Discover more from Gotham by Susan Dyer Reynolds
Stephanie Ching helped kill and dismember her father, but she didn't spend a single day in jail
Despite the family's objections, SFDA Chesa Boudin gave her a sweetheart deal
“I just want the Court to be aware that if anybody lost their family members, how could they be okay knowing that their uncle's daughter — or my cousin — murdered her father with a year worth of time? I think anybody would be very unhappy with that.”
— Karen Tom, niece of victim Benedict Ching, at her cousin Stephanie’s sentencing, Oct. 20, 2020
Warning: This article contains graphic details that may be disturbing.
When 73-year-old Benedict Ching didn’t show up for work on May 18, 2019, his supervisor and his sister made a visit to his home in San Francisco the following day. His daughter, 36-year-old Stephanie Ching, and her husband, 45-year-old Douglas Lomas, had moved with their two children from West Virginia in February to live with him. It was Lomas who answered the door, but he refused to allow the supervisor and sister to enter the home, stating that the entire family was sick.
On May 20, Benedict’s sister returned to the home with San Francisco police officers who used the sister’s keys to enter the locked residence; they immediately noticed it was in disarray. After seeing a worm drive circular saw in the bath basin and what appeared to be blood, police effected a search warrant and requested the presence of medical examiner investigators.
Inside the home, they found nylon rope, box cutters, duct tape, and rolled plastic. The smoke detector was covered in the front bedroom. The window in the bathroom was covered with duct taped cardboard. Feces and possible human tissue were noted in the toilet. An upper and lower dental plate sat on the bathroom counter near a box cutter and red-stained latex gloves. Plastic partially hung in the shower stall and was duct taped to stop the tub’s drain. A worm circular saw, a roasting pan, two sauce pans, and a sponge were also in the basin. Reddish-brown fluid stained the cookware and the tub. CSI obtained a tentative identification of human blood on the saw.
In the kitchen, investigators found a utility power cord and a ladder sitting on top of the plastic-covered shower stall door, which had been removed from the bathroom. On the stovetop was a tin that exhibited burn marks. Inside the refrigerator, they found multiple plastic bags. The bags were removed individually and placed in body pouches, where Dr. Ellen Moffatt determined the contents to be disarticulated and charred human remains. One of the bags contained a human head.
In the autopsy report, dated May 21-22, 2019, the medical examiner notes the body parts contained in each bag. “The head, detached trachea with portion of aortic arch and thyroid, esophagus, and heart” are in sub-bag #2, along with gloves and paper, which are set aside and retained as evidence. While most of the liver is missing, hair is removed from what remains and is also saved as evidence.
Injuries include possible subarachnoid hemorrhage in the brain, as well as fractures to the left ulna and some of the ribs. The findings conclude dismemberment with disemboweling and removal of organs, and use of a circular saw and thin edged beveled blade. Some of the organs — including most of the liver, the right kidney, stomach, pancreas, and genitalia — are missing. The manner of death is homicide. The method of death is sharp and blunt injury. Using DNA from the sister, the medical examiner is able to say conclusively that the victim is Benedict Ching.
‘SEVERE EVIDENTIARY LIMITATIONS’
On May 20, 2019, Stephanie Ching and her husband Douglas Lomas, along with their two children, fled to China. Upon landing in Beijing, the couple was arrested by Homeland Security investigators in connection with the death of Benedict Ching and extradited back to the United States.
While processing the couple’s belongings in their impound room, CSI members from SFPD located a molar tooth and a crown loose inside their luggage. They delivered the evidence to Dr. Moffat, who noted in her report that the crown fit the molar.
Ching retained a private attorney while deputy public defender Ilona Solomon represented her husband. According to sources, Solomon is San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin’s old officemate from his days as a public defender, as well as a close friend. Pleas were struck between the district attorney’s office and the defense attorneys, but a former colleague says Solomon likely had little to do with the deal given to her client: “The prosecutors assigned to homicide are not part of Boudin's settlement discussions. All decisions in the case were between Boudin and the defense attorneys. Solomon once called herself as a witness to vouch for a client, and had her testimony stricken after she tried to claim attorney-client privilege without getting a waiver or putting it on the record. She thought she could testify for her client and then refuse to answer questions because she was his lawyer. Anyone who watches TV knows that’s not how it works. There’s no way she negotiated that deal — it was all Boudin.”
In the sentencing transcript dated Oct. 20, 2020, presiding judge Linda Colfax begins the proceedings. “When we left off last week, I made a record that I read and considered the pre-sentence report. Formal arraignment and judgment for sentencing was waived. And then I heard from the family members of Mr. Ching … I had been informed and believed prior to last Thursday that the entire family was in support of the negotiated disposition.”
Boudin then asked to address the court. “This case is a horrific tragedy, and any loss of life represents irreparable harm,” he said via Zoom. “This case also presents very real evidentiary challenges outside the control of my office or my staff … We’ve provided services — and will continue to provide services that we are able to — to the victim’s family as they negotiate and navigate the unbelievable trauma of any homicide. We also consulted with the designated spokesperson for the family about any possible resolution to this case prior to a trial.” In fact, Boudin said, his office had discussed the resolution with the family at length, and “no objections whatsoever were raised.” The adult probation department also invited the family to raise objections or concerns, according to Boudin, and again, no objections or concerns were raised. “The probation office was told by the family to refer to my office for their views … And I very much wish that we did not face the severe evidentiary limitations that we face in proving this case.”
Judge Colfax asked if anyone else wished to be heard, and the victim’s niece, on Zoom, spoke up. “This is Karen Tom … I’m just going to clear the record. I was never designated to be the family spokesperson … It was never asked of our family how we felt about the plea … The question was never posited to the family how do you feel about this; so a response was never given. We were not aware that we could protest or continue to protest. It was told to us that this is how it’s going to go.”
Regarding Boudin’s assertions the family spoke with other departments, Tom said, “I was never involved in any conversation about a probation department; so I know nothing of that.”
In perhaps the most devastating testimony, Tom said, “I just want the Court to be aware that if anybody lost their family members, how could they be okay knowing that their uncle’s daughter — my cousin — murdered her father with a year worth of time? I think anybody would be very unhappy with that … I do not think the DA ever reached out and asked, ‘Are you in consensus with this and do you agree with this?’ We understood what he said, but that is different than agreeing with the ultimate result.”
‘THE VICTIM MAY HAVE BEEN THE AGGRESSOR’
Judge Colfax asked if anyone else wanted to speak and, when no one did, she turned back to the proceedings. “As we memorialized in the plea transcript, the district attorney indicated that they believed they had significant proof problems with the initial charges, meaning he did not believe he could prove the original charges at trial.”
In a truly bizarre moment of victim shaming, Colfax said, “The victim may have been an initiator or aggressor of the original incident. The crime was committed because of unusual circumstances … I learned in discussions with the attorneys that the Ching nuclear family had a long history of abuse, both physical and verbal, by the victim to the co-defendant, his daughter Ms. Lomas, that dated back to her young childhood … Mr. Lomas was motivated by a desire to provide necessities, in this case safety, for his wife and children … And those are the factors in mitigation that this Court considered.”
With that, Colfax sentenced Lomas to six years in state prison for voluntary manslaughter, “the midterm for this charge,” she said, due to those factors in mitigation. “First, this is the negotiated disposition between the district attorney’s office and the defendant,” Colfax said. “The victim was 73 years old and therefore presumptively vulnerable … I have also considered the following factors: Mr. Lomas has no prior record of arrests or convictions. Mr. Lomas was suffering from a physical condition, the traumatic brain injury, that may have reduced his culpability.” Lomas also received 632 days of custody credits for his time in county jail while awaiting trial.
Colfax then turned to Stephanie Ching. “Ms. Lomas, pursuant to the negotiated plea … it is the judgement of this Court on your plea to having violated Health and Safety Code 7052(a) [desecration of a corpse] as a felony and Penal Code Section 32 [accessory after the fact] as a felony that you be sentenced to the maximum aggravated term on each count.”
For Ching that meant three years in prison to run concurrent. Since she was 18 days shy of having served the maximum time commitment while in county jail awaiting trial, Colfax suspended Ching’s sentence, placed her on three years probation, and released her.
MORE QUESTIONS THAN ANSWERS
The incredibly light sentences negotiated by Boudin and handed down to Stephanie Ching and Douglas Lomas are not only shocking, but they also leave more questions than answers. For example, if Ching’s father committed physical and verbal abuse during her childhood, why did she move her family back from West Virginia to live with him? And did it not seem significant to Boudin that they made the move just three months before the crime took place?
The Medical Examiner listed the cause of death as homicidal violence. The scene of the crime clearly indicated attempts to hide and destroy evidence. Ching and Lomas fled the country immediately after the murder and, after they were extradited back to the United States, investigators discovered a matching tooth and crown, presumably belonging to the victim, in their luggage. Jury instruction 204, Willful Suppression of Evidence, states the jury “may consider whether one party intentionally concealed or destroyed evidence. If you decide that a party did so, you may decide that the evidence would have been unfavorable to that party.” Did Boudin believe he couldn’t prove that dismembering the body and hiding the parts in the refrigerator amounted to willfully concealing and destroying evidence?
At one point in the transcript, Judge Colfax said the medical examiner couldn’t say conclusively how the victim died, and while there were “sharp force defects” to the body, they were more consistent with the dismemberment and not the cause of death. The medical examiner could not conclude how Mr. Ching died, “or even rule out that it was not due to natural causes.” Does that mean the judge and Boudin believe it is reasonable to destroy the remains of someone who died of natural causes? Is it reasonable to hide the body parts in a refrigerator and flee the country?
Several current and former district attorneys I spoke to said they would have tried the case. “No, it is not reasonable to destroy the remains of a person who died from natural causes,” one said. “The cause of death was listed as homicidal violence. Etiology is unclear, but you don’t need etiology if you have willful and wanton destruction of evidence. They were cutting up the body to destroy evidence, there is the jury instruction that says attempts to destroy evidence is consciousness of guilt — I think it’s enough to meet the burden of proof in a homicide case.”