Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to correctly reflect the amount of time since the October 2019 murder, which was 3½years ago.
By Meghann Cuniff
In the 3½ years since FBI agents smashed through the door of a San Juan Capistrano condominium to interrogate a murder suspect, one thing has never been in dispute: Oct. 14, 2019 was a beautiful night at the Dana Point Harbor.
A full moon hung over the Pacific Ocean as Sheila Marie Ritze, Hoang Xuan “Wayne” Le and Tri “James” Minh Dao made their way out past the jetties on Ritze’s 20-foot fishing boat called Sea Koenig.
It was 70 degrees with no wind, and the three were embarking on a trip that Ritze had taken many times before.
Except this time, all the other fishing boats had finished their fun hours ago. It was now close to midnight, and the three were alone on the water and farther out than normal—nearly 3 miles from shore—when gunshots rang out.
Dao ended up dead in the water, his body spotted by a fisherman in Oceanside three days later. Le and Ritze took the boat back to the harbor that night, then embarked on a stakeout of Dao’s girlfriend using a GPS tracker that culminated in their arrest by federal agents a week before Christmas.
Prosecutors say Le thought he could collect money Dao owed him through the life insurance money he believed the girlfriend, Natalie Nguyen, would collect for Dao’s death.
Le and Ritze have been in jail ever since. Le faces a mandatory sentence of life in prison after a jury convicted him of first-degree murder following a 17-day trial that ended in December 2021.
Ritze, now 43, managed to secure a different fate after a nine-day trial that ended in April 2022 with the jury acquitting her of first-degree murder but convicting her of second-degree murder, nixing any assurance that she’ll spend the rest of her life in prison.
The veteran judge who presided over her trial sentenced her last month to nearly 22 years in prison, eight fewer than prosecutors had requested but 12 more than her defense attorney’s recommendation.
Prosecuted under federal maritime law, Dao’s murder is a story backdropped in South Orange County, with alcoholism and a child custody battle taking center stage in Le’s and Ritze’s trials at the federal courthouse in Santa Ana.
It’s a story told through the testimony of Le himself, who took the stand in his own defense in November 2021, only to be convicted on all counts.
And it’s a story told through courtroom appearances by Le’s meth-dealing associates, Ritze’s ex-husband, friends and former coworkers, as well as her ex-mother-in-law and friend, Sandra Ritze.
The two used to call each other MIL and DIL to signify mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, but Sandra Ritze became a key prosecution witness after telling FBI agents that both Le and her former daughter-in-law had spoken of murder plans during a trip to Las Vegas with Dao for a Billy Idol concert two weeks before the fateful boat trip.
“If you’re going to kill somebody, where are you going to take them? A public place? A crowded shopping center? A stadium? A grocery store?” Assistant U.S. Attorney Greg Scally told jurors in his closing argument in Le’s trial.
“No. You’re going to take them somewhere where nobody else is around. Where others are unlikely to intrude. Where others are unlikely to witness what you’re planning on doing,” Scally continued. “James Dao was taken out on a boat, one with two other people on it, more than three miles from shore in the middle of the night.”
MISSING BROTHER LEADS TO FBI’S INVOLVEMENT
The son of Vietnamese immigrants, Le earned a bachelor’s degree from Cal State Fullerton in 2004 but eventually spiraled into a daily cycle of alcohol, meth and crack cocaine, as well as a large-scale drug dealing business that frequently took him to Las Vegas.
That was how he met Dao and his younger brother, Alex Dao, who, according to various testimony, ran a gambling house in Irvine and had worked as a paid FBI informant.
Le’s lawyer, Craig Wilke, emphasized Dao’s FBI connections, telling jurors in Le’s trial that Alex Dao had essentially called in a favor to his FBI handler after his brother went missing, which led to the federal investigation. The call followed Le telling Dao that he hadn’t been out on the boat with his brother that night. Wilke said the lie was driven by Le’s fear of Dao.
“Wayne knew that once Alex got involved, if Alex learned that Wayne had gotten in this fight with James and left him out in the ocean, there would be retribution,” Wilke told the jury during the 2021 trial.
WOMAN’S LIFE MARKED BY ABUSE, ALCOHOLISM & FISHING
Le’s connections to South County are loose and stem mostly from his fast friendship with Ritze, who owned a condo in San Juan Capistrano and was a property manager at Team Property Management in Dana Point.
She’d grown up in an alcoholic and abusive household, which she left at age 17 to live with a boyfriend who abused her. They did drugs together, and their child was taken from them and put up for adoption.
Ritze racked up convictions for burglary and prostitution while feeding her methamphetamine addiction, along with convictions for meth, cocaine and marijuana trafficking. After she left prison in 2005, she met Micah Ritze, and the two married and had a daughter while Ritze’s career in property management advanced.
“Ms. Ritze was able to escape her demons, for a time,” her attorney, David Wiechert, wrote in his sentencing recommendation. “Unfortunately, Ms. Ritze could not elude her demons forever.”
Ritze plunged into alcoholism after her mother committed suicide in 2014, and she had a years-long affair that ended her marriage. Her ex-husband testified for the prosecution, and jurors heard a covert recording her coworkers had taken of her in 2019 in which she said she would take people on her boat and “they are not gonna come back.”
Wiechert wrote in his memo that Ritze’s alcoholism also “began to creep into her workplace at Team Property Management” in late 2018, “and her coworkers routinely noticed that she was inebriated when she came into work.”
She met Le in early 2019 when she was in the midst of what prosecutors described in their sentencing memorandum as a “downward spiral” that included her divorce, a drunken car crash and an altercation with employees at a Burger King drive-through that ended with Ritze charging into the restaurant and threatening to bomb it.
Le and Ritze denied being romantically involved: Le testified that he later heard that “she liked me, but I didn’t know.”
“I just looked at her as a friend and as a business partner,” he said.
He also looked at her as someone who loved fishing.
“She talked about fishing a lot. About her boat, and that was her hobby,” Le said.
Le and Ritze had fished together off the Dana Point Harbor three or four times before they took James Dao with them: Le’s May 31, 2019 fishing license was entered as evidence in his trial. He called Ritze a “fish finder” in his testimony and said she insisted everyone get a license if they wanted to fish with her.
“She knew how to navigate the boat really well, so she knew how to find the fish,” Le testified.
LAS VEGAS TRIP FOR BILLY IDOL CONCERT PROVES PIVOTAL
Ritze also knew how to find lobster. She and Le had fished for the decadent at least once before embarking on the deadly trip with Dao, with Le testifying that Ritze bought him a lobster fishing license in late September 2019.
Photos from Ritze’s Facebook page showed them smiling and holding their catches.
A week later, Le and Ritze traveled to Las Vegas with Dao, as well as Le’s friend and fellow drug dealer, Shawn Whalin, in what ended up being a key weekend for prosecutors trying to prove that Le and Ritze conspired to murder Dao.
It was during that weekend, prosecutors alleged, that Le and Ritze hatched their plan to kill Dao, with Whalin testifying that Le told him of the murder plot during that trip.
Sandra Ritze also testified that she asked Ritze who Dao was when they met in the lobby of the Palms Casino. She said that Ritze replied, “Don’t worry about it; we’re going to be offing him this weekend.”
Whalin, however, contradicted that testimony when he told jurors in Ritze’s trial that Dao and Sandra Ritze never were in the lobby together. Wiechert made Sandra Ritze’s credibility a key focus of his case, arguing to the jury that she was lying to try to incriminate her ex-daughter-in-law to ensure she can continue to spend time with her granddaughter.
Wiechert insisted Sheila Ritze knew nothing of any plan involving Dao, and that she was essentially a victim of an abusive relationship with Le when she drove the boat back to the harbor and left Dao in the water.
He emphasized that Sandra Ritze joined Sheila Ritze at the Billy Idol concert after she supposedly heard of the murder plot, and a cellphone video shows the two laughing and having fun. Jurors requested to rewatch the video while deliberating.
Wiechert, who lives and works in San Juan Capistrano, cited Ritze’s abusive childhood when asking that she receive a lenient sentence of 10 years in prison.
“Belts were Ms. Ritze’s father’s instrumentality of choice, and he would regularly hit her and her siblings with them whenever he was in a foul mood, which was often,” Wiechert wrote. “Police presence was constant at her home while growing up, but she was strictly trained by her parents into staying silent and carrying on as if nothing happened, an eerie foreshadowing of Ms. Ritze’s mute reaction after witnessing Le shoot James Dao on her boat.”
A ‘POSER’ GANGSTER & AN ALLEGED FIGHT OVER MONEY
The weather conditions the night Dao died were easily established for the jury: Prosecutors and defense attorneys stipulated to a statement being read to the juries in both trials that “on October 15, 2019, at 12:00 a.m. midnight, the air temperature in Dana Point, California was 66 degrees Fahrenheit, the water temperature in the Pacific Ocean off the cast of Dana Point, California, was 68 degrees Fahrenheit; and the moon was full.”
Dao’s cause of death also was not disputed: A medical examiner testified that Dao’s cause of death was drowning with gunshot wounds and blunt force trauma as factors.
But Le denied ever intending to kill Dao, instead describing for the jury how Dao suddenly brandished a gun after Le refused to loan him $2,000. Dao grew angry after Le cursed at him, Le said, and pressed his gun into Le’s stomach before Le tried to grab it out of his hand.
A shot went off, Le testified, and the men continued struggling before a second shot went off. Le said he hit Dao over the head with a broomstick and tried to throw him overboard in self-defense. He said Dao fell in the water and continued screaming that he was going to kill Le, as Le urged Ritze to drive the boat back to the harbor.
“I was scared, so I told Sheila, ‘Let’s go. Let’s get away from this area,’ ” he testified.
Le said Ritze was confused and didn’t know what was going on and was so panicked that she vomited.
But Le told a starkly different story to his friends, whom prosecutors described as “convicts with long records.”
“Wayne had never been to prison himself, but each one of these guys … were all convicts with long records,” Scally told the jury in Le’s 2021 trial.
But the men “knew Wayne is not a real gangster,” Scally said, referencing Le’s “wangster” nickname. “They knew he was a poser.”
Scally and his co-counsel, Greg Staples, relied heavily on the men’s testimony to try to persuade jurors that Le intended to kill Dao.
‘THAT TRAGIC NIGHT … HAS CONTINUED TO HAUNT ME’
Ritze, meanwhile, was sentenced by Judge David O. Carter to 21 years and eight months in prison on April 17 after a two-hour hearing that focused on her level of involvement in Dao’s murder.
Wiechert argued that jurors spoke clearly when they convicted Ritze only of second-degree murder. Those jurors didn’t hear from Le’s friends like the jury in Le’s trial did, but they did hear recordings of two interviews Ritze gave investigators after her arrest.
She first described Le as “really nice” and said he “helps a lot of people.” She also said she had “no clue” why investigators were interested in Le, and she denied knowing Dao prior to the boat trip, despite their earlier trip to Vegas.
“In the week following her arrest, she sent defendant Le two letters in the mail, commiserating with him about how horrible it was that they had been arrested,” prosecutors wrote in their sentencing memo.
Ritze apologized to Dao’s family in a letter to Carter and said “that tragic night … has continued to haunt me.”
“I can’t change what happened that traumatic evening,” Ritze wrote. “I can only say how sincerely sorry I am to the family who has now suffered a great loss due to the tragedy that occurred.”
A volunteer Christian minister in the Santa Ana Jail said in a letter that Ritze is “making the most of her time” in jail and has a good rapport with staff and fellow inmates. She said Ritze “appears to be … a positive influence to the women around her.”
Ritze’s 12-year-old daughter also wrote to Carter, telling him, “I need your help.”
“My mom has been gone for a long time. Can you please let her come home soon? She is an awesome mom, and I need her in my life. I miss my mom and love her very much. I want to live my life with my mom in it each day,” the girl wrote.
But Carter also heard from a woman who wanted no leniency for Ritze: Dao’s mother, Anh Tran. She attended every proceeding in both Le’s and Ritze’s cases, including each day of both trials. She and Dao’s siblings requested that Ritze spend the rest of her life in prison.
She also wrote directly to Ritze.
“You are a mother, so how could you not feel any pain about the loss of another mother’s child? You not only helped Wayne Le execute my son, but you have destroyed the lives of his two young daughters and my life,” Tran wrote.
“Every day is a living nightmare for me,” Tran continued. “You have robbed me of the time with my son. You have robbed all of us of this chance for a life with our loved one. My son did nothing to you to deserve this!”
Carter described Ritze’s conduct as “horrific and horrendous” and noted its “callousness.” After serving 262 months in prison, Ritze is to be on probation for five years.
Le, now 42, is scheduled to be sentenced on July 17.
Meghann Cuniff is a legal affairs journalist who watched both trials. You can subscribe to her work at legalaffairsandtrials.com.