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Southern California’s signature serenity in Mission Viejo was shattered on August 18, 1993, when the bodies of Ranbing “Jennifer” Ji, 25, and her 5-month-old son, Kevin, were discovered.
Ji had been stabbed multiple times, while the child had been suffocated.
Close to two decades later, the case still haunts Steve Shadrick, a retired officer with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department. “It’s just hard to get that image out of your head,” he told “The Real Murders of Orange County,” airing Sundays at 7/6c and 8/7c on Oxygen. “This is something you can’t unsee.”
Getting a conviction that stuck in this double murder case would prove to be very difficult as well.
Ji had grown up in a coastal Chinese city, investigators learned. She’d been in Mission Viejo for about a year. Jim Peng, a rich and successful businessman in his 50s, was her boyfriend and the father of her son as well as their source of financial support.
Ji and Peng had met in 1992 in China. She was working in hotel PR when their paths crossed. They began a romance and she became pregnant, according to “Real Murders of Orange County.”
“She was looking for a new life in a new place,” said former Los Angeles Times journalist Geoff Boucher.
Ji had been stabbed 18 times, and the violence of the murder led detectives to believe that the crime was personally motivated.
“There was a lot of anger involved,” they said. No signs of forced entry or robbery at Ji’s apartment also suggested she might have known the killer.
Investigators interviewed Jim Peng, who told them he had been out of the country on business during the murders, an alibi that was confirmed.
With no murder weapon or evidence at the crime scene or leads from neighbors, investigators faced an uphill investigation. But the case took a dramatic turn when investigators questioned Jim Peng again. He told them he was married with two teenage children. His other family’s home was just a few miles away.
Investigators turned their attention to Jim Peng’s wife, Lisa, to see if she had knowledge of her husband’s girlfriend and baby. They learned that Lisa Peng had quit her own career and worked hard to help her husband achieve his success, said Shiru Hong, an Orange County Superior Court interpreter.
They also discovered that Jennifer Ji and Lisa Peng had knowledge of each other — and that there was animosity between them, according to “Real Murders of Orange County.”
In addition to the 18 stab wounds that Ji sustained, there was also a bite mark on her body. DNA from saliva at the site of the bite matched Lisa Peng’s. She was arrested for the murder of Ji and her son.
Lisa Peng denied guilt and her husband backed up her claim of innocence.
“At that time, Jim Peng said, ‘May I have a moment with her before you take her to booking,’” said Robert Molko, retired prosecutor with the Orange County DA’s Office.
There was no expectation of privacy, Molko said, and their conversation, in Mandarin Chinese, was recorded. According to interpreters, Lisa Peng blamed her husband for starting the affair and leading to deadly consequences.
“The bombshell is when he asked her, ‘Why did you kill her?” said Boucher. “Why did you stab her?’ And she said it was self defense … she fell on the knife. That was I think the huge break in a case where she incriminated herself.”
According to Molko, Jim Peng testified at a preliminary hearing and then disappeared. “He never came back to this country for any of the trials,” he said.
Two years after the slayings, Lisa Peng’s trial began in 1995, but proceedings led to a hung jury.
The second trial began in 1996. Its mix of murder, sex, and jet-setting international intrigue drew international attention.
“This case was treated by the Asian population and the Asian newspapers like the OJ Simpson trial,” said Molko. The verdict this time came back as guilty. Lisa Peng, 49, was sentenced to life without the chance of parole.
“Yes, Lisa Peng was wronged by her husband,” said Molko, according to a Los Angeles Times report of the trial. “No one has ever denied that ... You could even argue that she was wronged by Jennifer. But Jennifer did not deserve to die for that. And that cute little baby ... did not deserve to lose his chance to grow up. We can’t forget that.”
In yet another twist, however, in 1999, the verdict was overturned on grounds that Peng had not been properly informed of her rights, according to a Taipei Times report. When the third trial resulted in a hung jury, prosecutors determined that it was best to go for a plea bargain.
In June of 2001, per the plea deal, Lisa Peng was deported to Taiwan, according to “Real Murders of Orange County,” “and was never to set foot on American soil again.”
To Shadrick, it was “an empty victory,” he said. “I think she got off extremely easy.”
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