The three-part true-crime docuseries Manifesto of a Serial Killer walks a thin line between being exploitative of the victims and focusing on their lives and memories. A mere three hours might not have been enough time considering it examines one of the most horrifying serial killer cases in history. The focus is on serial killers Leonard Lake and Charles Ng, who have mostly flown under the radar in the echelon of famed mass murders/serial killers.
Yet their crimes are some of the worst ever. They were sick, twisted, demented people who didn’t discriminate on their victims. While John Wayne Gacy and Jeffrey Dahmer focused on young men, Ted Bundy targeted women with a certain hairstyle. Lake and Ng seem to go after whoever crossed their paths. That’s what makes them worse. They killed men. They killed women after torturing and sexually assaulting them. They even killed young children. Just because one of the victims met the killers because they wanted to borrow sound equipment shows their lack of human life. And for their crimes, it was a long hard-fought road to justice that almost never came.
I remember first reading about Ng when I was in high school when he was doing every trick in the book to delay his trial. I think Playboy or Penthouse had done an in-depth story of the legal battle. But the case was far from over at the time. And the whole case started over a petty shoplifting case in the San Francisco Bay area in early June 1985.
On June 2, in South San Francisco, Lake and Ng entered into a hardward store. Ng had a history of kleptomania and had taken a vise priced at $75. An employee had noticed this and contacted the police. When the employee confronted them as Lake and Ng were outside, Ng threw the vise in the backseat of a 1980 Honda Prelude and fled on foot. The police arrived and obsessed a .22 caliber firearm with a silencer equipped. Possession of any gun silencer was illegal in California so Lake was arrested.
Lake tried to say it was a misunderstanding that he had purchased the vise but when police looked further, they discovered that the driver’s license in his possession was registered to Robin Scott Stapley, of San Diego, who had been reported missing weeks earlier. The Prelude was registered to Paul Cosner, who had been missing since Nov. 2, 1984 when he drove to meet someone who was interested in purchasing it.
Lake asked for a pencil, a piece of paper and a glass of water. He composed a letter to his ex-wife and then took a cyanide pill he had hidden in a jacket pocket. He was rushed to the hospital for treatment but died on June 6, 1985. And as authorities investigated the case more, they discovered that Lake and Ng had videotaped some of their crimes in which they tortured women at his remote lake cabin in Wileysville, Calif. It’s never known how many people they killed. It’s believed to have been between 11 and 25, including a one-year-old boy Sean Dubbs, whose parents, Harvey and Deborah, were also killed.
Because Lake died by suicide shortly after his arrest, all cops had to go on was a manifesto videotape he had made. A former Marine, he served two tours in Vietnam suffering a nervous breakdown and getting a medical discharge in 1971. He relocated to the San Jose area and lived in the hippie culture for a while. Ng, born in British Hong Kong, was a Marine as well but was facing a court martial for stealing and went AWOL, where he met Lake in northern California.
After fleeing from the hardware store, Ng made his way into Canada to Calgary, Alberta where he was arrested on July 6, 1985 for shooting a security guard in the hand for stealing a can of salmon. He was later convicted but fought extradition to California for the next six years because it would violate the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms as his crimes in California could be capital murder offenses.
The victims’ families talk about how they initially suspected that Ng might get deported back to Hong Kong. And even though the Canadian courts ruled that Ng be extradited to America in 1991, he kept firing his attorneys to further delay any court proceedings. Seven years passed before his trial began in October of 1998. We hear stories from the families now senior citizens and most of them see the pain and suffering in their faces, but yet we never do fully comprehend who they are. Some of the victims are confused as times.
There is videotapes shown briefly of Lake and Ng tormenting their victims. But I can understand why a lot wasn’t shown. Nor do I think many people would have wanted to see more. Family and friends didn’t watch during the trial and when one asked if a person was murdered on tape, the response is chilling as they say, “No, they were tortured.”
Because neither Lake nor Ng contacted the media to the killings the way the Zodiac Killer or the Son of Sam killer did, most of the cases are just presumed to be missing person cases that turned into murders. It’s also a creepy reminder how easier it was 40-45 years ago to make people just disappear. There’s some discussion how Lake tried to steal the identity of Cosner. People can just leave a job, relationship or community and are never seen again. It’s like Lake and Ng were hoping for this.
Nowadays with social media and GPS, it’s a little bit harder to live off the grid. But that’s what Lake did at his lake home was in the Sierra Nevadas. And that’s where he buried the victims. Sadly, remains of some have never really been positively identified. Ng is eventually found guilty by a jury of 11 homicides (six men, three women and two male infants), but not of Cosner. So, there is no resolution for his family and friends. Yet, there are more homicides he was suspected that were never tried.
All human remains found at the Wileysville property were buried together at a cemetery in Calvaras County, Calif., as some were burnt beyond recogntion and some bones had been shattered to avoid identification. Ng received the death penalty but still remains on death row at San Quentin Prison. The State of California spent twice as much to prosecute Ng than they spent on the O.J. Simpson Trial and some authorities said it was far worse than the Manson Family Murders.
A case like this deserves more attention but it feels too rushed and almost like there’s a Wikipedia version. I feel the filmmakers were trying to bring up more interest in the case as as at least a dozen victims have remained unidentified. But since it was released on Oxygen and currently streaming on Peacock, I feel that the case nowadays, like it did decades ago will still remain unknown. I’m sure there are podcasts that focus on the case. But one might wonder why it doesn’t get as much attention as Bundy, Gacy, Dahmer or Manson?
What do you think? Please comment.