A Case of Two Trials

The Kate Steinle case drew dozens of reporters, but a quintuple homicide across the hall has gone largely uncovered.

Members of the media swarm Kate Steinle’s family as they exit the courtroom on Oct. 23, 2017. (Photo by Jessica Christian)

On any given morning in November, the second-floor hallway at the Hall of Justice was filled with reporters. Cameramen from KRON, NBC, and ABC leaned against the marble walls, their cameras resting on tripods. Every bench was full, every electrical outlet taken. Members of the media sat on their jackets on the floor, frantically typing on laptops and phones.

All of them were there to cover the trial of Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, an undocumented immigrant charged with killing 32-year-old Kate Steinle. It was a marathon of a case, spanning more than six weeks from start to finish. And the media was there, every day, camped outside or inside Department 13 where the trial took place.

Just across the hallway, another trial was happening — one with a much higher body count, a more gruesome scene, and a story with an even more complicated chain of events. In 2012, five adult family members were brutally killed in their Ingleside District house. The case includes gambling, mysterious phone calls, iffy motives, and contrasting witness statements — all great fodder for reporters. But few of these details have been told, as the media’s attention has been singularly focused on the death of one beautiful blonde woman.

In a city with a yearly homicide rate that generally runs lower than 100, five bodies in one night was not a small event. In 2012, the incident at 16 Howth St. made up 7 percent of the city’s 69 homicides.

The family was discovered by a 12-year-old girl who ran into the house to pick something up before school. Her mom, Nicole Lei, waited in a car outside. After her daughter emerged screaming, Lei entered to find the bodies of her mother Wan Yi Xu; her father Hua Shun Lei; her sister Ying Xue “Jess” Lei; her brother Vincent Lei; and his wife, Chia Huei Chu. In what seems to be an attempt to hide evidence, the victims’ brutally battered bodies were covered in water, white paint, bleach, Windex, and shampoo.

In the Oct. 23 opening statements in court, the details of the case were reminiscent of the first season of the popular podcast Serial. The accused, Binh Luc, was friendly with the family — and, arguably, lacked a motive. The defense claims that while evidence of fingerprints and blood prove that he was at the scene of the crime, there is little to signify that he committed the murders — implying there was an accomplice, or second person, at work.

As an added intrigue, when Lei discovered her family’s bodies, cell phone records show she made a call before 911 — allegedly telling her husband, “They’ve taken the money!” She later denied making the statement.

Inside the house, investigators discovered a box filled with medical marijuana doctors’ letters. When an FBI agent’s source informed authorities that a local gang leader wanted the family dead over an unpaid debt, the case’s intrigue reached Sopranos-level drama.

Meanwhile, across the hall, reporters spent days listening to dry testimony from gunshot experts about the trajectory of a single bullet that ricocheted off a pier and into the lower back of Steinle. So many members of the media showed up — FOX, CNN, NBC, The Associated Press, the Chronicle, the Examiner, Bay City News — that San Francisco Superior Court had to create a daily lottery system for courtroom seats.

There are a number of reasons why the Garcia Zarate case drew more attention than Luc’s. After Steinle’s death, her family dismissed local media in favor of an interview with Bill O’Reilly on FOX News. Despite claiming to be “apolitical,” Steinle’s parents showed support for Reilly’s proposal of “Kate’s Law,” which would create a mandatory-minimum five-year sentence for any undocumented immigrant who is deported and then returns to the U.S.

The case drew national attention when President Donald Trump, a candidate at the time, picked up the cause in his call for the elimination of sanctuary cities.

“This man, or this animal, that shot that wonderful, that beautiful woman in San Francisco, this guy was pushed back by Mexico,” he told CNN three months before he was elected.

With this national attention, editors at local media outlets pushed reporters to cover gavel-to-gavel coverage of the trial — despite the fact that Garcia Zarate’s immigration status, and San Francisco’s status as a sanctuary city, was infrequently mentioned.

Race, and the accessibility of public information, may also play a factor. Steinle was young, pretty, blonde, and according to the media’s coverage, the all-American girl next door. The crime seems random and was also shocking — she collapsed in her father’s arms after the bullet struck, and he presented a heart-wrenching tearful testimony in court. Her family has given innumerable TV interviews, and dozens of photos have circulated.

In contrast, the five victims of the slaying in Ingleside were all Asian. No photos have been released aside from a snapshot image of Chu, a student at City College. Even prosecutor Eric Fleming only had one image each of Vincent Lei and his wife, Chia Huei Chu — seemingly cut from the same photo, with the figure in the middle removed.

Family of the deceased did not talk to the media, and very little about who the victims were and where they worked ever became publicly available. Rumors of unpaid gambling debts and drug dealing cast a dark cloud over the murders. Just what was the family involved in to spur such a horrific attack?

The timing of the quintuple homicide trial also played a role. The crime took place five years ago, and in a city with a ton of new transplants, it’s simply not well-known. With Steinle’s highly publicized death taking place only two years ago, the details of that case are fresher in people’s minds.

In the opening statements of the Binh Luc trial on Oct. 10, four reporters were present, from SF Weekly, Bay City News, the Chronicle, and the Chinese paper The World Journal.

On Nov. 28, there were at least three times of many — but it wasn’t hard to figure out why. The jury was deliberating on Garcia Zarate’s fate, and once a decision was made, the media had 30 minutes to get to the courtroom. With traffic and transit being less than reliable in San Francisco, most chose to hang out in the court hallway, for days. It was more entertaining to sit in on a quintuple murder trial than to stare at the ceiling of the Hall of Justice, waiting for a turn to use an electrical outlet.

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