An alleged drug trafficker charged with killing a man who owed him money and dumping the victim's body in the ocean off Dana Point Harbor pleaded not guilty Monday to federal charges, along with a woman who's accused of helping him but whose attorney suggested she was too frightened to report what she witnessed.
Hoang Xuan Le, 38, of Fountain Valley, and 40-year-old Sheila Marie Ritze of San Juan Capistrano, who owns the boat allegedly used to dump the victim's body, were both arrested Dec. 19.
Le, who goes by the first name of Wayne, was indicted last Thursday on charges of first-degree murder and possession and discharge of a firearm in furtherance of a violent crime in connection with the death of the victim, identified only as T.D. in the indictment.
Le's attorney, Erica Choi of the federal Public Defender's Office, declined comment.
Ritze's attorney, Lloyd Freeberg, told reporters after this morning's arraignment that his client has a "frightening and horrifying story'' to tell eventually.
"It's a classic case of PTSD,'' Freeberg said.
The defense attorney said his client and Le were friends, and Ritze witnessed an "extremely vicious attack'' and was too frightened and shocked to call police.
"Every time I talk to her, she sobs and weeps,'' said Freeberg, who took the case over from attorney Ben Lechman, who represented Ritze at her initial Dec. 19 appearance in federal court when U.S. Magistrate Judge Karen Scott denied bond for both defendants.
Last month, Lechman argued that Ritze is a California native who has always resided in Southern California and has strong ties to the community, including a brother who is a sheriff's deputy. Ritze, who is separated from her spouse and has a 9-year-old daughter, "has every reason to stay here,'' the attorney said in arguing for bond.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Greg Scally alleged that Ritze was on the boat at the time of the killing and is accused of canvassing the dock for surveillance cameras afterward. The prosecutor also alleged there is also evidence she was shopping for a bulletproof vest in the days prior to the killing and had a photo on her phone of a text message thread containing two pictures of the roofs of a parking garage with text accompanying it reading "Irvine sniper.''
In making her no-bond ruling, Scott said a tracker allegedly bought by Ritze and found on the victim's girlfriend's car indicated that Ritze could pose a danger to the woman. She also said the "court is concerned the defendant has prior felony convictions and also had a history of alcohol abuse,'' citing a drunken driving conviction.
Le is accused of killing the victim, whose name was not released, because the man owed him $30,000 to $40,000, according to an affidavit supporting the criminal complaints.
Le allegedly told a confidential informant that he lured the victim onto a fishing boat Oct. 14 in Dana Point Harbor for an overnight fishing trip, then shot him in the head, anchored his body with weights around the ankles and hurled him overboard, according to the affidavit prepared by FBI Special Agent Christopher Gicking.
The body was recovered seven nautical miles northwest of Oceanside on Oct. 16, Gicking said. The victim was about 40 years old, the FBI agent said.
The victim's girlfriend, who reported him missing Oct. 18, said she had lunch with Le and her boyfriend the day of the fishing trip. During the lunch, Le and the victim discussed going lobster fishing together that night, according to Gicking.
The victim texted his girlfriend from the boat, describing his companion, and later sent her cell phone video of the boat, Gicking said. His last text was sent at 12:27 a.m. on Oct. 15, when he wrote, "love you,'' Gicking said.
The confidential informant told investigators that Le told him that when the three were on the boat, Le asked the victim when he was going to repay his debt, according to the affidavit.
"Le became upset with the victim because the victim 'snapped' at Le and said he was not going to repay Le,'' Gicking wrote. Le allegedly then shot
the victim three times, the agent said.
The San Diego County Medical Examiner's Office determined the victim drowned after being shot and sustaining blunt force trauma, according to Thom Mrozek of the U.S. Attorney's Office.
The informant, while working with investigators, bought cocaine from Le, according to the FBI. Le allegedly indicated he would be open to being a contract killer, according to the affidavit.
The informant, who was wearing a wire, also recorded Le as he allegedly sold more drugs to him and again expressed a willingness to be a hit man, according to the FBI.
Investigators seized an AR-15-type rifle, shotgun and crossbow found in Le's residence this morning, Mrozek said.
Evidence allegedly shows Ritze's phone was near the harbor when the boat left and returned Oct. 14. Surveillance video also shows her at the harbor with two others, whom investigators suspect were Le and the victim, Mrozek
Surveillance video shows only Ritze and Le when the boat returned to
the harbor hours later, he said.
Investigators also allege that Ritze bought the tracking device found on the victim's girlfriend's vehicle.
Le has a pending drunken driving case dating back to Aug. 8, 2017, according to Orange County Superior Court records. He is also accused of having a concealed and loaded unregistered gun in the vehicle, receiving stolen property and resisting arrest.
Le also has a conviction for domestic violence dating back to 2010 that he eventually had dismissed in 2014, according to court records.
Ritze pleaded guilty to driving drunk, with a blood-alcohol level of more than twice the legal limit, on April 8, according to court records. She also pleaded guilty to DUI in May 2005.
Ritze pleaded guilty in November 2003 to possession of cocaine and marijuana for sale and was sentenced to three years in prison. She pleaded guilty to possession of a controlled substance with the intent to sell in October 2002 and was sentenced to 120 days in jail, court records show.