A routine arrest by police officers to a shoplifting scene at a South City lumberyard in South San Francisco initiated the unearthing of one of the most grisly discoveries of mass murder that the country had witnessed. A clerk had called the police after an Asian man had been seen stealing a vice. He ran off, but another middle-aged man with a beard was apprehended when he was caught with several firearms including an illegal silencer. The man, who had a multitude of aliases, turned out to be one Leonard Lake, ex Marine and partner in crime of Charles Ng.
At the time the police had no idea what they had uncovered, believing Lake to be a petty criminal. Not long after having been taken into custody Lake committed suicide by swallowing a cyanide pill - one of several he had hidden in his belt – but not before he had written a note to his wife.
The police soon realised that they were onto something bigger than petty theft and illegal gun ownership. The Honda truck that Lake had been found in possession of was actually owned by a man called Paul Cosner. He had been missing for months. Among the items found in the Honda were several stolen bank cards and an electric bill in the name of Claralyn Balasz. The South San Francisco police wasted no time in contacting Balasz who turned out to be Lake’s ex wife and who lived in Bruno, a place just a few miles from where her now dead ex -husband had been arrested.
On 3 June 1985, two detectives from San Francisco’s Missing Persons dept, Tom Eisenmann and Irene Brunn, went to interview Balasz. The electricity bill was for an address in Wilseyville, California, a remote region at the foot of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Balasz informed the detectives that the address was a cabin belonging to her father. The detectives were given instructions about where to find the place. But Balasz made sure that she got there first in order to remove several home-made pornographic videotapes that she feared would embarrass her.
When Balasz finally took them to the cabin the detectives asked her to unlock it. The cabin itself comprised of two bedrooms, a kitchen and bathroom. Red stains which appeared to be blood were found on the ceiling. There were also two small calibre bullet holes in both the living room wall and kitchen floor. Most disturbing of all was a four-poster bed in the bedroom that had electric cords tied to each post. A 250-watt floodlight was fastened to the wall.
Blood stained mattresses and women’s lingerie together with video duplicating equipment all suggested that something sinister had taken place in this remote environment. Elsewhere in the area an incinerator with fireproof walls and a mysterious looking bunker precipitated further investigation that was to reveal a horrifying tale of abduction, torture and death.
Claralyn Balasz became irate at being questioned about her connection to the property, which she maintained had been bought by her father and rented out. When asked by detectives if they could search the concrete bunker, Balasz suggested that they talk to Charles Ng, an Asian man who was the ‘business’ partner of her ex.
Balasz informed them that she had recently gone to Ng’s apartment to collect a pay cheque before driving him to the San Francisco airport. She had no idea where he was heading. After Ng’s details were relayed to the authorities a task force was set up to search the entire property.
The next day the task force set about their grisly work. A cleared area around the bunker saturated in lye, revealed a trench deposited with clothing. Even at this stage the detectives feared that they were about to unearth a gravesite. Two bones were later found and sent off for analysis.
Once the bunker had been accessed it appeared smaller on the inside suggesting hidden rooms. Meanwhile, investigations revealed that the bunker property was rental and had been occupied by a couple, Lonnie Bond and his partner Brenda O’Connor with their young baby. A real estate agent informed officers that the couple had fallen behind on their rent and left the property together with a lodger by the name of Robin Stapley. All these people were now registered missing.
Inside the bunker a main room appeared to be a workshop filled with an assortment of hand tools and power saws that hung on one wall. On closer inspection many of them appeared to be encrusted with bloodstains. A plywood tool rack served as an entrance to a hidden, smaller room revealing a double bed, side table and reading lamp. There were also several books, one ‘The Collector’ by John Fowles was about a butterfly collector who abducted a young girl and kept her in his basement.
This novel would have chilling parallels to real life events that had taken place inside the bunker.
Akin to something out of a ‘militia’ magazine, the room was filled with an armoury of weapons, gun paraphernalia, magazines and tomes on how to make chemical weapons. On one wall were plastered 21 snapshots of young girls taken in various form of undress.
One of the most important finds was a diary, written by Lake himself which described how he and Charles Ng had abducted, raped, tortured and then killed various victims.
Another room that appeared to be a ‘hostage cell’ was discovered behind a bookcase door. This small room, only seven feet by three, contained a single bed and chemical toilet. Holes had been drilled in the walls to provide ventilation but not light. More insidiously was a two-way mirror, which allowed viewers from one side to see and listen to the room’s occupants by switching a button.
At the time of excavating the area, Gloria Eberling, Leonard Lake’s mother, turned up at the site. She had come to the murder scene in order to find out about her other son Donald, who had disappeared two years earlier.
It was at this point that detectives quizzed her about Balasz removing videotapes from the cabin. Eberling admitted that her daughter-in-law had taken them in order to spare herself embarrassment by the content, which showed her in the nude and having sex with Lake. Balasz was ordered to return all tapes.
The FBI was now investigating a full-scale murder enquiry as it was suspected that Lake and Ng had carried out multiple kidnappings, rape and murder. Although one suspect was now dead from suicide, the other, Ng, was still on the run.
Kathleen Allen and boyfriend Michael Carroll’s bodies were found at the site. Ms Allen had been lured to the cabin by Lake after he told her Carroll, a felon and one time cellmate of Ng, had been shot. Other victims included Robin Scott Stapley who Lake has impersonated on the day of his arrest for theft. Strangely, one victim was Charles Gunner, known as ‘The Fat Man’ who had been Lake’s best man during his wedding to Claralyn Balasz.
Lake’s neighbours Brenda O’Connor, partner Lonnie Bond and their baby son Lonnie Bond Jr. were also tragic victims of the two callous sociopaths, as were second couple Harvey and Deborah Dubs who had become unfortunate targets after their killers visited their home when Harvey advertised audio equipment to sell. The couple along with their baby Sean were abducted and later killed. One of the video tapes showed a terrified Brenda O’Connor being horrifically abused and told by Ng on the tape “If you say no (to co-operation) we’ll rape you and then we’ll take you outside and shoot you. Your choice."
Ng wasn’t averse to also attracting men as sexual prey. He placed an ad in a sex magazine offering ‘oral’ and when answered went to the home of Donald Giuletti, a 38 year old disc jockey from San Francisco. He was later found dead, shot three times in the study of his home. Giuletti’s roommate identified Ng as the man who came to the apartment.
Other victims were raped and taunted, the heinous acts filmed on video, while other captives watched in horror. Sheriff Ballard who conducted the enquiry told journalists that the videos were like horror films. Police estimated that around 21 ‘missing’ women were shown as victims being sexually assaulted, raped and sodomised on the tapes, their ages ranging from twelve to their early twenties. Six women in the tapes were thankfully found alive but many more remain missing today, their bodies most likely to have been incinerated.