On Death Row

November 21st, 2011 // No Comments



Another visit to Charles brought us closer.  We are developing a friendship. He even laughed when we shared our experiences at school. Is he guilty or not? Does it matter now? There is no concrete evidence, besides it’s all in the eye of the beholder. People kill each other by the millions and don’t think much of it.  Some are even celebrated as heroes, as long as you’re on the right side and kill those considered your enemies. As soon as peace is established those enemies will become your friends again. There is Cambodia and Bosnia, etc. etc.  It’s all relative. Charles happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time for which he was locked up and condemned to spend the rest of his life in a tiny cell waiting for his execution. Books and TV are his onlhy connection with the outside world – other than an occasional visitor. Yet the wife of the killer, who surely witnessed what Lennard Lake concocted in his madness, is out there, free. Though she was subpoenaed, she was never questioned, could  remove vital evidence and plant the incriminating video into the house to be sure that the investigators would find it and nail Charles Ng. I’m neutral – I think. But even a naive person like myself has to raise the question as to the meaning of all this. The case was fed by the media-induced frenzy that demanded a guilty man who would pay for the bloody crimes.

I would like to find out who  Charles is, find the man and human being, who spent most of his life behind bars, humiliated and deprived of all normal human contact. At my last visit he wondered “why don’t you hug me?” I did, embarrassed that I had not done so to begin with when I hug all my friends. What is a friend, I asked myself. Simple. A person I know. What gets me to know a person? Exchanging words that tell me whether I like the person or not. It has to be mutual. I like Charles now that I got to know him, and giving him a hug which he enthusiastically returned, makes him a friend. Now that we’re friends we can talk openly to each other and reveal ourselves to the other. Talking about our school days we connected to a time when we were dependent on our parents, teachers and neighborhood. We underwent various methods of discipline geared at making us examplary members of our community. Neither he nor I could thrive under the often harsh and uncaring treatment we had to endure. We remembered injustices as well as the happy times of our childhood and concluded that ours was no different from that of children who grew up in our parts of the world at that time. Charles felt crushed under the tight rules in China. Since his father wanted an educated young man, he sent him to a private school in the UK  after he had undergone his basic education in China. I grew up in  Germany and know what boarding schools are all about. An institution can never replace the warmth of a family, the loving touch of a mother and encouraging word of a father. Consequently we were always homesick, felt abandoned and lonely. He moved to Canada where he ran into racism for being Asian. I felt the shame of being German and swallowed the wrongs committed by the Nazis that nagged at my conscience. I tried so hard to justify what had happened, except that there wasn’t much I could say, other than bow my head in shame. The war was lost and with it everything that we owned including the country I had been born in and my father, who was killed int he war by Russians.  War is about killing – the more the better until somebody gives up and surrenders.

Charles found a friend in the mad Lennard Lake, who accepted him as an equal.  Charles is paying for those months of being close to another. I channeled my homesickness into my novels. THE BARONESS took me back to the world I considered whole and home. After WWI my family kept yearning for that world they were obliged to leave. In 1939 my family had to leave Latvia. That made us and me homeless. From then on I lived in many different places and attended many schools – 17 in eight years. That’s as far as it went. I was obliged to quit after finishing eighth grade. Charles was kicked out from school because he would not bend his head to the dictates of the headmaster and could no longer return to China. The Chinese do not forgive anobody who disgraced his family.

He was a defiant and angry young man who, after losing face, had nothing else to lose. When he was caught stealing weapons like everybody else there, he was imprisoned for covering up for his friends, who did not even get a slap on their wrist. From then on everything went wrong for him. Knowing what to expect he tried to escape the clutches of the police. He was caught and fought back, but could not win. On the contrary, by injuring the policeman trying capture him, he committed a capital offense. Though he kept on seeking justice by studying the law and his rights, nobody would listen to him. They did not even care whether he was guilty or not, they wanted him dead. He was marked guilty before the procecution started. He is a dead man who happens to be still alive.  He knows that he is walking quicksand. The more he wiggles the quicker he will sink to his demise.

I could clear my mind and heart by publishing my books so that I have friends now who share my life and get an idea as to who I am. So far the characters are fictional though based on family members. My last book will have my own voice and reveal what I am all about – or at least think who I am. Since we cannot know ourselves, we can only sift through the mystery we call our identity. I hope to do that for Charles who cannot speak for himself. He is a sensitive man caught in the net of circumstances that became his fatal destiny. So many people all over the world fall into some trap they cannot escape. They get tortured to reveal information they don’t know, cannot know. But the interrogator needs a justification for his assumption and will not surrender his source and admit that he could be wrong. Happens all the time. The victim is guilty no matter what he says or does and might as well admit whatever the interrogator wants and accept his martyrdom. He is doomed. Charles is in that boat, stranded on a stormy sea surrounded by hungry sharks. Though he is not ready to throw in the towel, because his self-preservation instinct will not let him go.  All I can do for him is show that I care. I have no means of extracting any special truth. To me he is innocent until proven guilty. And even then, he is a human being who did wrong. My heart is filled with love, redemption and forgiveness. If he did wrong, he paid for it by spending his life in a tiny, dark cell in a world that considers him sub-human and dispicable. I have no use for vengeance – a momentary outburst of anger that passes as soon as I am myself again. Who am I to judge? I saw so many ugly things, most of them stupid and uncaring, that I believe in live and let-live. I happened to get through tight scrapes without being caught in circumstances that would deliver me into the hands of blood-thirsty and righteous people. I managed to stay away from lies and associations with the wrong people. Just luck, nothing else.

After numerous attempts to get an appointment to visit Charles, I finally succeeded. I shall see him again next Sunday and will keep you posted.


Thoughts on Charles:



This was my fourth visit to San Quentin. I enjoy spending time with Charles and Valerie in the cage he is obliged to stay in. We’ve become friends, share our thoughts and are comfortable in each other’s presence. There is nothing strange or different about him. Anything but the hardcore criminal one might suspect in a man accused of being a serial killer. The thought of him being a criminal never occurred to me.  From the time I met him, looking at me suspiciously from inside the cage he was kept, I only thought of “poor guy.” Accustomed to have people either come and milk him for details they can use in some article and then use what he said out of context against him. He trusted no one except Valerie, also Chinese, who had followed his trial from the beginning.   What would it take to make him trust me and understand that I am merely curious who he is as a human being and help Valerie in her writing his story.  I didn’t know anything about his crimes or him other than what little I had read in Valerie’s early drafts. Instinct usually guides my impressions and thoughts. In his case I found nothing derogatory or repulsive about him. He was no different from any stranger I’d encountered until I’d exchange some words and thus create a relationship. With Charles that sense of being OK in his company came right away and soon expanded into enjoying our conversation. He was guarded when answering questions unaware that I truly did not know much about him and that, whatever I had heard, had not made an impact on me. On the contrary, I wanted to know why and how this could have happened.

His favorite subject is his relatives who let him down. By their indifference toward him, he feels even more isolated than by the very circumstances under which he must live – alone in a tiny cell. After all these years he had grown accustomed and adapted to it. If it were not for the incessant noise of inmates shouting at each other across the hall that divides the cell rows, he would probably suffer less. An intelligent and educated man he knows the ins and outs of prison life, his rights and that following the rules makes his life more comfortable. The slightest infraction is punished by deprivation – in his case, there isn’t much anybody could deprive him of. Shut off from the world, natural light, and human contact, other than the man bringing his food, he created his own spiritual world. Condemned to death, he probably cherishes what little life he has. TV and radio not only provide company, they stimulate his intellect while addressing his isolation. The world moves on in many ways. His interest in art, particularly in origami, allows him to create wonderful objects by the use of a single sheet of paper.

When I visited him the second time – alone – he wondered why I would not hug him. So did I. We were friends now and I was accustomed to hug just about everybody. I certainly appreciate the human touch, a symbol of friendship. During that visit we shared our childhood experiences. I had been in boarding school and grew up in a society where discipline and obedience ranked high in the methods of child raising. I could share his experience of growing up in a small apartment in a big city. We talked about family and his experiences in the UK. He had wanted to please his father but could not live up the high expectation he had of Charles. An outsider and foreigner, Asian yet, who did not rank highly in the esteem of whites, he had too many strikes against him. Neither the curriculum nor the cold discipline of the British system could bring him to the level his father expected. He was a failure, a loser, who could not do anything right. Without his family’s approval of him, the only son, he gave up trying. In his heart he yearned to be admired for something. But his parents would not spend money for private lessons of any kind, certainly not for martial arts he would have enjoyed.  Art and music were worthless luxuries. Charles’s position was hopeless. At that point he had nothing to lose and might as well go off on his own.

Now that I understood where he came from I could tune in to him as a friend who needed me, or at least enjoyed having somebody he could talk to and who understood him.  I could visualize the young, naïve man starved for affection. Of course he would seek a friend, anybody who would acknowledge him as the young man he was.

Looking at the events and the decisions he made would not have had such disastrous consequences if he had been a white man, better yet, an American white man. The private boarding school in the UK exposed him to the unattainable. He would and could not ever be one of the boys he grew up with, boys who came from regular families, belonged to the society in which they grew up and would do fine even if they were not the first in class. After all, only one of them could be the first, the others would find their way as well. But Charles was visibly different, small and slight, and a native of Hong Kong, a British colony. That alone put him aside from the others, even if he had been the first in class.

As a child, from the time he became aware of his surroundings, he felt humiliated and frustrated. No matter what he did, he could not win. As former refugee and immigrant I could relate to his feelings. But I was white, though my German background had many people shun me back when Germany was considered a nation of war criminals. I loved my father, but he had been killed. My mother did all she could to raise us five children, but we lacked all means to make our lives pleasant. We lacked food and clothes but never love and affection, happy times and company. My world was anything but rigid. We came from Latvia where children were loved and only disciplined when necessary, not driven to succeed in anything.

Again I could feel for and with Charles. In a society like his I would have developed the attitude that whatever I did was pointless. I came in contact with ruthless people, but also many kind and giving ones. I was exploited, but did not mind because I could see a bigger picture and had a goal I would reach some day – and did. Charles was cut off before his attempts elevated him to a sense of self-worth and achievement. Instead he was arrested and treated worse than a wild animal, shackled and caged, convicted before he had been tried. The death sentence was supposedly too good for a killing machine like he. What some people consider justice is vengeance. An eye for an eye! Hang the killer. The lynch law that had murdered so many innocent people driven by mob hysteria roamed once again. Accusations and gossip grow and are magnified every time somebody related the story. Bloodthirsty minds hang around the guillotine waiting for the head to roll. Nothing changed when it comes to human nature where love and hate is but a step away, worse, we need a scapegoat we can blame for all our shortcomings and dark notions. It is so easy to find fault and so difficult to forgive or better yet, to explore the motivation and based on that, explain the actions of the man we hold in contempt. So many horrors are committed in the name of justice.

In my eyes Charles Ng is a victim of circumstances. He acted the way most young men would have under the circumstances. Let’s take a look at him, the talented and sensitive boy who is drilled into perfection. Not because his father is a demanding ogre, but because he grows up in a world that does not tolerate second best. Anything less brings shame to the family and the clan. Charles’ father is really no different from many an ambitious father who wants his son to be a trophy he can hold up for the world to see. Only Charles cannot fulfill that goal. Plenty of children don’t and rebel when the pressure gets unbearable. There is no reward for minor achievements. By constant punishment and reproaches some parents believe they can force their child to do better. Of course, we know that it accomplishes just the opposite. Desperate, Charles found some affection in the pets he brought home only to be obliged to get rid of the dog, later the cat and the chicken, that landed in the pot. His mother cut off the head and did not care that that particular hen was her son’s beloved pet.  Who needs animals in the home? But Charles is not bitter about that. It is part of living in a strict family where the mother has no place or time to care for a pet.

To compete in the British ruled colony of Hong Kong, Charles had to be trained to European standards. As a Chinese he was a second class citizen who could never rise to the level of a Brit. The closest he might get would be through a British education. With the help of his uncle Charles attended a British boarding school in the UK where he not only had to cope with harsh discipline, but as only Asian, the ridicule of his fellow students. Rather than commit suicide, he ran away to his sister’s in Canada. As illegal and unskilled immigrant he could not stay with her and took off for the United States.

Proud and eager to prove himself he wanted to join the Marines. In the elite service he would be somebody his family would look up to and be proud of. But, as illegal immigrant he was not eligible to join. Nonetheless, he badgered the recruitment office, begging them to take him in. They refused. It was against the law. Finally a sergeant took pity on Charles. The sergeant would leave the service in a month and admitted Charles. Though he was the only Asian, he quickly learned and imitated the behavior of his fellow men.

The harsh boot camp training did not bother him, nor did the men object to his being Asian. He even made friends with fellow marines by doing favors for them. He enjoyed military life and soon found friends among the fellows who tended to get into trouble. They found in him a useful tool when they needed backup. Charles did not mind supporting their doings.  Among their escapades was stealing guns from the depot and either using them for target practice and hunting rabbits or selling them, a common practice in the military. If caught the men would be grounded or pull extra guard duty. They used the money for buying of drugs.  Charles participated, proving that he could be trusted as a buddy, the price for belonging. He did not think it was wrong, since this was done all the time. But when the men were caught they accused Charles for being the culprit. The investigation revealed that he was illegal and thus an enemy. He was convicted to three years at the Ft. Leavenworth penitentiary. Though he felt bitter about the injustice, he considered himself in good company.  As a Marine he felt superior to the men serving in the Navy and Army. He could wear his uniform (in a different color) and followed the military discipline. One of his buddies supplied him with the address of Lennard Lake who would take Charles in should he be able to escape. The opportunity arose. He hid in the compound and fled that night.  He called Lake before boarding a plane that would take him to California. Lake, a former Marine and Vietnam War veteran, said: “you are just the kind of guy I was looking for.”

Though Lake lived under dubious circumstances at a country cabin that belonged to his young wife, Cricket, and also had a place in SF, Charles was grateful that the pleasant couple took him in.  The three became friends and shared their lives. Charles found a job in Chinatown where he could blend into the community.



Once again Charles felt a sense of belonging, this time to white people whom he admired. His being Chinese had no bearing on their relationship, and he felt secure that they would not turn him in. He would do anything that allowed him to live at liberty. Cricket and Lake treated him as an equal and a friend. Most white people do not realize the sensitivity of the non-white people toward everything that is being said about them. Silly remarks, gauche statements, off-colored jokes are very hurtful. As nature has it, people tend to stick to their own kind. With members of other races coming to this country and given equal rights, they are often bypassed in favor of locals when it comes to jobs, opportunities, loans and civil services. No matter how hard they try to fit in, their appearance and often defensive attitude, keeps them apart.

Over the past century most of the world had been kept as colonies of European nations who treated the local population as work force to be exploited, because they had no rights to speak of. Thus the concept of inferiority was established and soon became a fact. People who look different and speak a different language are considered inferior by the virtue that we cannot communicate with them, nor care to. Having them do our work is so convenient.

I experienced that situation myself when my family lived as part of the German occupiers in Poland. And there we are not talking about a different race, just a different language and the fact that those people had been defeated in a war and thus became subject to the power of the winner, the German Reich.

Looking different and coming from a different (considered inferior) background, Charles had to constantly prove his loyalty, ability, and service to his benefactors – who indeed found in him just the kind of young man they could engage in their shady deals. From luring women to pose as models for pornographic films to running errands and even shoplifting. Lake and Cricket lived on the income of the people Lake had murdered – and all that for a good cause. According to him, they were low life and useless parasites of society. That included Lake’s own brother and his good friend Gunnar who had to be eliminated because he was too fat and useless.

Charles did not share Lake’s philosophy documented in a diary and papers he wrote over the years, but he liked the idea of superiority, the neo-nazi concept.  He knew that this may not have been right, but he saw no harm done when the women were tied down in order to shoot SM scenes. He ignored Lake and Cricket’s unusual sex practices – they were none of his business – and enjoyed their company and the feeling of belonging to people who respected him.

He had finally found real friends. Lonely, isolated, and hunted Charles appreciated their protection and affection. Lake, a father figure, who complained about the noticeable signs of aging – saw in Charles a useful accomplice, the way the Marines had. In gratitude Charles did everything he was told to do. He depended on his friends. The naïve young man believed everything the couple told him. He liked Cricket and supported her when Lake threw a fit. She was nice and he desperately yearned for somebody NICE.

Bright, talented and desolate he had no place to go. His job in Chinatown was always threatened by his illegal status. There was no way out, especially after shoplifting tools for Lake and posing for porno films. He knew that Lake could turn him in at any moment. Lake, a psychopath who, at the same time, suffered from an inferiority complex (he complained about getting old and that Cricket had left him because of it) sought adoration of his manhood and genius, much like similar cases in the past, think of  Manson and the uno-bomber. In order to prove their superiority they had to cleanse the world of “undesirable” people. Whenever somebody objected to what he said or did, he threatened to take the cyanide pill he always carried with him. He was not about to be under the control of anybody. Both Charles and Cricket would do his bidding to prevent Lake from taking his life. Though Charles liked Lake, he was also scared. He would have left, but had no place to go. He always felt under surveillance, both from the authorities and from Lake.

During that time Cricket came and went, she was addicted to Lake’s sex appetite and enjoyed the adventurous life he led. She freely participated, except when she did not get her way or disagreed with him. Charles supported Cricket whenever she had another falling out with Lake.

Unlike his sisters, she accepted Charles and saw in him a useful companion.

It did not occur to Charles that he might be held responsible for Lake’s activities and that Cricket would stack the evidence against him. She had two days to remove and replace the video tapes and items in the cabin before investigators came with a search warrant.















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