As the end of 1992 approached and the prospect of a breezy final semester of high school awaited, Stuart Tay and Robert Chan appeared to be following similar paths.
Tay, a 17-year old senior at Foothill High, was founder of the Asian Culture Club on campus and a member of the community service oriented Key Club. He told his teachers that he wanted to be a doctor, like his father. While his early admission application Princeton had been deferred for spring consideration, he remained hopeful that his impressive high school resume would be enough to convince an admissions counselor in the second go-round.
18-year old Chan, a senior at Sunny Hills High in Fullerton, was someone other parents talked about as a student their children should emulate — both on and off campus. As a member of the school’s competitive academic decathlon team and former “Student of the Month”, Chan’s scholarly accomplishments were well-known. He once listed his career ambitions as “doctor, businessman, bodybuilder, actor.” His choice of colleges included several Ivy League institutions.
However, the paths of the two straight-A students would ultimately take a sharp detour toward one another in a collision course toward murder.
Despite living what seemed like relatively normal lives, privately, Tay and Chan were both desperate for something that even a perfect SAT score couldn’t bring — respect. While Tay depicted himself as local crime boss involved in weapons trafficking, Chan boasted to classmates of his ties to a violent Asian gang in the area.
In reality, Tay lived comfortably with his parents and sister in a custom-built, 11-room house with a swimming pool and a tennis court in Orange. Chan’s large home sat in a peaceful, leafy development in northwest Fullerton’s affluent Sunny Hills section.
It was a role the pair were more than happy to play, so long as it remained a harmless game to impress those around them. But when Stuart Tay’s girlfriend set up a meeting between the two a few days before Halloween, the masks both young men donned remained affixed.
Tay introduced himself as a crime figure named Martin Gore with more than 100 loyal followers and an ability to pirate computer programs, driver licenses and credit cards. He also bragged about access to high-powered explosives and provided a phony address and age to Chan. While skeptical of Tay’s outlandish claims, Chan countered with his own boastful connections to the crime underworld in Orange County. Together they plotted to rob an Anaheim computer parts dealer by forcing their way into his home, tying up his family and leaving with the valuable goods.
Over the next few weeks, Chan recruited four classmates to assist with the robbery. Along with himself and Tay, the group now consisted of Abraham Acosta, 16, Charles Choe, 17, Mun Bong Kang, 17, and Kirn Young Kim, 16.
As the outlier in the group and the sole student not attending Sunny Hills High, Tay remained a somewhat mysterious figure to the newcomers. Chan asserted the legitimacy of Tay’s claims to the others in the group but quietly harbored serious doubts. When Tay dropped his wallet during a group meeting and his true identity was revealed, Chan’s doubts turned into rage. Unbeknownst to Tay, a clumsy mistake had set into motion plans for his murder.
Shortly after 4 p.m. on New Year’s Eve, Tay met up with Chan and Kim at a local Denny’s before heading to Abraham Acosta’s home in Buena Park where the remaining three were waiting for them. Eager to examine a gun Chan was offering to sell him, Tay could hardly contain his excitement as he was led to Acosta’s garage. Within a matter of seconds of entering, the beating commenced.
Although Acosta delivered the first blow with a baseball bat, Chan assumed the duty as the primary executioner, landing more than a dozen crippling strikes to the back of Tay’s head with a bat and sledgehammer. Kang and Choe, who waited outside, heard Tay scream and plead, “What did I do to you?”
Incredibly, Tay remained alive after enduring a nearly 20 minute beating, infuriating Chan even more. Spotting a bottle of rubbing alcohol on a nearby shelf, Chan preceded to pour the fluid down Tay’s throat and force his mouth shut with duct tape. Tay’s body was then thrown into a shallow grave prepared the day before. The grave was so small his legs had to be folded to make the body fit. According to a pathologist’s testimony during Chan’s trial, Tay may have suffered for as long as one hour before dying.
With their job complete, Chan divided up the $108 found inside the Tay’s wallet to the group. Kang spent his portion of the money–$48–on pizza and entertainment. Kim, who served as a lookout during the beating, drove Tay’s bright red 1990 Nissan 300ZX to Compton where he left it running and unlocked to simulate a carjacking. Chan and Kang followed Kim to Compton in a white sedan.
Upon returning to Orange County, Chan and Choe rang in the New Year party hopping while Kim went home and played computer games. Acosta headed off for some fun at Knott’s Berry Farm.
Amazingly, police managed to arrest the five students within a matter of days. Relying on information from a private investigator hired by the Tay family, authorities quickly unraveled the horrifying crime masterminded by a quiet honor roll student.
Charles Choe and Mun Bong Kang both pleaded guilty to first degree murder. In exchange for serving as a key prosecution witness, Choe was sentenced to a California Youth Authority (CYA) facility, where he was released when he turned 25. Kang was sentenced to 25 years in prison.
Chan, who was given his own trial in the spring of 1994, was convicted of first degree murder after less than three hours of deliberation from the jury. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Less than two months later, Kirn Young Kim and Abraham Acosta were convicted of first degree murder as well. Like Choe, Acosta was sent to a CYA facility, where he was released when he turned 25. Although Kim was sentenced to 25 years in prison, he was granted parole in December 2012.
Shortly before the jury found him guilty, Chan’s attorney, Marshall Schulman, maintained that no one would ever find a rational motive behind the killing of Tay.
“Ask yourself why Stuart Tay got involved with this, and you’ll never find an answer. Ask yourself why Robert Chan got involved, and you’ll never come up with an answer,” Schulman told them. “These were a bunch of kids playing grown-up games.”
Originally published in OC Society Magazine