An illegal Vietnamese immigrant who was supposed to be deported in 2006 faces life in prison for brutally murdering a family in San Francisco in 2012.
Binh Thai Luc, 41, was convicted of killing a Chinese family—friends of his—and robbing their home to pay off his gambling debts and back rent to stave off eviction.
He lethally bludgeoned the husband, wife, and three adult children with a hammer, then poured bleach, paint, and shampoo all over the scene to try to destroy DNA evidence. He also attempted to flood the home by turning on faucets and detaching pipes under sinks.
People who knew Luc were stunned to learn that the hardworking local handyman and father of two would commit such a violent, brutal act.
“He seemed like a fine person, not a criminal,” said a clerk from a local business “Everybody on the street was shocked” when he was arrested, the clerk told SFGate.com.
The California justice system knew that Luc had a dangerous side—and so did immigration authorities.
Luc had been convicted in 1998 of the armed robbery of a Chinese restaurant in San Jose, California, and was sentenced to an 11-year, 4-month term in San Quentin State Prison.
He was released in 2006 and was scheduled to be deported—but Vietnam refused to take him back.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2001, in Zadvydas vs. Davis, that undocumented immigrants must be released after six months if their country of origin won’t allow them to return, Immigration and Customs Enforcement press secretary Gillian Christensen told SFGate.
Because “Vietnamese authorities declined to provide appropriate travel documents, Luc ultimately had to be released,” she explained.
“Unfortunately, there are some countries that are very difficult to remove people to, and Vietnam is one of those countries,” Christensen said.
Friends With the Killer
The victims were also immigrants, a Chinese family who had been in the United States for two decades.
Hua Shun Lei, 65, had worked for 18 years at an upscale Chinese restaurant. He had been “a highly regarded math teacher,” according to his employer, Kinson Wong.
“He wasn’t an employee,” Wong told SFGate. “He was like my brother.” Kinson said the pair made sure to take time for a “midnight drink” once a week.
Lei’s wife, Wan Yi Wu, 62, worked at a local Target store. She knew Luc because he would visit with his wife and two children to buy cigarettes and milk.
Lei’s 32-year-old son Vincent Lei considered Binh Thai Luc a friend. The pair played mahjong together.
Vincent Lei’s wife, Chia Huei Chu, 30, and his sister, Ying Xue Lei, 37, were the other two victims. Ying Xue Lei, called “Jess” owned the home. She worked as a software engineer for Qualitative Medical Systems in Emeryville, California.
“She was a smart, quiet person, and this whole thing has shocked us,” said Roxanne Albertoli, an administration executive at Qualitative Medical Systems Inc.
Called for Cash?
Apparently, Binh Thai Luc called Vincent Lei before the murder. Two of Lei’s friends told police that they heard him talking on the phone with his wife the night before the multiple murders. It seemed Luc was at Lei’s home, looking for him.
Lei’s friends heard Lei say to his wife, “Let me talk to him,” the prosecutor said.
Lei then asked, “What is it? Is it serious?”
The bodies were discovered at about 7:45 a.m. on March 23, 2012, by Vincent Lei’s 12-year-old niece. Assistant District Attorney Eric Fleming said the child ran out of the house screaming, “Mommy, bodies! Bodies!”
The girl’s mother, Vincent Lei’s other sister, Nicole Lei, reportedly called someone immediately after the bodies were discovered and reported, “They took the money! The money is gone!”
Nicole Lei denies making the call, though phone records show she did call someone at that time.
Binh Thai Luc knew the Leis well enough to know that Hua Shun Lei kept a large amount of cash in the residence. When he was arrested he had just over $6500 on his person.
Despite his efforts to contaminate the crime scene, Binh Thai Luc left and collected significant amounts of DNA, which the police were able to use against him. He also left a fingerprint on a bottle of Windex.
Luc was found guilty of five counts of murder, plus five counts of attempted robbery, and two counts of burglary.
Luc faces life in prison without the possibility of parole. The district attorney opted not to seek the death penalty, though the specifics of the crime justified that option legally.
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