Assassin found guilty of stabbing man 32 times in karaoke bar

A clean-cut Xiao Ye Bai made the sign of the cross and bowed his head Monday afternoon to await the jury’s decision.

The assassin held the prayerful pose and showed little emotion even as the verdict was read: guilty on all counts, including first-degree murder.

Bai, 25, could face the death penalty for stabbing Wen Jun "James" Li 32 times in the middle of a crowded karaoke bar early on a summer morning three years ago.

Prosecutors said Bai, a Chinese immigrant, was working as muscle for the Asian gang United Bamboo, collecting a $10,000 gambling debt, when he stabbed Li in the bar on Jones Boulevard near Spring Mountain Road on July 6, 2009.

The same jury that found Bai guilty of multiple felonies – including first-degree murder, extortion, kidnapping, conspiracy to commit murder and burglary – will decide whether he should be sentenced to death after a penalty hearing that starts this afternoon. The jury could choose to sentence Bai to life in prison without parole, 20 years to life in prison, or 20 to 50 years in prison.

Bai’s lawyer, Robert Draskovich, said the focus now shifts to saving Bai’s life.

The verdict "wasn’t a surprise given the amount of evidence presented," he said. "We fully expected to go into the penalty phase."

Prosecutor Marc DiGiacomo declined to comment, citing the upcoming penalty hearing.

Bai’s defense team never denied he stabbed Li but argued he never intended to kill him when he went to the Forbes KTV club.

The weekslong trial featured testimony from Bai’s now ex-girlfriend Pei "Nikki" Pei, who drove him to the club the night of the killing.

On the eve of the trial, prosecutors cut a deal with Pei, who was facing the same charges as Bai, in exchange for her testimony. Pei pleaded guilty to three counts, including accessory to murder, and faces a maximum of 6 to 17 years in prison.

Pei testified that she knew Li from when she worked as a waitress at a local hangout popular with Asians, Club 108, and Li had offered her at least $3,000 for sex. Pei said she did not accept the proposition.

But, prosecutors said, that was not the reason for the fatal stabbing.

THE ATTACK

Two months before the attack, with Pei driving a car, Bai sat in the back seat with Li, demanding $10,000 and punching and slapping him until he was bleeding and bruised.

Li was running a scam at casino baccarat tables that prosecutors believed was supported by Asian mobsters.

In the early morning hours of July 6, 2009, Bai’s roommate spotted Li at the karaoke bar, in the 3400 block of South Jones, and called Bai.

About 3:30 a.m., Bai and Pei showed up at the bar in a black Honda Accord.

According to witnesses and video surveillance, Pei entered the bar alone and left after about 30 seconds.

Bai, dressed in black, went inside Forbes KTV and found Li.

Confronted by Bai, Li yelled, "Help," grabbed an acquaintance, Jian Guo, and pushed him toward Bai, before fleeing down a hallway, court documents show.

Before Guo knew what happened, his arm was cut and Bai was chasing after Li, according to court documents.

Li fell, and Bai was soon on top of him slicing, cutting and stabbing him, witnesses told investigators.

Li suffered defensive wounds on his forearms and hands and fatal wounds on his head, neck and back.

A woman, Lin Yao, who thought Bai was just punching Li, tried to break up the fight and was stabbed four times in two swift motions by Bai, investigators said.

After the attack, Bai fled the bar, got into the Accord driven by Pei and sped off, video from outside the bar shows.

Pei testified she thought Bai was going to the bar to get the money, and she didn’t even know Li was dead until more than a week later.

PROVING INTENT

During closing arguments last week, Draskovich said prosecutors didn’t prove his client intended to kill Li when he went to the bar that night. Draskovich said if he planned to assassinate Li, it would be more likely he would have brought a gun. Draskovich said his client was in a fury and lost control, which explained the 32 stab wounds.

DiGiacomo said Bai’s intent to kill Li could be seen in his premeditated move to cover the license plate of the Honda before going to the club.

QUESTION OF INFLUENCE

Prosecutors also discovered Bai wrote a letter at the commencement of the trial to try and influence the testimony of a state witness. The letter was intercepted by authorities and used against Bai during the trial.

Monday’s jury deliberations were briefly stalled when Bai’s family members unfurled a large banner outside the courtroom that read: "We are the relative of Xiao Ye Bai and hope jury can make a fair minded judgement for him thanks a lot!"

Several jurors saw the banner.

Judge Michael Villani asked each juror separately whether seeing the banner or hearing about it from other jurors would influence their deliberations in the case. Each of the jurors said no.

Villani said he did not believe jury members had been "contaminated" by the incident and allowed them to return to deliberations. They reached a verdict a little more than an hour later.

Bai also faces murder charges in a December 2008, San Gabriel, Calif., case where he is alleged to have been the gunman who fired at two Asian men as they left a restaurant, killing one and wounding the other, over a debt.

Contact Francis McCabe at fmccabe@reviewjournal.com or 380-1039. Contact Lynnette Curtis at Lynnette.Curtis@yahoo.com.

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