IBM Programming "Star" Shot to Death, Found with Cocaine in His Atlanta Home
Detectives believed drugs at the murder scene had been planted there to throw off the investigation.
In 1990, Jia Yann ”James” Chao, an immigrant from Taiwan, had established himself as a top programmer at IBM in Atlanta.
“Jim really was a shining star,” IBM employee Mike Massey told The Real Murders of Atlanta, airing Fridays at 9/8c on Oxygen.
But on April 25, Chao, who was always on time for work, never showed up. Jimmy Ku, another colleague, was asked by a manager to go to Chao’s apartment for a welfare check.
A security guard at Chao’s apartment complex opened the door. He and Ku saw Chao lying on the floor. They closed the door and alerted authorities.
Police arrived at 11 a.m. They determined that Chao was deceased and sealed the scene, according to Eddie Herman, a former Cobb County Police Department detective.
Chao had arrived in Atlanta a few months earlier from Austin. His wife and their 8-year-old son were set to join Chao in Georgia. In fact, the day Chao’s body was found, his wife had flown to Atlanta to house-hunt with him.
Police processed the crime scene for fingerprints and other evidence, according to Pat Banks, who is currently an undercover investigator with Cobb County PD. Only the victim’s prints were found.
Cocaine found at James Chao murder scene
White powder found on a table was tested and confirmed to be cocaine. A drug killing didn’t fit the profile for Chao, a family man with a rising career. Moreover, investigators wondered, why did the killer leave the drugs?
Chao had been shot in the chest and behind his left ear. “He had a pair of scissors in his right hand,” said Herman. “It looked like perhaps they had been placed there.”
The apartment had not been ransacked. Chao had cash in his wallet. The crime scene didn’t appear to be a robbery gone wrong.
At the scene it was determined that Chao had been shot twice at close range. The wounds “were up close and personal,” said Banks.
Detectives found that Chao’s apartment had been locked from the outside. That meant the killer had taken a key and left with it.
Investigators believed that Chao let the murderer into his home, so there was some sort of relationship between them. Chao’s lack of defense wounds supported this theory.
The building had no security cameras. Police canvassed Chao’s neighbors, but the efforts turned up no leads.
When Chao’s wife arrived at the scene, she said she spoke with her husband the night before. They’d made plans for him to pick her up at the airport.
Chao had no drug issues, she told Herman. The investigator considered that Chao could have been living a double life.
Detectives looked into drug-related trafficking and other crimes in Chao’s area of Cobb County. This line of investigation led to a dead end.
Chao’s autopsy revealed that he had no cocaine or any narcotics in his system, according to Tom Charron, former district attorney for Cobb County. The cocaine “didn’t seem to fit in with the murder itself,” he said.
Detectives theorized that both the scissors awkwardly placed in Chao’s hand and the cocaine had been planted to stage the scene and throw off investigators.
During the autopsy two 38-caliber bullets were removed from Chao’s body. Detectives searched to see if any weapons fitting that description had been reported stolen. They found none and issued a BOLO — be on the lookout — for a .38-caliber handgun.
Love letters reveal affair
Detectives considered that Chao had lived in Atlanta for just four months. He only knew his coworkers, so they went to IBM to search for leads.
In Chao’s desk they found love letters that were not from Chao’s wife, but another woman. The nature of the correspondence indicated that it “wasn’t just a friendship,” said Herman.
Chao’s colleagues knew nothing about the possible extramarital affair. Herman handled the delicate task of asking Chao’s widow about the letters.
She told him that she’d heard rumors that Chao was seeing the ex-wife of Texas IBM employee Chien-Chyun “CC” Lee. But when his wife confronted Chao about the rumor, he denied it, Herman told The Real Murders of Atlanta.
According to Herman, Chao’s wife told him that after Jim had moved to Atlanta, CC Lee came to her house in Austin. “He asked her if she knew where her husband was,” Herman said. “I had a bad feeling about what she was telling me.”
The investigators focused on Lee. Had he come to Atlanta and committed murder over his ex-wife? “Jealousy is one of the oldest motives in the books,” said Herman. “That’s when I reached out to the Texas Rangers.”
CC Lee Emerges as Main Suspect
Ranger Joe Haralson went to IBM in Houston to get information on CC Lee. He found that Lee called out sick on April 24 to 26. Chao was murdered on April 25.
“Coworkers said Mr. Lee said he was mad about an extramarital relationship between Mr. Chao and Mr. Lee's former wife,” said Charron.
When Haralson interviewed Lee he admitted he knew about the affair and that he was out sick with the flu as reported. He had no one to back up his alibi but denied being involved in Chao’s murder.
Lee also admitted that he had just pawned a 38-caliber handgun — a match for the make and model of the murder weapon.
Herman and Banks flew to Texas. Haralson went to the pawn shop where CC Lee allegedly sold his gun. In addition to the gun, Lee had also brought in a box of bullets with two shells missing from it.
On May 4, Cobb County detectives met with Lee at Houston PD’s Clear Lake substation. Lee continued to deny any involvement in Chao’s murder.
Then Herman pressed harder. He told him that he was going to test the gun he’d pawned to see if it matched the murder weapon.
“He looks at me and says, ‘You mean you can match one gun with one bullet,’” said Herman. The detective responded, “Yes, it’s called ballistics.”
Lee asked for a lawyer, shutting down the interrogation. But after a break, Lee said he wanted to talk. After being re-read him his Miranda rights, he confessed.
CC Lee Confesses to James Chao's Murder
“He said Jim Chao was still calling his ex-wife and that it needed to stop,” said Herman, adding that he’d checked his weapon at the airport. “Before 9/11 you could take a Bazooka on an airline.”
Lee went to Chao’s apartment. He claimed that Chao was confrontational before he shot him.
“He said that when he had gotten into town he saw an individual standing on the street. He said he paid $50 for two packets of cocaine,” said Herman. He bought the drugs to stage the crime scene.
Lee was charged with murder. The ballistics test definitively proved that Lee's gun fired the bullets that killed Chao. “It was a rock solid case,” said Herman.
On May 11, 1991, Chien-Chyun Lee was found guilty of felony murder and sentenced to life in prison.
To find out more about the case and others like it, watch The Real Murders of Atlanta, airing Fridays at 9/8c on Oxygen.