27 years ago today, on December 31, 1992, the suburban community of Orange County was shocked to discover the body of 17 year old Stuart Tay, buried in a shallow grave in a Buena Park backyard. What was even more shocking is that Tay and almost his killers were, among the top students at their high schools and came from wealthy Asian American families, dispelling the myth that Asian American kids are harmless nerds.
The teenagers involved all had bright futures ahead of them. One tied for valedictorian of his class, was headed for Princeton, another scored 1350 out of a possible 1600 on his SAT, another was a volunteer at a YMCA child-care program, another an officer of his school’s service club. How could they have done something so violent?
The victim, Stuart Tay was the son of Chinese immigrants from Singapore. His father was a prominent doctor whose earnings afforded the family’s custom built, 8,000 sq/ft ,11 bedroom home with a pool and tennis court, located in the hills of Orange, CA. Tay was an academic standout at Foothill High School in near by Santa Ana and planned to go to college at Princeton. He was was a member of Key Club, founder of an Asian culture club and former Boy Scout.
Straight A Students and a Crime Plot
Sometime in 1992, Tay met 18-year-old Robert Chan. Tay introduced himself as Martin Gore, a local crime boss involved in weapons trafficking. Chan boasted to Tay, his ties to a violent Asian gang.
In reality, Chan was a straight-A student whose family emigrated from Taiwan. He was a candidate for valedictorian at the elite Sunny Hills High School, a member of the Academic Decathlon team and lived in the affluent Sunny Hills area of Fullerton, CA. Chan had also been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic.
Tay and Chan came up with a plan to rob the home of a computer parts dealer that Tay had dealt with for his small computer parts sales business. Chan had recruited 4 other Sunny Hills students to carry out the robbery.
A Deadly Mistake
It is said that Tay dropped his wallet and Chan saw an ID with the name Stuart Tay – a deadly mistake. Tay actually took the alias of Martin Gore from his musical idol – Depeche Mode keyboardist, Martin Gore.
After realizing that Tay wasn’t who they said he was and thinking that Tay would betray them, Chan and the 4 other participants made a plot to murder the 17-year-old Foothill High School student. In preparation for the murder, the crew purchased gloves and dug a shallow grave in the backyard of one of the culprit’s homes.
December 31, 1992
The following day, December 31st, Tay was lured into Acosta’s garage expecting to be shown a gun to use for the computer parts robbery. Once inside, Robert Chan, Kirn Young Kim (16), Mun Bong Kang (17), Charles Choe (17) all of Fullerton and Abraham Acosta (16) of Buena Park, beat Tay with a baseball bat and sledgehammer.
Acosta delivered the first blow. Chan followed with over a dozen strikes to the back of the head. After 20 minutes of beating, Tay was still breathing and begging for his life. To finish the job, they forced Tay to drink rubbing alcohol and taped his mouth and nostrils shut. It is said that Tay died either from head injuries or from choking on his own vomit. Tay was then buried in a shallow grave in Acosta’s Buena Park backyard that they dug a day earlier.
The Cover Up
The perpetrators then took $100 ($183 in 2019 dollars) from Tay’s wallet and divided it amongst each other.
Wearing gloves and blood stained jeans, Kim then drove Tay’s bright red Nissan 300ZX, a Christmas present from his parents, to Compton followed by Chan, Choe and Kang in a white sedan.
They left the red Nissan in a Compton intersection with the keys in the ignition to make it look like a carjacking. The car was gone before they left the intersection. Afterwards, the crew went to a party to ring in the new year.
Before the clock struck 12, the police found Tay’s 300ZX stripped in a Compton alley. By January 4, 1993, all 5 culprits were arrested.
“If they would have left the body in the car, they would have had a good chance of not getting discovered,” said Fullerton Police Lieutenant Jeff Roop.
Cast of Characters (From LA Times)
Stuart A. Tay
Age: 17 when murdered
Personal: Boy Scout and computer whiz; ranked 32nd in a class of 283 at Santa Ana’s Foothill High School. Aspired to attend Princeton University and follow in the footsteps of his physician father. Told his parents he was going to run an errand when he left home. Found bludgeoned and buried in a Buena Park back yard.
Age: 18 at time of murder
Personal: Named “Student of the Month” at Fullerton’s Sunny Hills High School shortly before the murder. Son of an engineer and a homemaker; lived in an affluent neighborhood and once listed his ambitions as “doctor, businessman, bodybuilder, actor.” Also wanted to attend Princeton.
Kirn Young Kim
Age: 16 at time of murder
Personal: Sunny Hills classmates considered him a “nerd” who loved computers second only to computer games. Was a sergeant-at-arms at his school’s Key Club (a service organization). Helped Boy Scouts pack food for the needy at Thanksgiving. Lived in Fullerton’s upscale Islands section; son of a physician.
Age: 17 at time of murder
Personal: A popular senior at Sunny Hills. Scored high on SATs; known for his interest in computers. Volunteered at Fullerton YMCA’s child-care program; described by fellow students as “clean-cut.” Status: Only suspect to be prosecuted as a juvenile. Pleaded guilty and agreed to testify against former co-defendants.
Age: 16 at time of murder
Residence: Buena Park
Personal: Only one of the accused enrolled in special-education classes at Sunny Hills. Known as a loner who wore outlandish hats and clothes; loved to dance and attend raves. Lived with his mother and four siblings in a rented home where Tay’s body was found.
Mun Bong Kang
Age: 17 at time of murder Residence: Fullerton
Personal: Quiet and kept to himself. Sunny Hills classmates knew little about him. Was scheduled for trial with Acosta and Kim, but abruptly pleaded guilty to assisting in the murder. Defense attorney Ronald G. Brower said Kang’s parents wanted him to take responsibility for his actions and spare the Tay family additional pain.
The case shocked residents of Orange County because the assailants and victim were such unlikely suspects. Most of the involved were in the top 1% of their class, involved in their communities and extracurricular programs and came from well-to-do families. It perished the myth that honor role students and computer geniuses would make headlines for their achievements, not horrible crimes.
Tay’s official cause of death was asphyxiation due to blunt force trauma.
Lieutenant Timm Browne said “In my 22 years on the job, this was one of the most brutal beatings I have ever seen”
Rene Lynch of the LA Times said “The case gained widespread attention, both as a symbol of juvenile crime out of control and because both teenagers seemingly came from model homes.”
Following a trial in 1994, all 5 culprits were found guilty. Chan, Kim and Acosta were found guilty of 1st degree murder. Chan was sentenced to life in prison without parole. Kim and Kang were sentenced 25 to life.
Lieutenant Browne mentioned that none of the assailants showed any signs of remorse, anguish or fear as they were sitting in the court room.
In a press conference with California Governor Pete Wilson in attendance, Tay’s mother, Linda, asked for more strict sentencing of juvenile convicts.
In 1995, the court awarded Stuart Tay’s parents $1 million from the 4 killers and settled on $100,000 from the 5th killer.
In 2012 Krin Young Kim was granted parole due to the fact he had no previous record, was not involved in drugs or alcohol and furthered his education while he was in jail.
Tay’s murder was dubbed “The Honor Roll Murder” and inspired the 2002 film, “Better Luck Tomorrow”.