One woman’s heartache and determination to find her missing brother, Paul Cosner, leads to the stunning discovery of one of the most chilling serial killer cases in California’s history. Leonard Lake and Charles Ng killed at least 25 people at a remote cabin in the woods and kept detailed documentation about their horrifying crimes.
Leonard Lake was born in San Francisco, California, and while he was considered intelligent, he had a dark side. He had a penchant for taking nude photographs of his sister and later became fixated on pornography and sexually abused his sisters. Lake joined the United States Marine Corps but was discharged after being diagnosed with schizoid personality disorder.
In 1981, Lake placed an advertisement in a survivalist magazine seeking somebody with similar interests. Charles Ng, the son of a wealthy Hong Kong businessman, responded to the advertisement. Much like Lake, he too was a former member of the United States Marine Corps. He claimed he was born in Indiana and was stationed at Kaneohe Marine Corps Air Station in Oahu, Hawaii.
However, Ng had a peculiar belief that he was a reincarnated ‘Ninja Warrior’ and had been involved in stealing $11,500 in weapons from the Marine base in Hawaii in 1981. His defence attorney at the time, Earle Partington, described him as somebody who lived in a fantasy world.
When Ng met Lake in Mendocino County, he was a fugitive on the run after testifying against his accomplices in the weapons theft case. Lake allowed Ng to take shelter with him in his ex-wife’s cabin in Wilseyville, where Lake himself was hiding from the law after jumping bail earlier in the year. At this point, Lake was already a multiple murderer, having killed his brother, Donald Lake, and his friend, Charles Gunnar. He had burnt their remains and buried them on the grounds of the property.
In April 1982, FBI tracked Ng down and tried him for the theft charges. He was convicted and sent to Fort Leavenworth in Kansas until June 1984. Upon his release, he returned to the cabin, where he and Lake discovered they shared a twisted interest in deviance and murder.
Lake had already killed two people, and in Ng, he found a kindred spirit to indulge in his depravity. Together, the two men built a small wooden structure that was three feet wide by six feet long and six feet high. There was a grim purpose for the structure: Lake and Ng had devised a plan to rape, torture and murder. They kitted out the structure with leg and arm restraints as well as a one-way window.
Between 1984 and 1985, Leonard Lake and Charles Ng committed a horrific murder spree that terrorized the northern California region. They killed at least 11 people, but it's suspected that their death toll could have been as high as 25.
Their victims were men, women and children, all of whom were lured to the secluded cabin by various means, including phony advertisements for video equipment. Once there, the unsuspecting victims were subjected to unimaginable horror. The women were separated and held captive in the wooden structure for days or weeks and used as sex slaves. As for the men and children, they were killed almost immediately.
Lake meticulously documented their actions in a diary, which included disturbing entries such as: ‘Met resistance for the first time’ and ‘Women should only be used as sex slaves’. The pair also videotaped the women as they were tortured and sexually abused. In one particularly grim recording, Brenda O’Connor asked what they had done with her one-year-old son. ‘Are you going to kill us?’ she asked. Lake responded: ‘That’s up to you, Brenda.’
Their reign of terror finally came to an end when they attempted to steal a $75 vice from a lumber yard on 2nd June 1985. They were spotted by employees, who chased them outside. Ng took off on foot, but Lake stayed behind until San Francisco police arrived at the scene. When they ran a check of the license plates, they discovered that the car the men were driving belonged to a man who vanished seven months prior, Paul Cosner.
When Lake was asked who he was, he identified himself as Robin Scott Stapley, another man who had been reported missing. When he was asked his date of birth, he responded: ‘You always lie to the cops.’ Lake was handcuffed and transported to the police station. Police were unaware that he had a cyanide pill hidden in his pocket.
He asked the officers for a glass of water, and they followed him into the bathroom. Suddenly, his demeanour changed. He told them that he was Leonard Thomas Lake, born on 29th October 1945. He then gave them the name Charles Ng. Seconds later, he began convulsing. He had swallowed the cyanide tablet and within moments, he lapsed into a fatal coma and passed away.
His suicide led detectives to the cabin that he shared with Ng. Here, they found horrifying evidence of the duo’s murder spree. They unearthed around 40lbs of fragmented human bones as well as the wooden structure which contained videotapes of naked and partially dressed women. There were 21 pictures of nude and semi-nude women stuck to the walls, along with 18 photo albums of women in varying stages of undress.
Even more disturbing, they came across an electric saw with bloodstains. A further search of the cabin revealed more items that connected Lake and Ng to various missing people, including Lake's 250-page diary.
The revelations prompted an international manhunt for Charles Ng, with the FBI notifying the US, Canada and countries across Asia to be on the lookout for him.
Ng was able to lay low until 6th July, when he was spotted in Calgary, Canada, trying to steal from a department store. When a security guard attempted to stop him, he opened fire with a .22- calibre handgun, wounding the guard. Another guard grabbed hold of Ng and subdued him until police officers arrived.
Over the next five years, Ng fought extradition from Canada. Finally, in 1991, in a 4-3 decision, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that he could be extradited, even though that meant he could be facing the death penalty if convicted of the murders.
Charles Ng was finally charged with 12 counts of first-degree murder and was ordered to stand trial.
The trial began in February 1999, with the prosecution revealing that all the female victims had been tortured and sexually assaulted before being killed. Ng denied that he killed anybody, and said he wasn’t aware that Lake planned to kill anybody, either. He said he thought he was helping Lake make videos of sadomasochistic sex and that he was simply following instructions.
His claims were countered by a videotape entered as evidence, which showed Ng cutting the bra off Brenda O’Connor, who was handcuffed and pleading for the lives of her husband and two-year-old son. Ng said on the videotape: ‘You can go ahead and cry and stuff like the rest of them, but it won’t do you no good. We are pretty cold-hearted, so to speak.’
On 24th February 1999, Charles Ng was convicted of the murders of six men, three women, and two baby boys in 1984 and 1985. The jury deadlocked on the murder of a 12th victim, a man whose body was never found.
The jury deliberated for 15 hours over three days before returning with a verdict. They recommended that Charles Ng die for his crimes. The judge agreed and sentenced Ng to death. After the announcement was made, Lola Stapley, whose son, Robin, was killed by the duo, commented: ‘We’ve been waiting for this day for 14 years. It’s a great weight lifted off that he received the punishment he deserved for what he did: 11 cold-blooded murders.’
Charles Ng remains on Death Row in San Quentin State Prison.