Man gets lured onto boat for fishing trip before he’s shot and left to drown, feds say

A man never returned from a late-night lobster fishing trip off the coast of Southern California in October 2019.

Instead, his body was found floating face down in the Pacific Ocean, several miles offshore from Oceanside, a coastal city about 40 miles northwest of San Diego, on Oct. 16, 2019, according to federal prosecutors and court documents.

His cause of death was determined to be drowning, but other factors indicated homicide, including blunt force trauma and gunshot wounds, according to an autopsy performed by the San Diego Medical Examiner’s Office, court documents say.

As an investigation ensued, investigators learned the man owed a debt to Hoang Xuan Le, 42, of Fountain Valley, who lured him on the lobstering trip the night of Oct. 15, 2019, according to prosecutors.

It was revealed the trip was actually a “ruse to murder the victim at sea,” a criminal complaint filed in court says.

Le shot the man on the boat that evening and left him to drown after he went overboard, according to prosecutors.

In the case’s latest development, a judge sentenced Le to life in prison on Aug. 7 on charges including murder, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California announced in a news release.

“Le committed murder, and, as a result, (the victim’s) family will never see him again,” prosecutors wrote in a sentencing memorandum filed in court. “Le’s crime has left a grieving mother, grieving widow, grieving brothers, a grieving sister, and two fatherless small children.”

His sentencing comes after he was found guilty of first-degree murder within the special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the U.S., conspiracy to commit murder, and using a firearm in furtherance of a crime of violence in December 2021, prosecutors said. Afterward, he also pleaded guilty to narcotics-related felonies in February 2022, according to the release.

Craig Wilke, a federal criminal defense attorney who represented Le, told McClatchy News in a statement on Aug. 8 that his client plans to appeal his sentence and that “certain erroneous evidentiary rulings undermine confidence in the outcome.”

In April, Le’s co-defendant, Sheila Marie Ritze, the owner of the boat who drove Le and the victim out to sea on the evening of the victim’s death, was also sentenced in the case, according to an earlier news release.

Ritze, 43, of San Juan Capistrano, was sentenced to 262 months in federal prison on April 17 after she was previously found guilty of second-degree murder within the special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the U.S. and making false statements, prosecutors said.

David W. Wiechert, a defense attorney who represented her, told McClatchy News in a statement on Aug. 8 that they plan to appeal her conviction and sentence.

“There will be numerous issues on appeal,” he said.

The fishing trip ‘ruse’

The evening of Oct. 15, 2019, Ritze, Le and the victim departed from Dana Point Harbor to embark on the purported fishing trip on Ritze’s boat, according to prosecutors.

According to a sentencing memo filed on behalf of Ritze by Wiechert, this was a spontaneous trip planned hours earlier by Le.

Le is accused of inviting the victim to go fishing for spiny lobster with him in front of the victim’s girlfriend and his children as they were out at a restaurant together, Ritze’s sentencing memo says.

Wiechert argued his client had a “limited role” in the victim’s death, which came as a “terrible surprise to her” after she saw Le shoot the victim and throw him overboard from the boat, according to the sentencing memo.

Afterward, Le and Ritze headed back to Dana Point Harbor, prosecutors said.

Ritze was accused of lying to federal investigators during a December 2019 interview, including that she didn’t know the victim before he was a passenger on her boat, according to the earlier news release.

Prosecutors said Ritze and the victim were in Las Vegas together 11 days before his death.

At her sentencing hearing, U.S. District Judge David O. Carter described Ritze’s actions as “horrific and horrendous” and said she acted with “callousness,” according to the earlier news release.

As for Le, life in prison was a mandatory sentence, prosecutors said.

In commenting on Le’s plans to appeal, Wilke said that the jury’s verdict was “the product of juror misconduct, and that the expansion of federal criminal jurisdiction to crimes committed on the ocean within three miles from shore is not supported by precedent and represents a significant encroachment on the power of states which have historically exercised jurisdiction over such matters.”

The Coast Guard Investigative Service and the FBI investigated the case against Le and Ritze, according to prosecutors.

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