A Fountain Valley man who shot a friend over a drug debt during a late-night boat trip and left him to die in the ocean waters off of Dana Point was sentenced Monday, Aug. 7, to life in federal prison.
Hoang “Wayne” Xuan Le and co-defendant Sheila Ritze conspired to lure Tri “James” Minh Dao — Le’s friend and drug-trafficking partner — to his death with promises of a lobster fishing trip on Oct. 14, 2019.
A fisherman discovered Dao’s body two days later, floating in the ocean water off of Oceanside. It became the rare murder case to be tried in federal court under maritime law.
Le was convicted in 2021 with first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit murder and use of a firearm during the killing, while Ritze was convicted in a separate trial of second-degree murder.
Dao’s mother, in a written statement filed with the court, said Le showed no remorse for the killing.
“You were my son’s friend,” the mother wrote to Le. “You often spent time together with my son’s two young daughters. They called you Uncle and thought of you as family. How could you so mercilessly and violently murder him like this?! It was incredibly heartbreaking and agonizing to sit in court every single day for months and see and hear all the gruesome details of this case.”
Le, during his own testimony, described regularly trafficking marijuana with Dao from Southern California to Las Vegas. Le said that Dao often borrowed from him — as well as from other friends, bookies and drug suppliers — and would gamble the money away.
Exactly how much money Dao owed Le was disputed during the trial. Others testified that Le had told them that Dao owed him $40,000. But Le testified during the trial that it was much less.
Dao would tell those he owed money that if he died they could collect money from Dao’s longtime girlfriend thanks to a life insurance police Dao claimed to have taken out. Prosecutors say Le’s belief that he could collect on that policy was his motive for luring Dao onto the boat and killing him.
Le — an admitted drug user and dealer — lived with his mother and older sister in Fountain Valley. He said he become friends with Ritze, a married property manager and avid fisherwoman, after meeting her at a Huntington Beach bar.
In Le’s telling, once they were out on the ocean Dao asked him for $2,000, pulled a gun out when Le yelled he didn’t have the money, and set off a struggle in which Le grabbed the gun and shot Dao in self-defense. Dao was still alive when he fell into the ocean, but Le said he told Ritze to leave him behind.
Dao went into the Pacific Ocean around midnight that night, authorities say.
Le, by his own admission, told several people that he had shot Dao because Dao owed him money, apparently unaware that some of the people he was speaking to were federal informants. Le would later argue that he was simply trying to make himself look tough.
Prosecutors argued the killing was planned ahead of time. Ritze’s mother-in-law testified that during a trip to Las Vegas Le made comments about planning to, in his word, “off” Dao over a large debt by luring him out to sea on Ritze’s boat under the guise of a fishing trip.
Ritze allegedly also told co-workers, in a recorded conversation, that she had a friend who killed people, adding that she was making a “hit list” and “I’m gonna take ’em on my boat; they go on the boat but they are not gonna come back.”
Ritze was sentenced earlier this year to more than 21 years in federal prison.