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The small town of Pendleton, Oregon was rocked when Amyjane Brandhagen—a vibrant, energetic 19-year-old—was found viciously stabbed to death in a motel where she worked as a maid in 2012.
But just a year later, another woman, Karen Lang, who had once taught bible school together with Brandhagen and attended the same church, would vanish, leaving some in the community to fear a possible serial killer was lurking in their midst.
“Someone came up to our senior pastor and said, 'You know, I think I am glad I am not part of your church after all these things have happened,'” church youth minister Jed Hummell told “Dateline: Secrets Uncovered” in a new episode airing Thursday night on Oxygen at 8/7c. “You’re thinking, ‘Is a serial killer around?’”
Lang was discovered the next day, badly beaten and barely alive just off a walking path where she had been taking her daily stroll when she was struck from behind with a metal pipe.
Investigators would discover video surveillance footage of a young male, likely in his 20s with dark skin and dark hair, following closely behind Lang before she was attacked. The images matched the description of a person of interest given by a painter working at the Travelodge motel when Brandhagen was killed.
But tracking the man down wouldn’t be easy, and once they had, investigators would be chilled by the disturbing motive he divulged for the attacks.
"She Was Always Ready To Give"
Brandhagen had just returned from a three-month mission trip in India when she got the job at the Travelodge to help her pay for rent for her new downtown apartment, as she contemplated her next move in life.
“She was always ready to give and pour her heart out to people and just give everything she had to offer,” fellow missionary Kate Cook told “Dateline: Secrets Uncovered” of her free-spirited friend.
Those who knew the vibrant teen described her as someone who loved to dance, had a special connection with children and loved an adventure.
“If she got to feeling that you were left out, she would find you and make sure you knew that you had a friend,” Hummell said.
Brandhagen was happy to land the new job, but had also expressed some reservations to those closest to her.
“She was excited to get this other job, but she wasn’t so sure about working at the hotel. She was a little nervous about it,” Cook said of her safety concerns.
Brandhagen’s fears would come to fruition on Aug. 14, 2012, when her body was discovered inside a motel room bathroom.
“There’s a girl dead in the bathroom,” a caller told a 911 dispatcher of the gruesome discovery.
Pendleton City Police Lt. Bill Caldera—who in a tragic twist of fate had been a close family friend of the Brandhagens—still recalled arriving to find Brandhagen laying on the floor of the bathroom with a dozen stab wounds.
“It just felt like somebody had kicked me in the pit of my stomach,” he said. “I just can’t tell you the, the feeling that … went through my mind.”
Caldera was then tasked with telling Brandhagen’s parents that their daughter was dead.
“That was probably the toughest thing that I’ve ever had to do in my career and I can’t tell you the feeling that we all had. We broke down in tears,” he said.
While Caldera excused himself from the investigation because of his close relationship with the family, other investigators took over and were baffled by who may have killed the teen.
The only witness, a painter working at the motel, described seeing a young man with longer hair and darker skin walking in the area not long before the brutal murder, but authorities weren’t sure whether the man was even connected to the crime.
In her final moments, Brandhagen had fought for her life and had the DNA of an unknown male underneath her fingernails, but it didn't match any of the DNA samples voluntarily collected from others staying at the motel.
The medical examiner did not find any signs of sexual assault, but Det. Sgt. Rick Jackson said authorities initially believed she may have been killed by a romantic interest because many of the stab wounds were right around her heart. Yet, investigators were unable to find any viable suspect.
“Everybody that knew her characterized her in the same way. She knew no stranger, she didn’t have an evil bone in her body,” Pendleton Police Chief Stuart Roberts told “Dateline: Secrets Uncovered.”
A Perplexing Disappearance
For nearly a year, investigators continued to work the case with no answers until Lang was attacked just before the one-year anniversary of the murder.
Lang had left for her daily walk on Aug. 9, 2013 along the river levee, after noting to her husband, Dan Lang, that they should get ice cream together later that night.
“The last words she said to me were ‘Well I guess we’ll just have a nice, boring evening,’” he recalled.
But Karen would never return home and Dan soon asked Hummell and his wife Lisa to check whether she had parked her car outside their home, as she usually did before her regular walks.
The couple spotted the car, but no sign of Karen. They grabbed flashlights and began to search the path, as Dan rushed to join them.
An investigator would find her the next day, barely alive after suffering a horrific blow to the back of the head.
“He thought she was dead, tremendous amount of blood,” Roberts said of the officer who found her. “He indicates that he reaches for her wrist to see if she has a pulse and her leg moves and she gasps.”
Karen was rushed to the hospital, where she’d remain in a coma for days, as investigators began to search for her attacker.
Finding a Killer
One investigator uncovered a perplexing photo of Karen happily posing with Brandhagen, leaving authorities to wonder whether someone was targeting the women of the church.
But they’d learn more about Karen’s attacker after poring through surveillance footage, which showed a young male with dark hair following closely behind her, carrying what appeared to be a metal pipe behind his back.
One of the police officers at the station recognized the man as someone he knew as “Danny Woo,” a man who had been arrested several times over the last year for minor infractions.
As police set out to find Woo, one officer made a critical discovery at some baseball batting cages not far from the crime scene. After pulling a loose board away behind one of the cages, he found a bloody meal pipe hidden inside. The blood matched Karen’s DNA and the DNA pulled from the other end of the pipe matched the DNA recovered from under Amyjane’s fingernails—officially connecting the two crimes together.
Woo—whose real name was later determined to be Lukah Chang—was eventually found hiding in an air duct vent at a local convention center ceiling, where he’d made a “nest” and had lived all year. The 23-year-old Chang had deserted the the Marines in 2012.
Once in custody, Chang made a chilling confession, calmly admitting to killing Brandhagen, who he knew vaguely from his own stay at the motel, after seeing her walk by.
“I saw her working, and just—‘Oh look. Target. Opportunity. Attack,’” he told Jackson during an interrogation.
Chang went on to say he stabbed the 19-year-old “to see how it felt” to take someone’s life because he was “curious.”
Chang told Jackson the brutal act had been both “empowering” and “saddening.”
“Empowering because I took a life. Saddening, because I realized, at the same time, life is precious,” he said.
And although the two women had known each other and once taught bible school together, Chang—whose parents had also been Christian missionaries—said that didn’t have anything to do with why he attacked Karen.
He just realized the one-year-anniversary of the murder was approaching and saw an opportunity to strike again.
When asked whether he felt any remorse for the attacks, Chang admitted that he really didn’t.
“I got tired of feeling emotions and stuff like that,” he told Jackson. “I got tired of feeling the feelings. So I’m like ‘All right, let’s just cut that out.’ So I did.”
He would later plead guilty to murder and attempted murder and was sentenced to 35 years to life behind bars.
While Brandhagen had paid with her life, Karen ultimately recovered from the attack.
“I am doing very well,” she told “Dateline: Secrets Uncovered” a year after the attack. “I feel great.”
For more, watch “Dateline: Secrets Uncovered” Thursdays on Oxygen at 8/7c.
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