A man from Fountain Valley was convicted on Friday of murder and conspiracy to kill another man at sea while on a late-night boat trip in the ocean waters off Dana Point Harbor.
Hoang “Wayne” Xuan Le was charged with conspiring with Sheila Ritze to lure Tri “James” Minh Dao to Ritze’s boat on October 14, 2019 with the promise of an overnight fishing trip.
Dao’s body was found by a fisherman two days later, floating in the ocean waters off Oceanside.
A federal jury deliberated for several days before finding guilty of murder, conspiracy to commit murder and use of a firearm in the murder. Given that the murder allegedly took place in ocean waters, it became the rare murder case to be tried in federal court under maritime law.
Ritze, who also faces murder and conspiracy charges, is on trial separately.
During Le’s trial, prosecutors alleged that he lured Dao to Ritze’s boat with the intention of killing Dao for an unpaid debt, which he shot Dao and then left him to die in the water. from the ocean more than three miles from Dana Point harbor.
Prosecutors backed down on allegations raised shortly after Le’s arrest that he tied weights to Dao, instead telling jurors that Le ordered Ritze to drive the boat out of the area, leaving a beaten and downed Dao. twice to drown.
Le and Dao – along with several people who Le admitted to bragging about after the murder, who later testified against him – were members of the Orange County drug and gambling mob, according to court testimony.
During his time at the helm, Le stated that he did not intend to kill Dao, but acted in self-defense when Dao fired a gun at him during the fishing trip.
Le – a drug addict and admitted drug dealer who lived with his mother and older sister in a house in Fountain Valley – said he was friends and partner in drug trafficking with Dao.
Dao at one point convinced Le to purchase as Le a vehicle they could use to transport large amounts of marijuana from Orange County to Las Vegas, Le said. Le also served as a driver on those regular trips to and from Vegas, he said, as the couple carried between 10 and 20 pounds of marijuana per trip. Le was paid $ 100 per trip, his lawyer said, while Dao earned between $ 8,000 and $ 10,000.
Le said Dao regularly borrowed money from him, while Dao also used money he owed bookies, friends and his marijuana vendors. The vendors included a trafficker with ties to Mexican drug cartels and another who at one point attempted to kidnap Dao, Le’s attorney told jurors.
Dao bragged about having a million-dollar life insurance policy, Le said, and would tell people he owed money to that they could get it back if anything happened to him. Le admitted to others that Dao owed him up to $ 40,000, although he testified that the actual debt was much less.
Le testified that he and Ritze became friends after meeting at a bar in Huntington Beach. Le denied having a romantic relationship with Ritze – an HOA director and avid fisherman – instead saying the two would go out, drink and use cocaine.
Le admitted at one point to driving Ritze to Las Vegas so that she could attend a Billy Idol concert at the Palms Casino with their stepmother.
The mother-in-law testified that during this trip to Vegas, Le commented on his intention to “hunt” Dao for a large debt by luring him out to sea on Ritze’s boat under cover of a fishing trip.
Le denied making the comments to the mother-in-law and her defense attorney alleged the woman was only repeating allegations made publicly by prosecutors shortly after her arrest, which were published in news reports. about the murder.
During a buffet lunch with Dao and his partner on October 14, 2019, Le said he invited Dao to accompany him and Ritze on a late-night lobster fishing trip.
Le testified that while in the ocean, Dao asked him for $ 2,000, then got angry when Le yelled that he did not have the money. Le alleged that Dao pointed a gun at him.
“I was scared of getting shot, I was going to be hit by a bullet,” Le said. “I had never had a gun pointed at me.”
Le testified that he grabbed the gun, triggering a fight between the two in which Dao was shot twice, one grazing his head, the second hitting him in the back. Le said he grabbed a stick or broom after being knocked over in the boat and hit Dao over his head before Dao fell into the water. Le added that Dao was still alive after falling into the ocean, when he admitted to telling Ritze to leave Dao in the ocean waters as they returned to port.
Le admitted to later telling several people – one of whom he did not know was a federal informant – that he shot Dao because Dao owed him money, testifying that he wanted to be considered. like a “badass”.
Le’s attorney, Craig Wilke, described Le as an aspiring gangster with a low IQ and difficulty processing news who “always bragged, acting like a big guy.”
âHe’s hanging out with dopers, drug dealers, tough guys,â Wilke said. âThat’s how he wants to be seenâ¦ It was a joke. But that was his identity. No one was afraid of him.
Prosecutors countered that the defense admitted Le was “inept” before questioning why his alleged plan had failed.
âYou won’t see any obligation to get convicted of murder unless you come up with a good plan. In fact, we’ve spent the last few hours hearing how stupid he is, âAssistant United States Attorney Greg Staples told jurors.
Editor Emily Rasmussen contributed to this report.