younger than the 39-year old Lake as well. But Lake was finally arrested when the cop looked to the car trunk, finding an illegal silencer fitted onto a revolver.
While in police custody, Lake said nothing but wrote the name of ‘Charles Ng’ on a pad, then casually pulled two cyanide capsules from his sewn coat lapel and swallowed. After moments of convulsions and four days spent in coma, Lake ended his life but started a mystery that wouldn’t end for another 14 years. Aside from Lake giving up Ng’s name, detectives got their start from a gas bill in the stolen car’s glove box that led to the Wilseyville property.
Investigators walked into Lake’s cabin and into a horrific nightmare where none of them would ever sleep well again.
Charles Ng became the issue of an international manhunt after he was suspected of assisting Lake in varuous projects. One of Lake’s projects was getting his rustic cabin ready to survive a nuclear war. A diary explained that with “Project Miranda” he planned on building a bunker stockpiled with supplies, weapons, and of course, obedient sex slaves.
Lake wrote in his diary how he liked to track down humans as one might hunt rabbits. Captured victims were sometimes released in the forest and told to run for their lives. People were easy (fun) to catch and kill. The male victims who were brought back to Lake’s fire pit might be subject to an especially hideous way of dying.
A blockhouse, built next to Lake’s cabin (and part way into a hill) had a secret passage and two-way mirror that separated a room with chains, knives, saws and video equipment. While investigating the scene a detective casually played a video tape that shows Lake talking directly into the camera. Soon Lake turns to a young woman bound to a chair. The woman is pleading with Lake to know what is happening to her six-month old baby. Lake explains calmly that he is going to put a bullet into her head. The veteran detectives are quiet and stunned as they watch the tape.
When it is apparent that the woman is being murdered on the replay, investigators search outside the cabin. Shoveling in a shallow trench used for dumping trash, police find five charred skeletons, where one appears to be a child. Detectives now call a work crew to excavate the field.
The excavation yields decayed bodies and bone fragments covered in lime. Little of what had once been families of people could be identified from missing persons files. Eventually, enough human teeth, clothing, jewelry and documents are unearthed to indicate the murders of perhaps two dozen souls.
Lake’s three-acre property was now an immense archaeological site with the Calaveras County specialists digging, brushing, sifting at every grid point. When many of the dead are believed to have come from the Bay Area, a special task force is organized from San Francisco to assist in the now overflowing case.
A detective in Lake’s blockhouse moved a plywood shelf where a wall suddenly opened into another room. A double bed with eyebolts and screwholes stood where apparently someone could be bound. An adjoining locked door leads to a smaller room with a cot and chemical toilet. On the wall of the larger room, 21 photos of nude and partially dressed women are pinned. At least one of the pictured women is identified from a missing persons file. On the floor, elaborate video equipment is traced back to a man (Harvey Dubs) who had disappeared with his wife and two-year old son a year before.
Lake lured some visitors by either advertising in, or responding to newspaper classified ads. The stolen car that Lake drove at the time of his arrest had been listed in the classifieds by Paul Cosner. Cosner told his girlfriend that he was going to drive out to “that weird guy” in the country. But Paul never returned.
The woman pleading for her baby’s life on the video tape is tentatively ID’d as another of Lake’s neighbors. She lived with her husband and infant son at the edge of Leonard Lake’s property. When the agent renting the cabin came to inquire about her three tenants some weeks ago, Lake said his neighbors had abruptly left. But the family had kindly given him their car and pink slip for money owed to him.
Lake phoned in alibis to the employers or families of the murdered to cover their disappearances.
The blockhouse itself was dismantled, but cops believed that more evidence was buried under the foundation. A scale model of the building is constructed by an artist for future reference. Several archeological teams spend eight weeks sifting through the dig, uncovering 45 pounds of cut human bones (many believed to have been eaten clean by farm chickens).
Another team of investigators traveled up to Humbolt County to look for more murder victims. Lake’s diary alluded to other horrors when he lived in Miranda two years before in 1983.
While technicians probed evidence that filled a warehouse, detectives replayed the tapes hoping to identify victims. They had to listen to Lake explain his survivalist fantasies, and had to look closely at the women on the screen. After peering at the terrified video face of a woman nearing death, an investigator said that Lake thought no more of butchering people than someone else might think of spraying a pest with insecticide.
Born into a fairly wealthy family in 1960 Hong Kong, Charles Ng had a martinet father who feared his peculiar son would become a criminal without strict discipline. But his son grew into a criminal anyway with a serious habit of stealing and a psychopath’s delight of antisocial intrigue. Caught stealing from a store, Ng’s father sends his 15-year old delinquent to a relative who just happens to run a private boarding school in London. But Ng gets bounced back to Hong Kong after stealing the relative’s school blind.
Traveling to California at 19, Ng soon finds himself running from a hit-and-run accident. Now, for the first time he learns how to work the system for himself, lying that he’s an American citizen and joining the Marines to get out of his latest felony. The Marines know that Ng can’t deal with their discipline/authority but they learn months later that Ng is happily stealing their automatic weapons and grenade launchers. After getting sentenced to 14 years, Ng skips and finds what he likely believes to be his destiny in paradise.
One story has Lake meeting Charles Ng from some gun ad in a survivalist magazine. Whatever the reason, both men discover they share similar passions for (among other things) survivalism, gunlove and torture/murder. Lake invites him on the spot to his desolate Miranda cabin in 1981. However, this first partnership doesn’t last long since both men are soon arrested by the FBI for having bought machine guns, a rather serious offense.
Ng went to Leavenworth prison for three years (from a plea deal that should have given him an additional 14 years from his previous Marine theft and skip). Lake, meanwhile jumped bail and went into hiding at his estranged wife’s (parent’s retirement home) cabin in Wilseyville, 220 miles southeast of Miranda/Ukiah.
Now, Lake began his dream of building a fortified hillbilly castle complete with a slave harem and torture chamber. Lake asked his construction-worker younger brother Donny and his best friend, Charles Gannah to help build the bunker. Needing fast cash more than carpenters, Lake kills both men and sustains himself for a while with a fair score of bank cards, blank checks and invaluable IDs.
On June, 1984, Ng got out of the joint just in time to help Lake launch Project Miranda.
Harvey Dubs in San Francisco placed a classified ad offering the sale of his video camera. Lake and Ng made an appointment at Dubs home and loaded up the video along with Harvey, his wife Deborah and their infant son back to Wilseyville. Lake and Ng swiftly murder Harvey and the child but use the video cam to tape Deborah’s rape, torture and murder. Now with a taste for getting rich quick (along with bloodlust/infanticide) they visit the family next door for another raid.
Five weeks after he had escaped from the South Frisco store manager (July 6), Charles Ng gets himself arrested in Calgary, Canada for shoplifting again. Although California formally requested extradition of Ng, there was a good chance that he would never again return to the U.S.; Canada is reluctant to send anyone back to a country that will prosecute them in a capital case.
Canada kept Ng in jail to serve for the crimes committed in Calgary (he had also shot a security officer while being detained for the shoplifting).
Then, miraculously, after 6 years the Canadian high court sent him back to the U.S.
While in Canada, Ng became a legal jailbird (like Gerard Schaefer) and was having nearly as much fun jerking the system as he had with Project Miranda. Only he was far more successful with murdering the court system that indulged his every fantasy. Ng filed countless lawsuits, motions, grievances that included complaining about travel sickness, poor food, inexact glasses, computer issues and even materials for his (origami) paper-folding hobby.
Ng successful sued for a change of venue that sent him to Orange County (in Santa Ana), home of the most costly, heinous and longest cases in the world. Ng hired and fired 5 law teams. He got 7 judges removed from the case. Then Ng wanted to defend himself that ate up more time and then he hired back the lawyers he fired. Each new attorney added months/years in preparing a new look for the same case.
All this delay took another seven years.
Ng still wanted to defend himself but had to settle with one of his old attorneys (to assist him) when the lawyer of his choice was busy elsewhere. Ng’s new-old attorney (#6) was dumbstruck at the warehouse-full of documents (4 tons of paper alone) and exhibits in the file. The lawyer told the court that it would take another three years for him to prepare Ng’s case.
Just as the trial date neared, Ng said he wanted to defend himself again and filed more complaint motions, more delays.
One magistrate finally had enough. Judge John J. Ryan, on August, 1998 told Ng that he was ‘playing games within games within games’ and the trial would begin on the first day of September as Ng cussed him out along with the justice system.
On September 1, Ng finally went to trial for the murder of 12 (of the 25) people. But of course, Ng still played his best card, wanting again to change lawyers while filing oblique motions. Nearly as shocking was Ng’s appearance entering court; no longer the skinny kid, he was now unrecognizably heavier, wearing thick glasses on a head the size and shape of a bowling ball.
Meanwhile, Ng’s defense was that he never killed anyone. He robbed, raped, humiliated but Lake was the executioner. Ng remained sullen through much of the trial but occasionally showed emotion by shouting a profane or bizarre sentence. Ng’s attorney said that it was just an example of his client’s mental illness. Insanity was perhaps then another angle for Ng in case he found himself in the penalty phase and needed a legal argument.
Late in the trial, against his lawyer’s advice, Ng took the stand himself. This allowed the door to open on much evidence that should have remained secret to the jury, including photos of Ng’s murder drawings and kill-fun bumper stickers pinned on the cell wall behind his creepy stare.
After eight months, on May 3, 1999, Ng’s circus finally ended and went to the jury. Only needing a few hours to deliberate, jurors found Ng guilty of 11 murders, including the deaths of two infants. Judge Ryan had the power to sentence Ng to life but instead ordered him to the death house. “You F…ing give me a show trial and f… the judge!,” Ng appears to say to the judge in his broken English after hearing his fate.
The state of California spent $20 million for the Ng adventure, the most expensive trial ever with the meter still running. Ng sits on death row with all his needs and appeals paid for. The first appeal was for a dismissal of his sentence because it was too ‘harsh.’
Of the countless events, ironies, carnage of the Ng trial, one event that haunts viewers from the courtroom to this day is the unknown woman on the TV screen going through the Lake medieval ordeal of humiliation, rape and torture. But before she is allowed to escape into death, she treble-screams at the moment Lake slowly butchers her with a knife.
When arrested 14 years earlier, Leonard Lake told cops that he couldn’t believe he got caught over the payment of a damned vice tool. Had the event not occurred, there’s no guessing how high the death count would have reached or adventurously grisly the slow murders would have become.
Disguise of Sanity 1985, booklength nonfiction. Revised/updated 2016 third edition
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