A 40-year-old accused drug trafficker was convicted Friday of killing a friend who owed him between $30,000 and $40,000 on a lobster fishing boat off the shores of Dana Point Harbor.
Hoang Xuan Le was convicted of first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit murder and using a firearm to commit a crime of violence. Multiple other drug- and weapons-related charges are still pending a separate trial.
Le and 42-year-old Sheila Marie Ritze of San Juan Capistrano are both charged in connection with the killing of James Dao on Oct. 14, 2019. Ritze is expected to go on trial at a later date and Le is scheduled to be sentenced Feb. 28.
Jurors began deliberating on Monday, but on Thursday, an alternate was slotted in when a juror complained of mental health concerns with continued deliberations.
“When you tell people you’re going to kill a particular person and take that person in the middle of the night out on the ocean … and you kill that person, throw him in the ocean, that’s premeditated murder,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Gregory Scally said in closing arguments last Friday.
Le also discussed and planned taking Dao out on the boat to kill him, then later put a GPS tracking device on the vehicle belonging to the victim’s wife, Natalie Nguyen.
“That’s premeditated murder,” Scally said. “That’s not self-defense. It’s not manslaughter. It’s murder.”
Jurors were allowed to consider acquitting the defendant based on self-defense or convict him of manslaughter, second-degree murder or first-degree murder.
Le invited Dao to go fishing with Ritze on her boat for lobsters late at night in the waters off Dana Point Harbor, Scally said. It wasn’t the usual time for fishing, and they ventured a little more than three miles offshore, another unusual move because the usual fishing spot near the jetty was a lot further inland, he added.
Scally showed jurors autopsy photos of the victim to remind them Dao suffered “bloody gashes on top of his head” when he was beaten, and that he was shot in the back.
Dao was not dead when he was dumped overboard because the autopsy showed the cause of death was drowning. Beating, shooting and then leaving a victim three miles offshore shows they intended to kill Dao, Scally argued. “This is no accident.”
A little more than a week before the killing, the three went with other friends on a road trip to Las Vegas to see a Billy Idol concert, where Le allegedly spoke with Ritze about using her boat to “off” the victim, Scally said.
Le’s drug buddy Shawn Whalin also testified that the defendant told him he planned to “take out” the victim. Le also asked Whalin to help him kill Dao, but Whalin refused.
Le also told Whalin he intended to collect on the victim’s life insurance policy to settle the debt and showed his pal a .38-caliber gun.
After the killing, Le told Whalin “I took care of it,” referring to the victim’s death. Another friend heard Le talk about killing Dao, but the friend did not come forward to authorities because he thought Le was just bragging.
Scally also referred to text message discussions he had with Nguyen and others about collecting on Dao’s debt.
Le testified he acted in self-defense, but Scally said that claim contradicted the testimony of so many other witnesses in the trial.
“They’re all liars for you to believe the defendant,” Scally said. “And this is a person who’s on record lying over and over again.”
Dao’s gunshot wound to the back puts the lie to the claim, Scally argued.
“You might begin and end your analysis of self-defense with that fact,” Scally said. “If James Dao shot himself, he’s quite the contortionist.”
Le testified he slugged Dao with a stick a couple of times, and the gun went off, but Scally counted up to nine wounds on the victim’s head in the autopsy photo.
Le also testified that he thought the victim could swim back to shore, but Scally said that distance was further than even an iron man competition.
Le’s attorney, Craig Wilke, said the prosecution’s case “makes no sense on so many levels.”
Wilke was skeptical that Ritze, a property manager for condominiums in Orange County, who was not romantically involved with Le, would get involved in a murder scheme.
Le and Ritze would drive to Las Vegas regularly and there were plenty of remote places in the desert to commit a murder, Wilke said. In contrast, the harbor was “lit up like a football field” at night, he added.
“If you’re going to lure someone onto a boat to kill him, why would you invite him to go fishing in front of his wife and kids at a seafood brunch?” Wilke said.
“Why would you tell your tweaker buddy Shawn Whalin you’re going to take (Dao) out on a boat?” Wilke argued.
The three dropped nets to catch the lobsters before pushing out further to sea, which seems like an odd thing to do when they had gotten the victim out on the boat, Wilke argued.
Le also insisted that Dao get a fishing license and lobster card before they set out to sea, Wilke said.
“You’re going to take a guy out to murder him, but you’re worried about getting a fishing ticket?” Wilke said. “Is that a premeditated plan?”
Dao suffered a graze wound to the head, so it doesn’t make sense that on the “close confines” of a boat and less than eight feet away that Le would miss his victim so badly, Wilke said.
Wilke also said it didn’t make sense that they wouldn’t “finish off” the victim and left him alive in the water before going back to shore.
“You don’t tie him up, you don’t weigh him down?” Wilke said. “They had anchors on that boat.”
They also left the fishing licenses on the victim so authorities could quickly identify the victim.
Le often loaned money to Dao over the years, including a downpayment on a sport utility vehicle, Wilke said. Right before the killing, Le lent Dao $100 for a bet on a fight, the defense attorney added.
“This motive to collect a debt when he never sought to collect it before over 10 years makes no sense,” Wilke said.
There was no evidence of Le asking Nguyen to use the life insurance money to settle the debt, Wilke said. When Nguyen said she would fill out a missing persons report, which would jeopardize a scheme to use life insurance money to settle the debt, Le doesn’t object, Wilke said.
Le has a “visual processing” issue, so it makes him “slow,” which also casts doubt on his ability to plan a complicated murder, Wilke said.
Dao’s body was found Oct. 16, 2019, two days after he was killed, authorities said.