Murder of Stuart Tay
The murder of Stuart Anthony Tay occurred in Buena Park, California in Greater Los Angeles on December 31 (New Year's Eve), 1992. The Orange County Register referred to the crime as the "Honor Roll Murder." The victim and most of the perpetrators were Asian American.
The victim, Stuart Tay, was a 17-year-old Chinese American resident of Orange, California and a student at Foothill High School. Five teenagers believed that Tay was planning to betray them in a planned theft of computer equipment, so they arranged to kill him. All of the perpetrators were students at Sunny Hills High School. Most of the perpetrators had planned to attend elite colleges and universities including Ivy League schools.
The perpetrators were 18-year-old Robert Chien-Nan Chan of the Sunny Hills area of Fullerton, California, 16-year-old Kirn Young Kim of the Islands community of Fullerton, 16-year-old Abraham Acosta of Buena Park, 17-year-old Mun Bong Kang of Fullerton, and 17-year-old Charles Bae Choe of Fullerton. All suspects were convicted and/or pleaded guilty.
The film Better Luck Tomorrow was loosely based on this murder.
The prosecutor said that Tay used an alias and presented himself as an older person. He and Chan created a scheme to rob a computer parts dealer in Anaheim, California, and then recruited four other persons as part of the plot. In court Chan said that Choe helped recruit the other participants. The prosecutor said that Chan created a plan to kill Tay when he learned that Tay was lying about his name and age. The suspects feared that Tay would betray them. The Tay family had hired a private investigator who said that Chan had attacked Tay partly due to issues over a girl who had refused to date Chan. The police said that this theory is not true. The planned robbery never occurred.
On December 31 (New Year's Eve), 1992, the perpetrators lured Tay to the back yard of the Buena Park, California, residence of Abraham Acosta. Kirn Kim acted as a lookout. Prosecutors said that the perpetrators had made preparations before the murder, having dug a grave 24 hours prior. The perpetrators held rehearsals for the murder and purchased gloves so they would not leave fingerprints behind.
In the backyard, the perpetrators hit Tay with a baseball bat and a sledgehammer. Chan and Acosta hit Tay. Tay did not die immediately, so the perpetrators forced Tay to drink rubbing alcohol. His mouth was then taped shut. After Tay died, he was buried in the grave. Acosta had taken $100 from Tay's wallet. The perpetrators drove Tay's car to Compton, California to give the impression that Tay had been carjacked. Charles Choe, one of the perpetrators, said that Robert Chan dug the grave and poured the rubbing alcohol down Tay's throat. The authorities discovered Tay's body at the Acosta residence. Orange County authorities stated that Tay's death occurred due to asphyxiation on vomit; authorities argued that this was most likely due to the head injuries, and that the taping of the nose and mouth may have quickened his death.
Criminal trials and sentencing
In his trial, Chan said that he did not mastermind the killing of Tay, and that he believed that Tay put explosives in his house and would kill him if Tay was not himself killed. A juror who spoke under anonymity said "There was no doubt that he was the mastermind. He tried to lie and blame others for it, but if there was no Robert Chan, Stuart Tay would still be alive today." On Tuesday May 3, 1994, Robert Chan was convicted of first-degree murder. The jury took less than three hours to reach the verdict. Ulla Lang, a juror from Huntington Beach, California, said "I was surprised at how fast the verdict took (sic), but there was really nothing to decide. He got on the witness stand and said he did it and he knew what he was doing. It's like the prosecutor said--he convicted himself." Chan was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
On Friday July 1, 1994, Kirn Kim and Abraham Acosta were convicted of first degree murder. Acosta was convicted of ambushing his victim. Jurors acquitted Kim of ambushing his victim. Even though Acosta had taken $100 from Tay, jurors acquitted Acosta of killing for financial gain. Acosta was sent to a California Youth Authority (CYA) facility.
Choe was sent to a CYA facility. In January 1995 Kirn Kim and Mun Kang were sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. Kim and Kang had asked the court system to send them to the CYA system instead of the adult criminal system. David G. Sills, the judge of the 4th District Court of Appeal in Santa Ana, California did not do so due to the severity of the crime. Chan, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) inmate number J30838, was admitted into the system on August 12, 1994 and as of 2012 is incarcerated at the California State Prison, Los Angeles County. Kirn Young Kim, CDCR#J40983, was admitted on February 9, 1995 and is currently incarcerated in the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility. Kirn Kim had been transferred to the Donovan prison near San Diego, California by 2002.
Rene Lynch of the Los Angeles Times said, "The sophisticated murder scheme and the sheer senselessness of the killing grabbed headlines from the start" and that residents of Orange County were "shocked" "because the assailants and the victim were such unlikely suspects." Lynch added that "The case has gained widespread attention, both as a symbol of juvenile crime out of control and because both teen-agers came from seemingly model homes."
In 1995, a court awarded Alfred and Linda Tay, the parents of the deceased victim, over $1 million from four of the killers, while the parents of Tay reached a $100,000 settlement with a fifth killer.
While the plot of Better Luck Tomorrow was loosely based on the Tay murder and film director Justin Lin said that he had tracked the Tay incident in newspapers, the movie is described to be a work of fiction that pulls from multiple influences.
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