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Features

Getting Justice for Lisa

When a local co-ed was abducted and raped, Boulder PD used old-fashioned detective work and high-tech science to find, indict, and convict the attackers.

December 01, 2003  |  by David Spraggs

Boulder, Colo., is a college town. The city, which is nestled at the base of the Rocky Mountains, has a population of 95,000 full-time residents and a student population of about 30,000. So when violent crimes are committed in Boulder, they often involve UC students. One such crime was the brutal abduction and gang rape of a young woman that we'll call "Lisa."

Fall semester at UC had just commenced on Saturday Aug. 28, 1999, and parties broke out across the campus. As one of these parties wound down early Sunday morning, Lisa decided to leave and walk to the nearby home of a friend. She never arrived. Instead, the 20-year-old spent the next three hours living through a hell that fortunately few young women will ever experience.

Gang Initiation

Lisa was only steps away from her friend's house when a blue minivan with wood side panels quickly veered in front of her, blocking her path. The van's sliding door ripped open and a large heavyset Asian male grabbed Lisa and forced her into the van. As residents of the neighborhood would later tell police, Lisa screamed.

Shoved into the van and ordered to stay on the floor, Lisa was terrified, but she managed to stay as calm and observant as possible. She quickly assessed her situation.

Lisa was in the back of a van with four young Asian males, ranging in age from mid-teens to late-twenties. There were two other Asian males in the front seats. And all of them were dressed in white shirts and dark pants.

As the van with heavily tinted windows sped through the City, toward an unknown destination, Lisa's abductors repeatedly threatened to kill her if she didn't cooperate. She also overheard talk of gang initiation, a stolen car, a gun, and an airline flight. She didn't think she would survive through the night.

They raped her while the van was still moving. All four of the males in the back of the vehicle tore at her clothes until she was naked. Then they forced her to perform oral sex on them, one after the other. Lisa told them she had sexually transmitted diseases, in an attempt to stop the assault.

It didn't work. The two older assailants took their turns and then the younger ones, who were initially passive and unsure, joined the attack. Goaded on by the older boys, they quickly escalated their violence. The youngest repeatedly hit and pinched Lisa, while threatening to shoot her.

About 3 a.m., a little more than 30 minutes since Lisa had been abducted, the driver pulled the van off the road in a heavily wooded, remote area of western Boulder County. Once stopped, the suspects opened the van doors, and all of them forced Lisa to endure sexual intercourse and oral copulation.

At one point, she fled through the open van door and ran across the road into a stand of pine trees and bushes. Three of the rapists ran her down, tackled her, kicked her in the head, and dragged her back to the van.

They threw her in the back again and piled in and the van began to move. A short time later the vehicle pulled over. Lisa was allowed to put on her pants and shirt. The heavyset male told her to get out. He followed behind. Lisa saw something in his right hand and then felt a hard object placed at the base of her skull. She believed it was a handgun. He pushed Lisa toward a trail and told her to keep walking. Believing that he was going to shoot her, Lisa walked ahead and didn't look back.

A few moments later the van sped away. And Lisa knew she had survived the night. She walked nearly a mile without shoes in the dark until she saw a house on the hillside.

It was almost 6 a.m. when the 911 call was placed.

Initial Response

Boulder County Sheriff's deputies responded to Lisa's location. The deputies quickly obtained the vehicle and suspect descriptions. This information was aired on all county police radio channels, and a Teletype was immediately sent to all metropolitan Boulder law enforcement agencies.

Boulder police officers set up a perimeter around all possible exit points from the mountains. The responding deputies quickly ascertained that Lisa was abducted from the City of Boulder, near downtown. That meant that Boulder PD had jurisdiction. Boulder Police sergeants assigned teams of officers to search the area and secure the crime scene.

Before she was transported to the hospital, Lisa went with Boulder PD Officer Jenny Paddock to locate the other crime scenes. Once Lisa identified it, Sheriff's personnel secured the area where she was released until Boulder Police crime scene investigators and detectives could respond. Unfortunately, Lisa was unable to identify the exact area where the assault occurred.

The Investigation

Lisa was transported to Boulder Community Hospital where she was medically cleared. The on-call sexual assault nurse examiner gave her a detailed examination, the physical evidence was collected, and Lisa's injuries were documented with a video colposcope (a surgical microscope).

Lead detectives Jane Harmer and Chuck Heidel believed it was imperative to generate suspect composites as quickly as possible. Lisa, exhausted and in pain from her ordeal, agreed, and Terry Kruger, Boulder PD's sketch artist, was dispatched to the hospital.

Lisa chose to start with the male that initially kidnapped her off the street. Later that morning the first suspect composite was released to the media.

The press release was picked up by local media outlets, including television, radio, and newspaper. It was aired, along with the vehicle description and other suspect descriptions, on the 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. television news. By chance, a gang task force detective for the suburban Denver Adam's County Sheriff's Office watched the news broadcast.

Det. Bob Fuller of the Adams County SO immediately realized that the suspect looked like Steve Yang, a member of the Asian Crips gang. After watching the news, Fuller drove by Yang's house and noticed that a gray minivan with wood paneling was parked in the driveway. Fuller immediately notified Boulder PD with this information.

The van was placed under surveillance until a search warrant was executed later that day. Then it was towed, via a flatbed truck, to the Boulder Police vehicle-processing bay.

Armed with these new leads, Boulder detectives worked with numerous local law enforcement agencies to develop information on Steve Yang's known associates. Numerous photographic lineups were generated and shown to Lisa, but she was initially unable to identify any of the suspects.

Search warrants were written to collect non-testimonial evidence (photographs, fingerprints, buccal swabs for DNA, and hair samples) from numerous persons identified with Steve Yang. But the investigation focused aggressively on a "feet to the pavement" approach. Detectives scoured the neighborhood in which Steve Yang and his associates lived. And dozens of people were interviewed, as they attempted to identify the suspects.

On Sept 2 during the execution of a search warrant, detectives received their second break in the case. An associate of Steve Yang told detectives that he had information on the case. The informant said that Steve Yang and his brother Kather Yang were involved in the kidnapping and rape, along with Sonny Lee, Johnny Lee, and two other guys.

The names listed by the informant were familiar to gang task force detectives who identified them as possible members of the Asian Crips. In fact, intelligence indicated that Johnny Lee was the leader of the Denver area Asian Crips.

While searching a residence for Johnny Lee, detectives observed two males inside the house matching the description of two of the suspects. These males, later identified as cousins Kao Vang and Chue Vang, appeared nervous. Kao and Chue voluntarily provided DNA samples to police. Then after speaking with their uncle, Thong Vang, both Chue and Kao admitted they were present during the abduction and gang rape of Lisa, but insisted they did not sexually assault the victim. Sixteen-year-old Chue and 18-year-old Kao agreed to accompany detectives to the police department for a formal interview.

In separate interviews, both Chue and Kao waived their Miranda rights and implicated themselves, Steve Yang, Kather Yang, Sonny Lee, and Johnny Lee in the kidnapping and sexual assault of Lisa. Both were arrested at the conclusion of the interviews. And detectives drafted arrest warrants on the four remaining suspects.

The arrest warrants were signed on Sept. 4. Confidential informants told police that the four suspects fled the state. Sonny Lee, Johnny Lee, and Steve Yang were subsequently arrested in Green Bay, Wis., on Sept. 15. The next day Kather Yang turned a gun on himself as officers of the Green Bay Police Department entered the hotel room where he was reported to be staying. Kather shot himself once in the chest with a .45. He died at the scene.

Evidence Gathering

At almost daybreak on the morning of the attack, Boulder PD officers scoured the abduction area for possible evidence. They found Lisa's black sandals lying in a parking lot. Working out from the position of the victim's shoes, investigators cordoned off a large area with crime scene tape.

Careful examination of the area revealed tire tread impressions in a small area of dirt between the asphalt road and the concrete sidewalk, near the black sandals. This was photographed with an ABFO-type scale and cast with dental stone. This tire impression was later positively matched to the front passenger side tire of Steve Yang's van.

The van itself proved to be a treasure trove of evidence. Colorado Bureau of Investigation crime lab technicians and Boulder detectives spent three days processing it for evidence. Still photographs and video were taken. The interior was methodically searched and individual hairs and fibers were collected. All interior surfaces were vacuumed for additional trace evidence. And when an alternate light source (ALS) was employed, it revealed numerous areas of possible biological evidence inside the van. Finally, fingerprints were recovered from the interior and exterior surfaces of the vehicle.

Of course, the most important crime scene in a sexual assault is the victim. At the hospital on the morning of the attack, seminal fluid was found in Lisa's hair, on the top of her foot, and on her wrist. Additionally, vaginal swabs showed the presence of a DNA mixture, implicating three of the suspects. Fibers consistent with the interior of the van were also located on her clothing.

Convicting Them

By the time the suspects became defendants, hundreds of hours of investigative and laboratory work had been completed in a case that melded traditional investigative techniques with forensic science. This two-prong approach ensured that the case was as strong as possible, and ensured justice was handed down to the men who kidnapped and raped Lisa.

Of the five surviving suspects, three pleaded guilty to the sexual assault and kidnapping. Steve Yang and Kao Vang were each sentenced to 32 years to life, and Chue Vang was sentenced to 40 years to life.

Sonny Lee and Johnny Lee chose to take their chances in court. It was a huge mistake. The case was solid, and the jury saw it as such.

After deliberating for under three hours, 12 good citizens of Colorado found Sonny Lee guilty of all charges. He was sentenced to 108 years in prison. Johnny Lee was convicted days later on August 29, 2001; exactly two years after the crime was committed. He got 116 years.

Tags: Sex Crimes, Investigations, Boulder (Colo.) PD


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