The Sexual Sadists Of Calaveras County
Officer Daniel Wright thought he was answering a routine call. Soon police would learn that Leonard Lake and his partner Charles Ng had raped, tortured and killed at least twelve – maybe as many as twenty-five – men, women and children in the mountains north east of San Francisco.
Officer Wright approached a young Asian man who’d stolen a vice. The man – later identified as Charles Ng – took flight, disappearing on foot into traffic. His bearded companion, who seemed older than his identification indicated, apologized and tried to pay for the vice. Suspicious, Officer Wright conducted a search of their car, a 1980 Honda Prelude. In the trunk he discovered a .22 caliber handgun outfitted with an illegal silencer. He brought the man in for questioning.
Police soon traced the Honda’s registration to Paul Cosner, who had gone missing in San Francisco nine months earlier, and found bloodstains on the front seat. When they questioned the suspect about the blood, he asked for a pen, paper, and a glass of water.
“Are you going to write a confession?”
“No, just a note to my wife.”
With his handcuffs removed, the man scribbled a short note and placed it in his shirt pocket. He then identified himself as Leonard Lake, a fugitive wanted by the FBI. Then his eyes rolled back. As officers watched, he began to convulse. Lake had swallowed the two cyanide capsules hidden under his lapel; he never regained consciousness, dying in the hospital a few days later. “I love you,” the note in his pocket read. “Please forgive me. I forgive you. Please tell Mama, Fern, and Patty I’m sorry.”
The bizarre suicide led police to Claralyn “Cricket” Balasz, a teacher’s aide and Lake’s ex-wife – the two had met while working at a renaissance faire near San Francisco. She took authorities to the remote cabin Lake had rented with Charles Ng. The two self-styled “survivalists” believed in an imminent nuclear holocaust. To prepare, they’d built a bunker and filled it with guns and food.
Investigators found a bedroom torture chamber fitted with chains, shackles and hooks. In a number of underground prison cells, they discovered video tapes Lake and Ng had made of their “sex slaves” – women they’d tortured and sexually abused before killing them. Police estimated that at least twenty-five people died on the property, including Lake’s “best friend,” two co-workers of Ng’s, and two entire families.
Among the evidence were Lake’s voluminous personal journals. From these, and from interviews with people close to him, we begin to understand Lake’s overwhelming misogyny. “The perfect woman is totally controlled,” he wrote. “There is no sexual problem with a submissive woman. Only pleasure and contentment.” While his “end times” philosophy gave Lake an excuse for his sadistic brutality, at the most basic level he was a textbook case of what psychologists call a “sexual sadist.”
At an early age, the sexual sadist begins to retreat from reality. It is hard to say why, exactly, though there is typically a history of both physical and sexual abuse. A percentage of these criminals also have a history of head trauma. The sadist’s sexual impulse becomes intertwined with an intense desire to inflict pain; as this desire grows, so does the need to express it through elaborate and grotesque fantasies.
At first, the sexual sadist will pursue his fantasies with a willing person: a prostitute, perhaps, or in the case of Lenny Lake, his wife, who during their marriage participated in the S&M-themed movies he wrote and directed. But when the fantasy inevitably wears thin, the irrepressible sadistic impulse finds other outlets As Mary Ellen O’Toole, a profiler for the National Center for Analysis of Violent Crime in Quantico, Virginia, describes in Jim Fielder’s Slow Death: “And once the predators start forcing themselves on unwilling women, they continue to repeat the same brutalizing rituals over and over until they are caught.”
The sexual sadist is hopelessly miswired; he has become conditioned to demand whatever the pleasure of brutality, and Lake’s survivalist philosophy merely enabled him to justify his sexual sadism. Healthy human minds need self-respect as much as healthy human bodies need food and water; if he couldn’t find self respect in the real world, Lake would find it in his fantasy world. As he put it, he would live life “with death in my pocket and fantasy my goal.”
“The picture that finally emerged,” wrote Colin Wilson in The History of Murder, “was of a man who spent most of his time living in a world of fantasy, who indulged in grandiose daydreams of success without any realistic attempt to put them into practice.” Lake lived a fantasy in which he and Ng would be the only survivors of the coming nuclear holocaust. What sort of state was he in if he could find “nuclear winter” preferable to his life?
Joel Norris, in Serial Killers, writes that “[in] his final journal he described the unraveling of his life after he moved to Blue Mountain Road [the site of the compound]. His dreams of success had eluded him, he admitted to himself that his boasts of heroic deeds in Vietnam were all delusions, and the increasing number of victims he was burying in the trench behind his bunker only added to his unhappiness. Lake had reached the final stage of the serial murder syndrome: he realized that he had come to a dead end with nothing but his own misery to show for it.”
Lake’s partner, Charles Ng, fled to Calgary, where he was arrested in another shoplifting incident. After more than four years in Canadian custody he was finally extradited.
Ng was something of an expert at delaying his trial, and it wasn’t until June of 1999 – fifteen years after his crimes – that he was found guilty of eleven murders and sentenced to death. He is currently on death row in California.
Colin Wilson’s History of Murder was my first encounter with the case of Leonard Lake. Wilson’s book is both encyclopedic in length and epic in scope. CourtTV’s Crime Library website is always an valuable source of information. Check out “Charles Ng: Cheating Death,” a thorough outline of the police investigation and court case at CrimeLibrary.com. I found a few of the details and quotes above from Evil Serial Killers: In The Minds of Monsters by Charlotte Greig. Also invaluable to this article was Serial Killers by Joel Norris, a book that looks into the psychological and psychobiological make up of the serial killer. Norris dedicates a fascinating chapter to the Lake case. Jim Fielder’s Slow Death, about the sexual serial killer David Parker Ray, contains quite a bit of information about the sexual sadist. Finally, Eye of Evil, by Joseph Harrington and Robert Burger, takes the inevitably lurid true-crime approach to the Lake-Ng case from the viewpoint of fictional reporter Tomasina Boyd Clancy. (Yes, really.)
-Joseph “Lenny” Flatley would never hurt a fly. Really. E-mail him at: firstname.lastname@example.org