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Forensic students assist police with the unsolved murder of a businessman.
In December of 1993, Jian Fang, a prosperous San Francisco businessman, was stabbed to death. The case is just one of thousands of unsolved murders that plague police departments across the country. With no immediate solution, the detective in charge tried an unconventional approach. He opened his case files to a class studying forensic science. Created by a woman named Brook Stuart, the class had already helped close one murder case in 1992. Perhaps they could help close another.
When Brook Stuart’s class met in December of 1994, the would-be detectives included a ballet teacher, a housewife, and several writers. San Francisco Police Inspector Prentice Sanders briefed the students on the case:
Inspector Sanders introduced the class to the victim. He was Jian Fang, a 42-year-old businessman who owned two noodle factories. On December 18, 1993, he and an employee were attacked by a pair of assailants. Jian Fang was stabbed to death. A rear window of Mr. Fang’s van was broken and the van’s interior ransacked. No fingerprints were found, but according to Inspector Sanders, the murder weapon was left behind:
The evening of the murder, Jian Fang had offered a ride to one of his supervisors, Mrs. Yee Sung. According to Inspector Sanders, Mr. Fang never noticed that the window in his van was broken. After driving for less than a block, Fang was attacked inside the van by two young men who spoke fluent Cantonese. According to Mrs. Yee, the men demanded money from Fang. They then proceeded to strike Mrs. Yee in the back of the head with their pistol and told her not to turn around. Mrs. Yee said the terrifying episode lasted more than half an hour, far longer than most robberies. During that time, the two men ripped apart the van’s interior, repeating over and over their demand for “the money.” When Mr. Fang fought back, he was stabbed directly in the heart. Before fleeing, the assailants threatened to kill Mrs. Yee if she called for help.
The case review provoked a number of insightful questions and Inspector Sanders told the class what he knew about Mr. Fang’s daily activities. At times accompanied by his wife, Fang had personally collected money from his customers. A typical day would net up to $1000 in cash. This fact troubled students. They had a hard time believing that a successful businessman, like Fang, would not hire someone to collect the receipts and money.
Inspector Sanders then informed the students of a mysterious phone call he received three weeks after the murder:
The informant claimed that on the day of his death, Mr. Fang had collected at least $25,000 dollars in cash. It was an extremely promising lead. However, none of the information could be verified and Sanders found himself back at square one.
By the end of class, each student had heard the baffling mix of evidence, leads, and rumors in the case of Jian Fang. They were given a week to submit a written analysis. Some, like Nick Dalby, believed that Fang’s killers knew he would be collecting a large sum of money but were disappointed and surprised when they found out there was nothing in the van. According to Nick, the killers did not intend to kill Fang, but were left with only that option when he began to struggle inside the van.
Another student, Cara Llewellyn, proposed a scenario that was totally at odds with Nick’s. Cara questioned a friend of hers who had lived in Chinatown for many years. Cara’s friend had told her about a different network of gangs that operated within the Chinese community. She learned that many Vietnamese immigrants were well versed in Cantonese and some would have been eager to prove themselves to long time gang members.
Inspector Sanders was intrigued after hearing both theories:
So, which scenario lies at the heart of Jian Fang’s murder? Soon after briefing the students, Inspector Sanders was contacted by a second, anonymous informant, who argued that the murder was tied to illicit betting. Inspector Sanders believed the tip to be credible, but only time and further investigation will allow police to close in on the elusive killers of Jian Fang.