Court papers detail slayings on fishing boat
By David Waite
Advertiser Courts Writer
A man accused of fatally stabbing the captain and first-mate aboard a Taiwanese-owned fishing boat in Hawaiian waters had been stripped of his duties as the vessel's cook and was hit in the face and head by the captain just a few hours before the stabbing, according to federal court documents.
Federal Public Defender Pamela Byrne, who represents accused crewman Lei Shi on federal charges that could ultimately lead to the death penalty, has said previously that her client has a strong defense in the case but has declined to elaborate.
But documents filed in federal court paint a picture of growing tension between Shi and his fellow shipmates and most of all between Shi and the ship's captain, Chung She Chen. Chen was from Taiwan, while the other 31 crew members were from the People's Republic of China.
The documents also provide a view from the crew members as to what happened in the bizarre case that prosecutors say included the March 14 murders of the two men in charge of the Full Means No. 2 and the cook's taking control of the vessel for two days before he was overpowered.
According to the court papers:
While morale was generally good aboard the vessel, which had been at sea for about a year, several of the crewmen complained to the captain that Shi was unsanitary in preparing food. He was described by some of the fishermen as having a cordial relationship with the captain, spending his free time on the bridge learning about navigation.
But given the complaints about unsanitary conditions in the kitchen, the captain decided to replace Shi as cook. On March 12, two days before the stabbings, the captain transferred another crew member to kitchen duty, with the intention of having him take over the cooking duties April 2.
The man chosen to replace Shi as cook had concerns about the new assignment and was afraid of Shi because of a fight the two men had seven or eight months before when Shi refused to give the other man some leftover food. Others aboard the boat described Shi to investigators as someone who "was easily upset" and who fought with some of his shipmates.
Capt. Chen reassigned Shi to work on the deck of the ship, pulling in fishing nets. Crew members told investigators that Shi was unhappy with his new job and that he approached the captain asked to go back to China.
Things began to escalate during the evening of March 14, when Capt. Chen appeared on the ship's working deck and confronted Shi about not helping the others tend to the fishing gear. Crewmen told investigators that the captain was upset and that he struck Shi several times in the head and face and ordered Shi to help out. Shi refused and his shipmates told investigators he had an angry expression on his face and told them he wanted to return to China.
Many of the crewmen said it was the first time they had seen the captain use corporal punishment, but a few others said they, too, had been struck by the captain in the past.
One of the crew members reported seeing Shi go into a storeroom after being struck by the captain, one where knives and other fishing gear were kept. He was in the room for about 15 minutes and would later be seen on the bridge holding two knives, one estimated to be 8 to 10 inches long.
The next several hours were uneventful, but at about 10 p.m., while most of the crewmen were pulling fishing nets on the lower deck, they heard the captain and First Mate Da Fen Li screaming from the bridge.
One of the first to reach the bridge was Second Mate Yan Long Xiong, who reported seeing the first mate bleeding heavily from the stomach, although he was able to tell him: "Shi Lei killed me." The first mate was taken to his cabin while Xiong proceeded to the bridge.
There, he saw Shi with a 10-inch knife near the captain, who was still standing, with blood dripping from his chest. The captain went to his cabin off the bridge and tried to use the radio, but was too weak. He returned to the bridge and collapsed on the floor.
Xiong said he tried to use the radio but was interrupted by Shi who asked him, "You want to call Taiwan ship? Get out."
Xiong said Shi pointed the knife at him, and told him to pilot the ship, and then ordered other crew members at knife point to clean up the bridge and dump the captain's body into the sea. They watched as the body fell toward the sea.
After Shi took control of the ship, he told them he would kill anyone who disobeyed and would not allow any radio contact. Some remembered him telling them, "I killed the captain, I am not going to kill you, just continue what you are doing and I am not going to do anything to you."
Shi continued to keep two knives tucked under his belt.
For two days, Shi kept control of the Full Means No. 2, and ordered the crew to sail to China. Other crewmen reported hearing him say that once they reached home, he would run away.
They said Shi warned them he would sink the ship if they did not follow his orders.
But after two days, the crew feared that Shi might try to harm others aboard the ship so they came up with and carried out a plan to overpower and capture him.
At that point, the crewmen told investigators, they set sail for Hawai'i but no one aboard knew how to operate the radio. Finally, on March 19, the Coast Guard cutter Kiska intercepted the Full Means No. 2 about 60 nautical miles south, southeast of Hilo and began escorting the ship to Honolulu.
The date for Shi's trial has not been set. Shi's 30 shipmates remain in Honolulu at the federal detention center. Some are being questioned as potential witnesses for the prosecution, some as possible witnesses for the defense.
Federal judges who have handled portions of the proceedings in the case have all urged both sides to complete their questioning as soon as possible so the crew members can be repatriated to the People's Republic of China.
Reach David Waite at email@example.com or 525-8030.