After investigating hundreds of murder cases; on January 1996, I was selected and assigned to Robbery-Homicide Division, an elite group of detectives that investigate very high profile and complex cases. Considered the best detectives in the United States; or if not the world.
In the late evening of February 25, 1996, I was awakened from a deep sleep. A telephone call from my boss who relayed to me, “You got one, an Academy Award recipient was murdered in China Town. There are no witnesses and the body is still at the crime scene.” I recalled the film but I’d never seen it.
When I arrived there were uniformed officers present. The scene was cordoned by yellow crime scene tape. It was a cold night, located in a portion of the city that was foreign. My preliminary observation noted Dr. Ngors body lay on the pavement of an open car parking structure behind his apartment complex. He was lying between his vehicle and an adjacent vehicle. The driver’s door of his vehicle was ajar; eye glasses lay inches away. His clothing appeared undisturbed and his vehicle also had no evidence of foul play. I stood over his body on several occasions and visually absorbed what Dr. Ngor MAY have physically left behind. It can be a common practice for homicide investigators, in a solemn moment to connect with the decedent for guidance. Yes, this may sound morbid, odd or strange, but this was something I did in all of my cases. I would look at the body and in my mind I would ask, “Ok, I’m here, I need to step in your shoes when this happened. Guide me, talk to me and leave me something to work with.”
I requested an extra team of Robbery- Homicide Detectives to assist with the crime scene investigation as my partner and I canvassed the neighborhood. I also requested the assistance of our Crime Scene Investigation Unit, which specialize in State of the Art Forensics. (CSI, if you will.) Our department photographer also arrived at the scene. I requested the usual over-all photos of the scene; however, I noticed that a near-by brick wall was covered in gang graffiti, which was also photographed. (Something that was later instrumental.)
The media was now deploying in the area. Of course they asked many questions but information was not provided. The next plan of order was to obtain a search warrant for his residence in the hope of finding ANY clues as to his recent activities.
While the search warrant was being prepared back in the office by a third team of detectives, I was informed that the Coroner’s Investigator arrived at the scene. Since the confined area where Dr. Ngor’s body came to rest the investigator was hampered in performing his preliminary examination. It was in the best interest of this examination to move Dr. Ngor’s body a few feet to a more open area. The preliminary examination revealed that he sustained two gunshot wounds to his body. (The autopsy would later provide a more detailed report.) There was no evidence of any contusions or abrasions to his body. (My thoughts at the moment; was he caught off guard and surprised?)
I learned that Dr. Ngor was returning home from dinner with either a close friend or a family member in the City of Long Beach. This person who hosted the dinner arrived at the scene. I quickly realized that a language barrier was an issue not only with this person but the entire residents in the neighborhood. Everyone I spoke with was a suspect in this early stage of the investigation. I was very careful in what I disclosed to anyone including any friends or family members, as this was unfolding.
I’ve now been working on this case for many hours. The LAPD Brass, Media, FBI, U.S. State Department and other Federal Agencies are asking many questions. I also had many questions, so how did anyone expect for me to have answers?
I received word that the search warrant was signed and approved by a Superior Court Judge. There is a limited amount of hours in a day and we were all very exhausted but we needed to move forward.
Upon entry to his apartment, I noticed various objects of worship. It was a small apartment, nothing what I expected to encounter from someone won an Academy Award but what did I know? He appeared to live in a simple domain. There was no sign of the “Oscar” but mounds of documents were strewn about the living room area. There was a spare bedroom, and remnants of a female’s visit. After an extensive search we found no evidence of any unusual activity. Dr. Ngor’s body was removed by the Coroner’s Investigator to the County Morgue. I requested a two hour notification when the autopsy would occur in order to attend and hopefully discover any forensic evidence. After his body was removed from the scene a careful inventory of his vehicle was performed. Inside we discovered two spent 9mm bullet casings, one of which was resting in the driver’s door panel. These casings would be analyzed by our Firearms Section. His blazer lay in the rear seat. A search of this blazer revealed something very disturbing, a very large amount of U.S. Currency. My initial reaction was,” this could not have been a robbery. Why would anyone leave behind this amount of money?” And why was he carrying this cash? My initial thought was a narcotic transaction gone wrong, however, as homicide detectives we can’t jump to any form of conclusions at such an early stage. After our search the vehicle was transported to a more secure location within a police storage area for a more thorough examination.
My partner and I returned to our office and began our required reports, which were endless. Every task performed in homicide case needs to be documented to keep a continuous record of progress. After completing the preliminary reports a request was placed for the assistance of any Cambodian speaking LAPD Officer. The department maintains a roster of all foreign languages spoken by our officers. We only had one officer that was fluent in this particular language. He was also from Cambodia and migrated along with his family to the U.S. He was a young officer to the department but that was not a concern. We needed someone to interpret. Most important we needed knowledge of the history of Cambodia. After this meeting with this officer and informed of the history, which was very informative, we needed to rest for a few hours. As I drove home my mind was racing as the possible motive. Was this a political hit, a business transaction gone array, a personal vendetta or narcotics? I WAS ON A HUNT…..
A famous author captioned it best. “There is No Hunting Like The Hunting of Man, And Those Who Have Hunted Armed Men Long Enough And Liked It, Never Cared For Anything Else There After.”
After a few hours of rest I returned to my office. The radio news was now broadcasting the murder of Dr. Ngor. Although I’ve handled hundreds of previous murder cases, this was my first case with potential International implications.
Once I arrived at my office a continuous amount of meetings took place. Meetings with open harms from all levels of the department. This was a rare moment for me because I never received so much interest on a case. One of the first issues to address was the language barrier in the area of the murder. The residents surrounding the scene were of Asian descent and thus people were skeptical of Law Enforcement. We were informed that officers from the Asian Crime Task Force were available and shortly thereafter a few of these officers were loaned to assist in the investigation. The officers spoke different Asian dialects and would be a major component in seeking the cooperation of any witnesss(s).
The following weeks consisted of knocking on doors of every single residence in the area. In the interim my partner and I conferred with F.B.I., State Department Officials and requested their assistance. We learned that Dr. Ngor was very charitable in supporting Human Rights issues in Cambodia but we also learned that he was involved in a business venture in his country. Did his business have anything to do with the murder? The State Department and FBI would pursue an investigation as to Dr. Ngor’s business matters in Cambodia.
Within a couple of days Dr. Ngor’s body was scheduled for a required autopsy. I have witnessed hundreds of autopsies. It’s not a pleasant experience. The Los Angeles County Morgue performs in excess of one-thousand autopsies per year. It is not uncommon the see bodies on steel flat beds lined up along the hallway awaiting this process. When I arrived Dr. Ngor’s body was being examined by a Pathologist. Measurements and photographs were being taken of the gunshot wounds. He sustained two gunshot wounds to the left flank area. One was to his left leg and the other was to his upper left torso. After a meticulous examination it was determined that the fatal trajectory travelled from the top area of his body in a downward motion suggesting that the shooter was standing next to Dr. Ngor as he sat in the driver’s seat. Furthermore, it may also suggest that he was caught in a surprise attack. A detailed report would be available in a few weeks.
We received word that the niece of Dr. Ngor (Sophia) arrived in Los Angeles and awaiting our meeting at a near-by hotel. Sophia was a soft spoken lady, someone who just lost a dear relative and grieving from her loss. Dealing with family and close friends is a very delicate process. We obtained a personal history of Dr. Ngor and his personal ordeal he sustained while in Cambodia. In the following days and weeks I would frequently confer with her regarding personal activity of Dr. Ngor. Unbeknownst, she would later provide information that would be pivotal to this case.
Many weeks have now past and everyone involved was exhausted. Tempers and personality conflicts were an issue with the officers assigned to assist in this case. Their frustration was due to the lack of cooperation from the residents in the neighborhood. As one of the primary investigators I had a responsibility to express and demonstrate a level of focus and responsibility to these young officers the reasons for this new and challenging task. The officers were sent back to the area of the crime scene and attempted to seek the assistance of residents.
Days later I received a telephone call from Sophia. She asked if we recovered her uncle’s Rolex watch, gold necklace with a locket containing a photograph of his late wife. I paused for a moment and responded, “What Rolex watch and necklace?” She replied that he purchased the watch as gift for himself after winning the “Oscar” and the necklace was something he NEVER removed from his neck. It was a cherished item. After our conversation I immediately reviewed the list of items removed from Dr. Ngor’s body at the crime scene and there were no such items on the list. I sat back and froze for a moment as my mind raced. My thoughts now shifted from the possibility of a political murder to a belief of a street robbery. I was now in my comfort zone as I investigated hundreds of robbery/murder cases.
After a week following the re-canvass attempt the officers walked into the office with an Asian individual who resided in the area. He was placed in one of our interview rooms while I was briefed as to why he voluntarily agreed to be transported. The officer’s informed me that this individual lived at the bottom section of the alley, hundreds of feet of the murder scene. He appeared nervous, apprehensive and afraid. After a lengthy interview and with the assistance of our Cambodian speaking officer, he stated that on the night in question, he walked out to his car port to take a friend home. He recalled hearing shots and saw three male individuals running in his direction. He recognized these young men as known local gang members to this close knit community. These young men yelled at him to stop as they quickly entered his vehicle. He was instructed to drive them to a near-by apartment building. This potential witness was eventually returned to his residence for this would be one of several interviews we would conduct with him. At this time of the investigation things began to move at a rapid pace. We needed knowledge as to the primary gang in the area and most active members. The Asian officers began to compile comprehensive files of all gang related activity in the area including any arrests, associates, personal information and practices of this particular gang. The Asian Crime Task Force retains photographs of active and inactive gang members in the area.
We learned the name of the predominant gang in the area known as the “Oriental Lazy Boyz.” I recalled seeing this graffiti spray painted on the brick wall behind Dr. Ngor’s vehicle.
Sophia was able to describe the watch and identified a similar watch via a list of photographs obtained through department resources. Every local pawn shop in the area was provided a copy of this photograph in the hope of someone asking to sell the item(s), to no avail.
With a large book containing gang member photographs in our possession, it was time for a second interview with the potential witness we previously met. Again, he was even more fearful and at times he refused to cooperate but persistence was essential. After many hours and attempts to gain his trust he finally agreed to view the photographs. If need be, we offered to relocate his entire family in return for his cooperation. This was an extremely critical moment as he viewed the photos.
When presenting photographs to a potential witness, seasoned investigators keep a careful watch on the person’s eyes as the photographs are viewed. This technique reveals various types of body language, especially when the witness observes photograph(s) of person(s) in question. He identified numerous photographs of people he knew, however, our objective was for him to identify the people he saw running down the hill and subsequently providing transportation. His hands were visually shaking and he became reluctant once again. The photo book was laid aside and we continued our plea for his cooperation. Many pyschcolocial maneuvers were utilized. FINALLY, he agreed to view the book for a second time. I noticed that his eyes “locked in,” on three separate photographs. He continued his review but failed to positively identify anyone in question. I stated to him, “I noticed that you remained focused on three individuals, why? Are they the ones you gave a ride too?” (Without bringing his attention to which of the photos I saw him focus on.) Again, for the third time, he viewed the entire photo book and identified the three individuals he saw running down the alley after the shooting. At this moment, within myself, I had an urge to stand up and give this guy a hug, but I refrained.
Once investigators are on a positive breaking point, there is no time for celebration; we were very far away from the conclusion of this case. Our momentum was moving forward at a fast pace. I controlled my excitement and continued to talk with him. He stated the reason he initially didn’t volunteer what he observed was that the neighborhood was terrified of these young men. He described them as street terrorists. They would extort money, commit robbery and instill fear upon people in the community.
The next step in order was to identify the person who resided in this apartment complex. As luck would have it, the witness knew the identity of this person. He agreed to show us where this person resided. It was getting late and the evening was now upon us. After returning this witness to his residence we all gathered upon the apartment building and visually examined the exterior area in the hope of finding any form of evidence, which was not successful. We converged on the single apartment in question that was in our gang files. We previously established that he was a documented “Lazy Boyz” gang member. In speaking with the mother of this person, she informed us he quickly gathered some belongings and travelled to Washington State to seek temporary refuge. It appeared that somehow he knew we were close behind.
In investigating gang crimes, people often relay messages to key individuals that Law Enforcement is gaining ground. The process of relaying information to gang members is complex. It’s a process in which this is considered a favor in the interest of gaining safety and potential profit.
Armed with the name of this person and where he would probably seek shelter, Washington State Police Authorities were notified and informed that he was a person of great interest. Within a matter of hours Officers from Washington Police Department notified us that this person was detained pending our arrival. An emergency travel request was placed and approved by a high ranking staff member within LAPD. We quickly returned to our respective homes to gather personal items needed for this trip. Washington State here we come.
When we arrived at the Washington State Police Station, we were met by a detective who informed us that after a thorough check of the information we provided was enough to locate the residence of this family that was providing shelter. After the officers entered the residence they discovered this person of interest hiding in a bedroom. He subsequently was taken to the police station. I gathered my thoughts as the best way to approach. He appeared scared and nervous. I explained the purpose of our visit without providing any specific details. He admitted to being a member of the gang. I asked specific questions as to his closest comrades. We asked him to view the gang photo book that we also brought to this meeting. He identified a majority of the photos as his friends; however, he was guarded not to disclose too much information. It appeared this was going to be a lengthy interview.
Gang members commonly do not disclose information about gang activity. They took an unwritten oath after the initiation process to remain silent, especially to Law Enforcement. Once again, many psychological maneuvers were used but he remained resilient to maintain his secrecy. Hours past and I made a risky move. I provided him with limited amount of information as to our visit. I also informed him of the legal ramifications of harboring fugitives in a murder case. I knew he was aware of what I was talking about but he needed specific details; something that I could not provide without compromising the integrity of the case. Suddenly, I noticed a change of behavior. He became very emotional to the point that he began to sob. At that moment; this is where seasoned homicide detectives truly raise the pressure level. He was at a breaking point and I could not let up on the pressure. What took hours to reach this point will now take minutes to obtain key information.
He proceeded to say that he was home when there was a frantic knock at the door. He opened the door and three of his fellow gang members rushed inside. He described their behavior as very hyper and out of breath. One of them said out loud, “We just shot someone,” This fellow gang member brandished what appeared to be semi-automatic pistol. He described the weapon as dark in color with a square front to the barrel. Now came the critical part. Was he brave enough to make photo identification of these three suspects? Much progress was made and I was determined not to quit. I presented him with photo book of the “Oriental Lazy Boyz.” He laughed when he saw his picture included in the book. I asked him a specific question. I asked him to identify the three people who entered his apartment the evening in question. Without hesitation he identified the same previous gang members identified by the witness.
NOTE: All interviews were tape recorded to ensure non cohersive actions and non-biased influence by me or my partner.
We returned to Los Angeles and got some much needed rest for only a few hours. The next day the assisting officers were apprised of our successful interview. We also conferred with the Deputy District Attorney assigned to this case. He is known as an established prosecutor who was successful in many murder/gang trials.
This case was not very strong in the legal sense but as detectives we are required to have enough evidence (Probable Cause) to make an arrest. We had enough Probable Cause. Yes, I would have liked more evidence but the investigation was not over. It is our legal and ethical duty to remove suspects from society for the safety of the public.
After the initial identification from our witness, a thorough process of obtaining their personal information; employment, prior arrests close associates. It was discovered that all three were employed at separate fast food restaurants; furthermore, one person was recently arrested for an unrelated street robbery. It was extremely important to apprehend all three sumultaneously, if not; any one of these suspects could very well make contact with the other and put them on alert. This could jeopardize any interview success.
The assisting officers, along with additional uniform officers deployed on three separate employment locations awaiting the suspect’s arrival. The officers were delighted to have the responsibility of making the arrests. It was a special acknowledgement for their hard work and a sense of accomplishment in the case. Hours past as I completed many reports. It was difficult for me to concentrate on my paper work. It was challenging for me to sit still. I was concerned that if the suspects observed any of the officers deployed near-by, they would flee and this would cause a major man hunt. The element of surprise was critical. I received the awaiting telephone call; all three suspects were in custody. No injuries or any use of force was required. I breathed a sigh of relief; however, this case was very far from closure. The suspects were transported to my office and separated from each other. I needed to decide which of them would be interviewed first.
The suspects were identified as Tak Tan Sun, 19 years of age, aka “Rambo,” born in Cambodia; Indra Lim, 19 years of age, aka “Solo,” 19 years of age, born in Los Angeles and Jason Chan, aka “Clown,” 19 years of age, born in Peking, China. Indra Lim was currently awaiting trial for an unrelated robbery offense.
All of the suspects displayed a behavior defiance and arrogance; a common gang demeanor. After hours of aggressive interviews with all three suspects we were not successful in obtaining a confession as to the murder, however, Jason Chan appeared to be the most fragile. After the interviews they were taken to our County Jail facility and booked for the murder of Dr. Ngor.
The following day I decided to remove Jason Chan from County Jail and transported him back to the office for a second interview. He appeared exhausted and troubled. I reminded him of the gravity of the charges he was now facing and the fact that witnesses have come forward. Although he didn’t admit to being involved in the murder he did say that on the night of the incident he was in Lim’s backyard along with Tak. (Lim’s backyard was located across the alley to where the murder occurred, which faces Ngor’s car port.) He continued to say that they were smoking “crack” cocaine and was aware that one of his cohorts was in possession of a handgun. Suddenly, Tak and Lim disappeared when he heard gunshots. Although he was clearly making a self-serving statement, he confirmed to me that we arrested the right people.
AFTER THE ARREST:
By law, we are bound by a time limit (48 hours) to submit preliminary reports to the Superior Court for the arraignment hearing where they would be informed of their charges and enter a plea of guilty or not guilty. During this time we also needed to prepare formal reports and supporting documents for presentation to District Attorney’s Office. After submission of these required documents we were informed that the Deputy District Attorney’s Office would review this case with senior D.A. Officials. In high profile cases the District Attorney’s Office carefully reviews the legal strengths and weaknesses in a case of this magnitude. I was informed that a decision would be provided much later in the day. I was exhausted and decided to treat myself to a nice dinner. I entered a restaurant often frequented by members of the legal community. I saw old friends sitting at a table and was invited to join. One of them was an old friend who happened to be a Superior Court Judge. Not wanting to disclose any mention of this case to him, I remained silent when I received a telephone call from our assigned Deputy District Attorney. He relayed that after careful review it was determined that prosecution would proceed. Needless to say I was beyond words. I returned to my table and mentioned this news to my Judge friend. He was happy for me but stated; “Now the real work begins.” He was absolutely correct. An arrest does not mean a conviction. I returned home and finally able to get a full nights rest.
The following months, the area of the murder was re-canvassed numerous times. I hoped that since the suspects were now arrested and identified via the media, I hoped they would now feel a sense of relief and come forward with any additional information. One resident who resided behind Ngor’s apartment building stated on the night of the incident she was in her bedroom that overlooked Ngor’s car port. She heard gunshots and immediately looked out her bedroom window. She noticed a vehicle headlights illuminate the area as it travelled past the location. We were able to obtain a description of this vehicle; hopefully the driver was a resident in the area but we were not successful. Although she did not see anyone fleeing the scene, it provided me with a possible theory as to what occurred.
MY PERSONAL THEORY: Dr. Ngor parked his vehicle in his designated spot. The suspects observed Ngor’s Mercedes Benz. As Ngor briefly sat in his vehicle, the suspects quickly approached, opened the driver’s door, gun in hand and proceeded to rob Ngor of his watch and necklace. Ngor probably attempted to defend himself when he was shot. The vehicle travelling through the alley probably scared the suspects causing them to flee. They didn’t have time to look in Ngor’s jacket, which could explain why the cash was not disturbed. As the suspects ran down the alley they observed the witness about to leave in his vehicle. Ngor probably stumbled out of his vehicle and fell mortally wounded.
There are two phases in a criminal matter of this magnitude. First, is a preliminary hearing, which consists of presenting a limited amount of evidence to a Judge in order to prove that there is enough evidence to proceed to a trial before a jury. Each defendant is represented by their respective attorney. In this case there were three defense attorneys.
As one of lead investigators, I was called as a witness to testify on behalf of the prosecution to briefly explain my involvement in the investigation. There was a great interest from the media and the general public.
For approximately two months, I testified on the witness stand and at times my credibility was attacked by these defense attorneys. At times, it became confrontational and argumentative but I was NOT going to be intimidated by anyone, especially when it came to my professional ethics. (It felt like I was on trial.) At the end of this hearing the Judge determined that there was enough evidence to proceed to trial.
THE TRIAL DAY ARRIVED. The new Trial Judge, in a rare decision ruled that each defendant would have three respective jury panels. Thirty-six jurors in total, not including alternate jurors. Half of the court room was occupied by jurors.
Sophia and her husband Adam travelled to Los Angeles for this trial. I informed her of what she could expect to hear and see in the form of evidence presented to the jury. This was a sensitive issue because not only was she going to see the individuals who were being accused of killing her uncle, but graphic testimony regarding the injuries Ngor sustained at the time of the shooting from the Pathologist who performed the autopsy.
Once again I was called to the witness stand. The defense attorneys continued their attempt to discredit my investigation; however, the attorneys were now presenting a defense theory in the presence of jurors that would ultimately decide their client’s fate so they needed to be less aggressive and combative. It didn’t matter to me because I remained rigid and confident in all areas of this case. I was especially proud of our Cambodian speaking officer, Gene Sur, who was also called to testify. This was his first trial as a witness before so many jurors and spectators not including LAPD Command Staff. Gene was a major asset to this case along with the other officers who assisted me and my partner. After many weeks of testimony and various arguments presented by all the attorneys, the case was submitted to the jurors to decide.
Days have now past and we were finally notified the jury reached a verdict. I quickly notified Sophia and we all gathered in the court room. All three jury panel members slowly entered the court room. I was anxious and nervous. All of the attorneys, defendants, media and some LAPD Staff members were also present. The court room was completely filled and there were no seats available.
An envelope containing the verdicts was handed to the Judge. He carefully reviewed all of the documents and in turn handed them to his Clerk who was responsible to verbally read the verdicts out loud for the record that was being documented by a court transcriber.
ALL THREE DEFENDANTS WERE FOUND GUILTY.
I was selected to this elite group of detectives because someone believed that I possessed the skills and dedication to investigate the most complex cases any detective could ever encounter.
From the time of the initial notification through the end of the trial lasted over one year. Within that time frame, I investigated other complex/high profile cases. The murders of Los Angeles Police Officers and the murder of Ennis Cosby; son of entertainer and celebrity Bill Cosby.
I truly have been blessed in doing what I believe was Gods mission for me to be his soldier. I believe that things happen for a reason. Although, I never personally met Dr. Ngor, it’s because of him that I will cherish a deep friendship with Sophia Ngor and Jack Ong.
My partner and friend in this case (Bert Luper) recently passed away and I’m sure that he and Dr. Ngor are sharing some type of noodle soup, something we came to appreciate and enjoy.
Weeks before I was asked to write this memoir, I respectively visited Dr. Ngor’s grave site and again shared a solemn moment with him. We still talk.
In March 2010, after 28 years, I made the decision to retire from the Los Angeles Police Department and the life of being a Homicide Detective. I don’t miss the responsibilities; however, I DO MISS THE HUNT.