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Die for Me: Charles Ng, Leonard Lake, and Their Torture Dungeon in the California Hills

The story behind the duo's depraved murder spree is straight out of your worst nightmares.

From an early age, Charles Ng was a loner. Born in Hong Kong in 1960, Ng was beaten as a child and developed a serious case of kleptomania as a teenager, which isolated him from any potential friends. Ng was also a lifelong troublemaker. However, no one could possibly guess that the social outcast with sticky fingers would eventually spiral into sadistic serial killing alongside his friend, Leonard Lake. 

By the age of 15, Ng had been expelled from several schools and arrested for shoplifting. His strict father had had enough and sent him off to boarding school in England. But matters did not improve overseas–Ng resumed stealing from fellow students and was once again expelled, returning to Hong Kong.

At 18, Charles Ng struck out on his own. He obtained a student visa to attend college in California, although he dropped out after just one semester. Around this time, Ng met Leonard Lake, who was 15 years his senior, through a war gamer advertisement Lake had placed in a magazine. Although we can only speculate what went down at this meeting, what we do know is that the two men had more than just gaming interests in common: Both had an affinity for violence that would soon prove deadly.

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  • Eight of 25 possible victims: Kathi Allen is pictured in the top row, second from the left.

  • Photo Credit: Murderpedia

Ng’s trouble with the law continued, and he was implicated in a hit and run accident. To avoid being charged for the crime, Ng enlisted in the Marine Corps, a short-lived stint. He was arrested in 1980 for stealing military weapons, then escaped imprisonment. Ng began the solitary and unstable life of a drifter, and reached out to Lake for a place to stay. When the law finally caught up to Ng, he was living in a mobile home in California with Lake, where the two had stashed illegal explosives.

Ng was dishonorably discharged from the military and served 18 months for his theft and desertion. Upon his release, Ng and Lake were reunited. Lake had just the place for them to stay: his small, rented cabin in the remote hills of Sierra Nevada, where he had built a torture chamber.

Related: 22 Most Horrifying Serial Killer Books 

While Ng certainly wasn’t what you’d call a “good person,” Leonard Lake was doubly depraved. As a young boy, he killed mice with chemicals, coerced his sisters into making homemade pornography, and was frequently caught stealing. Similar to Ng, he was an ex-Marine—though he received a medical discharge due to his spiral into mental illness. After suffering a “delusional breakdown” while serving in Vietnam, Lake was officially diagnosed with schizoid personality disorder. Emotionally apathetic and unable to empathize or form social attachments, Lake was nevertheless married twice. His first marriage crumbled due to his obsession with filming hardcore BDSM pornography; his second wife agreed to appear in many of his films.

However, it seemed like Charles Ng might be the exception to Lake’s antisocial tendencies. In 1984, Ng joined Lake at his cabin, where a tiny, neighboring structure had already been outfitted as a “dungeon” for "slaves." It was here that the two friends tortured, raped, and murdered 25 people—from neighbors to co-workers to young children, both male and female. They kept a record of everything they did, videotaping their torture sessions and describing them in journals that investigators later recovered from a buried bucket. Authorities suspect that Lake had also killed his own brother sometime before the vicious killing spree that took over two dozen lives.

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  • A photograph of Leonard Lake's ranch in California.

  • Photo Credit: Murderpedia

Their downfall came on June 2, 1985 when Ng was caught shoplifting from a hardware store. It was Lake who returned to the store, prepared to give back the nicked item, but he quickly found himself the target of police suspicion when his only form of identification was a driver’s license that actually belonged to a missing person. This wasn’t unusual for Lake, who had a habit of selling his victims’ personal belongings and stealing their identities in order to collect checks in their names and turn a profit off his brutal murders. Authorities examined Lake’s car. He was arrested for carrying a gun with a silencer, and his vehicle—stolen from one of his dead victims—ultimately led police to the scene of his worst crimes. A nightmare awaited: Fragmented human remains were scattered across the property.

Knowing that the jig was up, Lake chose to take his own life by swallowing contraband cyanide pills that he had smuggled into jail with him. Ng was left to fend for himself and fled the country. Years later, Ng’s cover was blown in Canada when he attempted to shoplift a can of salmon. A long legal process ensued as Ng fought extradition to the U.S., pleading with Canadian officials not to release him to a country where he could face the death penalty. However, his efforts to evade justice proved futile.

Related: Meet Gao Chengyong: The Chinese Jack the Ripper 

Ng was extradited back to the United States in 1991, where he refused legal counsel and represented himself in the murder trial. In 1999, Ng was sentenced to death for 11 of the 12 dungeon slayings—an unsurprising verdict considering the amount of evidence stacked against him. The graphic video footage and diaries belied Ng’s argument that Lake was the real perpetrator of the crimes while he was merely a passive observer. At the time of his trial, Ng refused to take responsibility for what transpired and decorated his jail cell with cartoons he had drawn of his victims. He still sits on death row.

True crime author Don Lasseter covers the case in his book Die for Me, rehashing all the chilling details of what became one of California's most heinous crimes. The following excerpt introduces readers to one of the victims, 18-year-old "Kathi" Allen, who was murdered just two months before the authorities were clued into Ng and Lake's spree. On April 12, 1985, her boyfriend, Mike, disappeared without a trace, leaving Kathi worried about the state of their relationship and eventually, his life. When an anonymous caller informed her that Mike had been shot, she immediately rushed to rescue him per the caller's suggestion—only to find herself trapped in Charles Ng and Leonard Lake's dungeon of horrors...

Read on for an excerpt of Die for Me, and then download the book. 

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Die for Me

By Don Lasseter

Die For Me

By Don Lasseter

That same Sunday evening, James Baio, who described himself as a “very good friend” of Kathi Allen, answered his phone and could barely make out her worried voice. Kathi told Baio about the troublesome call at the store, but whispered that she couldn’t talk much at that moment because there was someone in the room with her at The Best Inn in Milpitas. “She sounded like she was in a hurry and she said she couldn’t talk to me,” Baio explained. Probing his memory about the mysterious conversation, Baio could still hear Kathi’s words about a man who had arrived to pick her up and take her to Mike, but the guy was “kind of weird,” and he talked about wanting to take pictures of her.

James Baio asked Kathi to call when she arrived at her destination, and Kathi promised she would.

A few hours later, though, Kathleen Allen found herself in terrifying circumstances, unable to telephone anyone in the outside world. A video camera recorded segments of her nightmarish predicament.

As the tiny red light on the camcorder blinked, Kathi sat in a well-worn brown fabric recliner chair, her legs crossed. She wore a white jersey with red short sleeves, dark pants, and black shoes. Handcuffs bound her wrists together behind her back. She sat perfectly still with a numb expression on her face, saying nothing, perhaps in a state of shock, or possibly unable to comprehend the extent of danger. At her right, a table lamp bathed the room in a soft amber glow, illuminating the wall behind her, covered with a photographic mural depicting the flaming colors of a forest in autumn.

Related: The Killer Encyclopedia: A List of Real-Life Murderers, from A-Z 

From behind the camera, the voice of Leonard Lake filled the room. “Mike owes us,” he said, a hint of threat in his words. “He can’t pay. Now we’re going to give you a choice, Kathi, and this is probably the last choice that we’re going to give you. You can go along with us, you can cooperate, you can do everything we tell you to do willingly, and in approximately thirty days, if you want a date to write on your calendar—the fifteenth of May—we will either drug you, blindfold you or in some way or other make sure you don’t know where you are and where you’re going, and take you back to the city and let you go. And what you say at that time, I don’t care. My name you don’t know. His name is Charlie, but screw it.” Lake made reference to another man who emerged from shadows in the dimly lit room, a short, black-haired Asian dressed in dark colors. Lake, wearing a tan knit sweater, entered camera range, knelt to adjust the bonds on her ankles, and moved back out of sight.

Alternately threatening in firm tones, then softly cajoling, switching from bad guy to good guy, then back again, Lake said, “You don’t know where you are. And what you say hopefully can’t hurt us, and by then, hopefully, Mike will have disappeared gracefully. Obviously, I’m telling you this because we’ll have no control over what you say or how you say it once you’re gone. If you don’t cooperate with us, if you don’t agree this evening, right now, to cooperate with us, we’ll probably put a round through your head and take you out and bury you in the same area we buried Mike.” Kathi’s facial expression remained frozen, even though she had just heard devastating news about her lover.

“We do this,” Lake continued, “just because we’re, we admit it, scared, nervous. We—we never planned on fucking up, much less getting caught, and we’re not intending to get caught. It’s the old ‘no witnesses.’ It’s a little crude, but, uh, that’s where it’s at. While you’re here, you’ll give us information on Mike in terms of his brother, bank accounts, who we need to write to make things correct. We’ll probably have you write some letters to the guy ... his foster brother, telling him some bullshit story about how you and Mike have, uh, moved off to Timbuktu, and he’s got a job doing this and that and doing something else and, basically, we want to phase Mike off, just sort of move him over the horizon, and, uh, let people know that, yeah, Mike moved off to God-knows-where, and we never heard from him again.

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  • Charles Ng's trial was one of the longest and most expensive in California history.

  • Photo Credit: Alchetron

“That’s semiacceptable. If anyone wonders, no one’s going to wonder too hard. While you’re here, we’ll keep you busy. You’ll wash for us, you’ll clean for us, cook for us, you’ll fuck for us. That’s your choice in a nutshell. It’s not much of a choice, unless you’ve got a death wish.”

Still sitting perfectly still, Kathi tried to speak, but her vocal cords constricted, and her words failed. She could only manage, “No, I don’t particularly . . . do ...”

The Asian man whom Lake had called Charlie muttered something unintelligible, but Lake smothered him out with another effort to put his captive at ease. “Actually, Kathi, I like you. I, uh, didn’t like lying to you. Whether you believe it or not, that’s not important. The fairness of what you’re doing is, uh, not up for debate. We’re not worried about whether we’re fair or whether we’re good.” Again, he shifted from Jekyll to Hyde. “We’re just worried about ourselves. Selfish bastards, maybe. You’ll probably think of worse names for us in the next four weeks. But that’s where it’s at. In the last twenty-four hours we’ve been tired, nervous, a little high-strung, perhaps. We expect you to do something about that. Believe me, we both need it. If you go along with us, cooperate with us, we’ll be as nice as we can to you within the limits of keeping you prisoner. If you don’t go along with us, we’ll probably take you into the bed, tie you down, rape you, shoot you, and bury you. Sorry, lady, time’s up. Make your choice.”

Related: The Brutal Case of BTK Serial Killer Dennis Rader  

Motionless, Kathi forced words through her dry mouth, barely audible. “Well, I have to be available.”

“Spell it out for us on tape,” Lake demanded. “I want to hear it from your own lips.”

“I can’t spell it out,” she whispered. “I’ll go along with whatever you want.”

“That’s all we wanted to hear,” said Lake. “Mike was an ass.”

Kathi attempted to reply to the insult of Mike Carroll, but her voice failed again.

“I understand,” Lake said in mock sympathy. “Either he lied to you or you lied to us. You can believe this or you don’t have to believe it. It has nothing to do with anything. Mike was getting ready to drop you ... He said you were clinging on to him, you were asking things of him that he didn’t want.” Apparently directing his attention to his Asian cohort, Lake asked, “Today, was it today? Yesterday?” Returning to his taunting of the helpless woman, Lake continued, “He [Mike] had some woman in the motel giving him a blow job. Again, this is what he said. Whether it’s true or not, I don’t know. He could have been lying to us.”

Struggling again to speak, Kathi could only gasp.

His voice betraying enjoyment of the verbal torture, Lake said, “Okay. Then maybe he just liked talking big. He thought he was impressing us. He wasn’t. He was disgusting us.” Addressing Charlie Lake asked, “Do you have keys for her cuffs?”

“Uh-huh,” affirmed the collaborator.

“Stand up Kathi,” Lake ordered. “If we’re a little clumsy at this, forgive us. Stay on your feet. Undress for us. We want to see what we bought.”

“Undress for you?” Fear and disbelieving sounded in her throat.

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  • Prior to the one-year murder spree, Leonard Lake had killed his brother and best man.

  • Photo Credit: Wikipedia

“Take your blouse off. Take your bra off. They’re not all that bad. Take your chains off.” Accepting the inevitable, Kathi began to disrobe.

Charlie muttered, “Now, what do you think?” Addressing Lake, he asked, “Take her pants off?”

“Sure, we’ll run her through the shower.”

“Should I go, too?” Charlie asked.

“Oh, you want to take a shower with her?” Lake seemed amused. “If you want to. Sit down, Kathi.” She complied.

The Asian observed, “This is, uh, surprisingly cooperative.”

“Wisely cooperative, Charlie.” To the captive, he said, “We’re prepared to do practically anything to get you to agree with us. I’m glad you’ve, uh, made all of that unnecessary. But a few ground rules, Kathi. We’re real serious about this. Do what you’re told, cooperate with us, and there won’t be any problems. If you create problems whatsoever, you could very well die. Keep undressing, please.”

Alert to the threat of death, Charlie said, “The piece is on the table,” apparently reminding Lake of a handgun lying nearby.

“I see it.”

Charlie, seeming to be concentrating on the possibility of joining the captive in a shower, slurred his next few words. “You didn’t get the shower ... she ... time limits.”

Related: 9 Books About California Murders 

Ignoring him, Lake focused on Kathi as she rose to continue removing her clothing. “Keep going,” he commanded.

Barely able to speak, Kathi said, “You’ll have to excuse me for being shy. Sorry.”

“I can understand,” soothed Lake. “But don’t be shy. You’re going to take a shower.”

Now joining in the activity more audibly, Charlie commented, “This won’t be the first time. It won’t be the last time.”

Patronizingly, Lake chided his partner. “Don’t make it hard for her, Charlie.” Watching Kathi as she stood only in her underpants, he urged her on. “Panties too. Kathi, I don’t want to have to make an example of what we need to do to make you cooperate.”

Completely vulnerable, standing naked after removing her last garment, Kathi said, “I realize that.”

“Then, please, cooperate.... Go ahead, Charlie.”

As all three left the camera’s view, Leonard Lake spoke one last time. “When you get out, there’ll be slippers outside of the—”

The camera stopped.

But the torture had not ended. The video camera would record two more devastating episodes in the final few days of Kathleen Allen’s eighteen years of life.

Want to keep reading? Download Die for Me today.

Die for Me

By Don Lasseter

This post is sponsored by Open Road Media. Thank you for supporting our partners, who make it possible for The Lineup to continue publishing the true crime stories you love.

Featured photos of Charles Ng (left) and Leonard Lake (right): Alchetron

Published on 18 Apr 2019

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