Murder Most Foul

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We're going to give you a choice, Kathi," said the disembodied voice on the videotape. "If you don't go along with us, we'll probably take you into the bed, tie you down, rape you, shoot you and bury you." The terrified woman on the videotape hesitated, then spoke softly. "I'll go along with whatever you want." The voice continued: "Stand up, Kathi... Undress for us." Several jurors squirmed as she complied. In the courtroom Dian Allen wept quietly, knowing that her sister Kathleen was later killed anyway. But as painful as the tape was to watch, there were times when she feared it would never be shown in a courtroom at all.

Charles Ng, 37, the man accused of killing Kathleen Allen and 11 other victims, finally went on trial last week, more than 13 years after his arrest. Ng and Leonard Lake, both former Marines, are believed to have killed up to two dozen men, women and children during the mid-1980s after luring them to their remote cabin in the Sierra Nevada foothills of Northern California. They allegedly forced the women to become sex slaves and took scores of pornographic photographs and videotapes of them before killing them and burning the bodies.

Lake was arrested for shoplifting in June 1985 and committed suicide by taking cyanide during police questioning. When police searched his cabin, they found more than 40 lbs. of human remains buried on the property, plus a soundproof concrete bunker that had been used as a prison. Ng was arrested in Canada a few weeks later after shooting a security guard during a store theft.

Yet it took years to bring him to trial in the U.S. First Ng was tried in Canada for the shooting and spent four years in jail. He fought extradition to the U.S. all the way to the Canadian Supreme Court before finally being returned to California in 1991. Once there, he became a jailhouse lawyer, filing complaints about everything from prison food to his attorneys. After a change of venue because of pretrial publicity, Orange County superior court judge John J. Ryan had finally had enough. When Ng, representing himself, refused to answer questions, Ryan ordered court-appointed lawyers to take over and set a trial date.

When the trial finally began last week, the years of delays had taken their toll. Evidence had been lost, memories had faded, and at least one key witness had died. Ng, overweight and pasty-faced after years in prison, took his seat in an almost empty courtroom. Relatives of only three victims showed up.

They are looking not only for justice but also for some clue as to the whereabouts of their loved ones, only two of whose bodies were ever found. "We have a cemetery plot and a headstone, but there's no Paul there," says Sharon Sellitto, 49, of her slain brother Paul Cosner. "Maybe we can find out what became of him." She isn't optimistic. After just one day of testimony, two jurors were replaced, one because of illness and the other after her husband died unexpectedly. That leaves only four alternates in a case that could last up to a year. The trial of Charles Ng, like everything else about his long road to justice, will not be easy.