Forensic students assist police with the unsolved murder of a businessman.

Smiling Jian Fang

Jian Fang

A professor giving a lecture to a forensic science class

A forensic science class worked the case

CASE DETAILS

Crumpled up paper on the floor around a bloodied steak knife

A cheap steak knife was used to kill him

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:

“I had been working on this case for almost a year. And certainly I have believed that once you’ve become stymied you then take the case and look at it from an entirely different angle. Open it up and start all over again and the class gave me an opportunity to do that.”

Student's walking into a homicide department

Students debated their theories

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:

“In the van we found a knife that turned out to be a regular cheap kitchen steak knife. One that you would pay 99 cents for at the 99-cent store. And it was very worn, as if it had been washed 100 times or more.”

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.

A small pistol on a black table with a yellow note under it

This gun was found at the scene

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 advised that I should look into the gambling angle with Mr. Fang. That Mister Fang was, in fact, an avid gambler and had connections in the Chinese community for gambling. And that was likely the motive for his murder, rather than petty robbery.”

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:

“Talking to Cara and Nick and the other students was very stimulating. It caused me to think and rethink some ideas that I had entertained during the course of the last year that I’ve been working on this case.”

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.


Watch this case now on Amazon Prime in season six with Robert Stack and in season one with Dennis Farina. Also available on YouTube with Dennis Farina. Various seasons available now on Hulu.

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5 Comments

  1. Baffled

    Seems like first timers cause of the old knife and weapon left at the scene. To me really points at someone seeing him with money or knowing in gambling circles he was coming into a large amount. We’re definitely inexperienced. I am sure they at some point told someone. Confessed to loved one. I would look at people close in his circle.

    Reply

  2. Steve

    Unintentional homicide as it took the assailants 30 minutes from initial contact to inflict a single knife wound. Amateur job for sure. Could have also been a gambling debt.

    Reply

  3. Matthew

    I believe either Kara or Nick is correct in this case.

    The back of his window in his car was broken out, and the robbers waited for him. This is a very pre-planned robbery. Clearly there was a specific amount of money the expected to rob from him, but trying to figure out what specifically they were after will be impossible to know without someone talking.

    I don’t think they intended to kill him, given the fake gun and little well used knife they found at the scene, seemingly very well used. It was probably just a (un) lucky shot during the struggle, especially since he only had one wound. Very unfortunate for him.

    All that being said, the Chinese community is very insular. Whether or not his killers were busboy types who knew his pickup routine, or men that were present when he was putting down large bets, will probably never be known unless there’s some kind of deathbed confession. From the limited information given, either is likely.

    Unfortunately I don’t think this one will ever be solved.

    Kind of weird that we never heard from his family in the segment, but maybe their English wasn’t good and they didn’t want to be featured.

    Reply

  4. Anonymous

    That is a dumb theory above….

    Reply

  5. Anonymous

    There might be another possibility. If he collected as much money have been told, the only person who knew about it was her wife. She probably knew about her husband’s gambling obsession as well. She might employ hit mans to obtain that money and it might be true the murder was not planned. Either she wanted some “pocket money” or leave her husband.

    Reply

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