OC man gets life in prison for murder of man who was dumped off lobster boat off Dana Point

A 42-year-old Fountain Valley man was sentenced Monday to life in federal prison for killing a friend — who owed him between $30,000 and $40,000 — on a lobster fishing boat off the shores of Dana Point Harbor.

Hoang "Wayne" Xuan Le was convicted Dec. 10, 2021, of first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit murder and using a firearm to commit a crime of violence. He pleaded guilty in February 2022 to eight drug charges, including dealing cocaine and methamphetamine.

Co-defendant Sheila Marie Ritze, 43, of San Juan Capistrano, was convicted in April of last year for her part in the killing of 44-year-old Tri "James" Dao on Oct. 14, 2019. She was sentenced in April of this year to 21 years and 10 months in federal prison.

The victim's mother, Anh Tran, said in a victim impact statement to U.S. District Judge David O. Carter that she would "never be able to get this nightmare and every day is a tearful reminder that I will never see my son again, and his daughters will grow up not knowing their father."

To Le, she noted that the defendant was a friend of Dao's.

"You often spent time together with my son's two young daughters. They called you uncle and thought of you as family," Tran said. "How could you so mercilessly and violently murder him like this? It was incredibly heartbreaking and agonizing to sit in court every single day for months and see and hear all the gruesome details of this case. You lured my son by taking him on what he thought was a fishing trip, (and) then you shot him and brutalized him with metal hooks, and left him to drown a slow, painful death in the darkness of the cold ocean."


Tran added that Le never felt any pangs of conscience and "you continued to enjoy your life, brag about being a hitman, and tried to intimidate his family by tracking them. You have not only killed him, but you have destroyed his family and ruined all our lives."

Tran said Le is "an evil and cruel demon who belongs in hell so that you can repent and pay for your sins. You deserve a life in prison so that you cannot inflict harm and commit crimes against anyone else."

Prosecutors said in court papers that Le "has left a grieving mother, grieving widow, grieving brothers, a grieving sister and two fatherless small children... The nature and circumstance of the offense are horrific: shooting and beating up a defenseless man, then leaving him brutally beaten and shot, in the middle of the ocean, three miles from shore, in the dead of night."

Le invited Dao to go fishing with Ritze on her boat for lobsters late at night in the waters off Dana Point Harbor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Gregory Scally said during Le's trial. It wasn't the usual time for fishing, and they ventured a little more than three miles offshore, another unusual move because the usual fishing spot near the jetty was a lot further inland, he added.

Dao was not dead when he was dumped overboard because the autopsy showed the cause of death was drowning. Beating, shooting and then leaving the victim three miles offshore shows they intended to kill Dao, Scally argued. "This is no accident."

A little more than a week before the killing, the three went with other friends on a road trip to Las Vegas to see a Billy Idol concert, where Le spoke with Ritze about using her boat to "off" the victim, Scally said.

Le's drug buddy Shawn Whalin also testified that the defendant told him he planned to "take out" the victim. Le also asked Whalin to help him kill Dao, but Whalin refused.

Le also told Whalin he intended to collect on the victim's life insurance policy to settle the debt and showed his pal a .38-caliber gun.

After the killing, Le told Whalin "I took care of it," referring to the victim's death. Another friend heard Le talk about killing Dao, but the friend did not come forward to authorities because he thought Le was just bragging.

Scally also referred to text message discussions he had with Nguyen and others about collecting on Dao's debt.

Le testified he acted in self-defense, but Scally said that claim contradicted the testimony of so many other witnesses in the trial.

Dao's gunshot wound to the back puts the lie to the claim, Scally argued.

"You might begin and end your analysis of self-defense with that fact," Scally said. "If James Dao shot himself, he's quite the contortionist."

Le testified he slugged Dao with a stick a couple of times, and the gun went off, but Scally counted up to nine wounds on the victim's head in the autopsy photo.

Le also testified that he thought the victim could swim back to shore, but Scally said that distance was further than even an iron man competition.