Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

CHARLES NG: CHEATING DEATH

A Grisly Find

When she had finished with Balasz and her mother, Eisenmann took Brunn to another part of the yard and showed her an incinerator with thick fireproof walls that were capable of withstanding extreme temperatures. Aware that the previous occupants of the cabin were in some way involved in the disappearance of several people, Brunn and Eisenmann decided that a detailed examination of the entire area, including the incinerator and the mysterious concrete bunker, was a priority. As their search warrant didn't cover the locked bunker, Brunn asked Balasz if she would give them consent to search it. Balasz responded to their request angrily, suggesting that they talk to Lake's partner, Charles Ng.

Brunn asked for more details on Ng and was told that he was an Asian who normally hung out with Lake. When asked if she had seen Ng recently, Balasz told the detectives that Ng had rung the previous day and asked her to drive him to his apartment to pick up a paycheck. She then told them that Ng had packed a suitcase with clothes, a .22 handgun, ammunition, a large amount of cash and two I.D's, a California driver's license and a Social Security card, both in the name of Mike Kimoto. Afterwards she had driven him to the United Airlines terminal at San Francisco airport but had no idea where he was going.

Leonard Lake (Harrington & Burger)
Leonard Lake
(Harrington & Burger)

Balasz was then asked for more information on Lake and told the detectives that she and Lake had met at a Renaissance Fair in Marin County and had married after dating for a short time. As his best man Lake had chosen Charles Gunnar, a long time friend who at just 5'8", weighed nearly four hundred pounds, prompting Balasz to christen him "the fat man." Shortly after the wedding, which was paid for by Gunnar, the couple moved to Philo in Mendocino where Lake found work managing a motel. Within a year, Ng arrived and moved in with Lake and his new wife. According to Balasz, Lake and Ng got on well, as they were both former marines. In 1982, five months after his arrival, Ng left for several days and returned late one night driving a pickup. Balasz told the detectives that on the night of Ng's return, he and Lake had performed a strange dance in the yard and later unpacked some crates from the truck and placed them in a shed.

Early the following morning, an FBI swat team raided the property and arrested Ng and Lake and charged them in relation to the theft of weapons from a military base in Hawaii. Lake was later released on $30,000 bail, which was paid by Gunnar, while Ng, who was still considered a serving member of the Marine Corps, was court-martialled and sentenced to two years in Leavenworth prison. Not wishing to go to jail, Lake made plans to run off and hide in the mountains and asked Balasz to go with him. When she refused, the relationship broke down and Lake moved into the cabin alone.

Although Balasz had spoken freely about her life with Lake, when Brunn pushed for further details on his relationship with Ng, Balasz became angry, refused the detectives permission to enter the bunker and demanded to speak with an attorney. Shortly after, Balasz and Eberling left.

After relaying the information regarding Ng's movements and alias to their office, Brunn and Eisenmann left the site to request an additional search warrant for the bunker. Because of the information they had uncovered, their request was given top priority and a joint task force was set up to search the entire site. San Francisco police chief, Cornelius Murphy, authorised a twelve-man unit and Sheriff Ballard of Calaveras County assembled a team of five men and placed Lieutenant Bob Bunning in charge. Deputy Chief of Inspectors Joseph Lordan was placed in charge of the San Francisco detachment.

On Tuesday, June 4, 1985, the search began. The first task was to set up a base camp while a locksmith was summoned to unlock the bunker. A preliminary examination of the area around the bunker was then conducted which revealed a cleared area ten feet in diameter that showed traces of lye and a long trench that seemed to contain articles of clothing. Fearing a gravesite, Sheriff Ballard ordered the searchers to focus their attention on those areas while he sent an officer to find out who owned the neighbouring property. Within hours a team of "sniffer" dogs and their handlers, a forensic specialist and two additional patrolmen had joined the search.

While Ballard was coordinating his search party, the officer returned from the house next door with more disturbing information. The owner of that property, Bo Carter, who had been contacted by telephone, informed the officer that the house was a rental. Some weeks before, his tenants, Lonnie Bond, his partner Brenda O'Connor and their infant son Lonnie Jr., had fallen behind on their rent so he had sent a real estate agent to collect it. When the agent arrived, a man calling himself Charles Gunnar came from the direction of the cabin and told him that the tenants had left ten days previously. At that time, the agent informed Carter that another man, by the name of Robin Stapley, had been living with the Bonds prior to their disappearance. The agent had also told Carter that an eroded bank near the boundary between the two properties had been recently dug up.

Disturbed by the news, Carter went to the site a week later to inspect his property. When he arrived, a man calling himself Charlie Gunnar had approached him and watched as he inspected the house. Carter said he didn't worry about Gunnar until he saw a TV news item about a man who took cyanide following his arrest for a weapons charge. The news item had also shown the man's picture and given his name. According to Carter, the man he had seen near the cabin was Leonard Lake. After hearing the story, Ballard sent searchers to find the area described by the agent.

The following day, the bunker was opened. Sheriff Ballard, Detectives Brunn and Eisenmann and the Calaveras County Information officer, Jim Stenquist, conducted the initial search. The main room was a twenty-foot by twelve-foot workshop area with a range of hand tools and power saws hanging on a plywood wall next to a workbench. On closer inspection, many of the tools were found to be encrusted with a dried brownish substance, possibly blood. Attached to the bench was a broken vise. As they inspected the room further, the detectives checked the dimensions of it and discovered that it was smaller than the size it seemed from the outside and deduced that there may be a hidden room. They soon found that the plywood tool rack was in fact a door leading to a smaller room. Inside were a double bed, a side table, books and a reading lamp. On one wall was a wooden plaque with the legend "Operation Miranda" carved into it.

Inside the bunker. (SACRAMENTO BEE)
Inside the bunker.
(SACRAMENTO BEE)

Police would later learn that the name was derived from a book called "The Collector" by John Fowles, which was found in the bookshelf. The book tells the story of a butterfly collector who kidnaps a beautiful woman and keeps her locked in his cellar where the woman eventually dies.

The room also contained military equipment including uniforms, boots and a vast array of weapons, including assault rifles, shotguns and machine guns. On the floor, police found a work shirt and a baseball cap with the words "Dennis Moving Service" embroidered on them.

In a bookshelf on the far wall, between books on explosives and chemicals, the searchers found a small window that appeared to be made up of multiple panes of glass, possibly soundproofed. On another shelf was a military "Starlight" scope which, initially designed for snipers, was capable of viewing objects in extremely low light conditions. On another wall were twenty-one candid photographs of young girls in various stages of undress, most of which were taken outdoors. Two of the pictures had been taken in front of wallpaper with a cartoon character motif.

Police would eventually identify the wallpaper as being the same as that in the South City Juvenile Hall, the same location that Claralyn Balasz worked as a teacher's assistant. All twenty-one women were later identified and found to be alive and well.

After checking their measurements again, the detectives found that there was another discrepancy indicating that there may be a third room behind the small window. Sheriff Ballard was informed but refused the searchers permission to continue with the search until the forensic technicians had collected evidence from the first two rooms.

The first find by the technicians was a single adult fingerprint taken from the bookshelf window. Later they found other prints on and around the same window, which were retained until the fingerprint records of Lake, Ng and missing person files could be obtained for comparison.
The fingerprints on and around the window were later positively identified as belonging to Ng and Lake.

As the technicians continued their analysis, searchers outside uncovered two bones beside the driveway but were unable to ascertain if they were human. They were later sent to Doctor Boyd Stephens, San Francisco's Chief Medical Examiner for further analysis.

The second day at the site, the lab crew responsible for the search of the cabin found additional evidence in the form of a .22 calibre bullet that was removed from the wall of the main bedroom. Under the springs of the bed in the same room, they found a diary, which later proved to be written by Leonard Lake and described in chilling detail how he and Ng had selected, raped, and murdered numerous victims. It also described how Lake, an ardent survivalist who feared nuclear war, had planned to build a series of bunkers across the country complete with supplies, weapons and female sex-slaves. The diary further spelled out his intention to use his female captives to repopulate the world.

By 5.00pm on the second day, the initial forensic analysis of the bunker had been completed and Ballard ordered Brunn and Eisenmann to continue their search of the interior. After checking what looked like a sealed room, Brunn found a secret door behind a bookcase that led into the room with the window. The room itself was only three foot three inches wide by seven and a half feet long with a six-foot ceiling. Inside they found a narrow bed, a chemical toilet, air freshener and a water container. Holes had been drilled in the wall to provide ventilation but had been baffled to exclude light. After closely examining both rooms at the same time, they discovered that the window was "two-way" glass. They later discovered a button beside it which, when pushed, allowed the occupants of the first room to hear any sounds from within the smaller room. Eisenmann than turned off all the lights in the bunker and, using the "Starlight" scope through the "viewing window," was able to see Brunn clearly in the smaller room. They had discovered what looked like a "hostage cell." When the newest information was relayed to Ballard, he left the site and returned to his office where he made plans for a full-scale murder investigation, which would include the FBI, the Californian Forestry Department and the Californian Department of Justice.

Excavation in progress (SACRAMENTO BEE)
Excavation in progress
(SACRAMENTO BEE)

On day three, the searchers were assisted by another specialist detachment of dogs and their handlers from the Californian Rescue Dogs Association. After an hour of fruitless searching, Ballard called for heavy equipment to begin digging up the site. During the same morning, Ballard received an unexpected visitor in the form of Gloria Eberling, Lake's mother. She told Ballard that she had come because she was concerned about her other son, Donald who had disappeared two years earlier. Brunn, who was also present, asked Eberling if Balasz had removed anything from the cabin on the day they met and was told that Balasz had taken twelve videotapes from the main bedroom.

Balasz later gave police the twelve videos she had taken from the cabin which, as she had indicated, were of her and Lake having sex.

Ballard then asked Eberling if Lake's condition had improved, she told him that her son had been officially pronounced brain dead and doctors were pressing her to switch of his life support.

For Ballard, the case was becoming a nightmare. He had evidence that suggested multiple kidnappings, rapes and murders and two main suspects but one was virtually dead and the other was in hiding, possibly in another country. All he could do was collect the evidence and wait.

Charles Ng mugshot (AP)
Charles Ng mugshot
(AP)

The FBI, meanwhile had determined that Charles Ng had taken a flight from San Francisco to Chicago but they were unable to ascertain where he had gone from there. After a check of his background, they found that he came from Hong Kong, had sisters in Toronto and Calgary, an uncle in Yorkshire, England and former Marine friends in Hawaii. They were aware that, with sufficient funds and several days' lead, Ng could be in any of four locations. To assist in the search, they contacted Interpol and Scotland Yard and distributed Ng's description worldwide.

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