SANTA ANA, Calif. - A 42-year-old woman who helped her drug-trafficking friend kill a marijuana dealer who owed him money by taking the victim on her fishing boat off Dana Point Harbor to be beaten, shot and drowned was convicted Tuesday of second-degree murder and lying to investigators.
Sheila Marie Ritze of San Juan Capistrano was convicted in the killing of 44-year-old Tri "James" Dao on Oct. 14, 2019. Co-defendant Hoang Xuan Le was convicted Dec. 10 of first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit murder and using a firearm to commit a crime of violence, and in February he pleaded guilty to multiple other drug- and weapons-related charges.
A sentencing date was not immediately set for Ritze. She had been charged with first-degree murder, but jurors, who deliberated for two and a half days, convicted her of second-degree murder.
"This was a very conscientious jury. We just disagree with the notion that she intended to kill anyone," Ritze's attorney, David Wiechert, told City News Service after the verdicts were read.
At the onset of Ritze's trial, Assistant U.S. Attorney Gregory Scally told jurors Dao was texting his "longtime girlfriend" Natalie Nguyen before Le, Ritze and the victim left shore for a lobster fishing expedition.
"'We're launching, love you.' Those were the last words Natalie heard from James Dao," Scally said.
"Only two people came back" from the fishing trip, the prosecutor told jurors. "James Dao never made it back."
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His body was found 36 hours later by fishermen. Dao had a graze wound to the back of the head and was shot in the back and suffered blows to the head, but his cause of death was listed as drowning, Scally said.
Ritze, who worked at a property management office in Orange, met Le through her work, Scally said.
In 2019, Ritze's "life was spinning out of control," with an affair ruining her marriage and leading her to start drinking heavily, the prosecutor said.
She wound up being drawn to Le's criminal lifestyle, he said.
"She was infatuated with Hoang's drugs, guns and gangster lifestyle," Scally said.
Dao, who dealt marijuana for Le, owed his boss money, but insisted that any debts he had were "secured" because he had a life insurance policy that his wife would use to pay any money he owed, Scally said.
When her common-law husband did not return from the fishing trip, Nguyen filed a missing-person report with authorities, Scally said.
When Ritze was eventually arrested Dec. 19, 2019, "she lied and she lied again and again and again and again in her interview," Scally said.
"She said she had no clue why they were there," Scally said, saying she eventually admitted being on the boat but insisted she was "surprised" when Le shot the victim. She also claimed she was too frightened to come forward, Scally said.
But the two exchanged multiple messages following Dao's death, with Ritze even calling Le "my greatest catch of all," Scally said.
Before the murder, Le and Dao joined Ritze on a trip with her mother- in-law Sandra to a Billy Idol concert in Las Vegas, Scally said. Ritze allegedly told her mother-in-law that she had plans with Le to "off" Dao that weekend, according to the prosecutor.
Wiechert claimed his client had "nothing nefarious" planned when she went out on the boat with Dao and Le.
Ritze was an "amazing fisherwoman," who took up the hobby with her husband, Wiechert said.
Wiechert said his client never made any threats about Dao during the trip to Las Vegas and accused the mother-in-law of gathering details from news accounts and lying to investigators because she wanted more time to spend with her granddaughter and felt Ritze was standing in the way of that.
Wiechert showed jurors a text-message exchange between the mother-in- law and a friend in which they discussed how authorities will "keep that witch in jail," making it easier for the grandmother to see her granddaughter.
Sandra Ritze contacted authorities and volunteered to provide information about the Vegas trip, Wiechert said.
Dao was an "avid gambler and he wasn't a good one," so he frequently borrowed money, Wiechert said.
The defense attorney said his client suffered a head wound when officers used flash-bang grenades during her arrest, so that affected how she was able to answer questions from investigators, Wiechert said. Also, she was consuming about five drinks a day at the time she was arrested, the attorney said.
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