The rainy April night Maurice Wiley and others allegedly attempted to rob restaurant owner Hong Zheng at his Hope Valley Farms North home wasn’t the first time Wiley had been there, a prosecutor said Thursday.
Wiley staked out Zheng’s China Wok restaurant two nights before the April 15 shooting and appeared to follow him home, said Assistant District Attorney Jim Dornfried.
The next night, Wiley followed Zheng and his wife, Shirley Chan, home again and planned to rob him, but the couple entered their house too quickly, Dornfried said.
On the third night, Wiley and at least two others ambushed the couple as they arrived home in a heavy downpour just before 11:15 p.m. Zheng died in his car from a single gunshot wound to his head in what his family described as robbery gone wrong. His death stunned the Asian community and highlighted the risks that local Asian business owners say they routinely face.
But Wiley’s attorney, Lamar Proctor, challenged Dornfried’s version of events during a Thursday bond hearing for Wiley, 28, who along with four others is charged in the killing. Wiley’s parents sat behind him in court. Chan was also present. Dornfried said he will not be seeking the death penalty.
Hykeem Cox, 21, who has also been charged and confessed to being part of the killing, identified Wiley as the person who scoped out the restaurant and devised the plan, Dornfried said.
Cox indicated Wiley “was the one who brought this crew together and ... that [Wiley] was the shooter,” Dornfried said.
But Proctor said Cox has a history of cutting deals to help himself.
“I think the evidence is going to show that Mr. Cox is actually the mastermind and ringleader in this case,” Proctor said. “He is leading the state down the wrong path in trying to throw Mr. Wiley under the bus in this case.”
Cox’s attorney, Sean Ravi Ramkaransingh, who wasn’t at the hearing, declined to comment.
On April 5, Cox pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit armed robbery related to a 2017 incident in which he and two others stole about $9,000 from Diamond Girls strip club on Angier Avenue. Cox, who agreed to testify against his co-defendants, was sentenced to 18 to 31 months in prison, but that time was suspended for 24 months of supervised probation, according to court documents.
Cox admitted to violating his probation and participating in the Zheng killing, Proctor said, but instead of his probation being revoked and Cox being sent to prison, his probation was terminated at a June 25 hearing, according to court documents.
“Which I find a little concerning,” Proctor said during the hearing.
While Cox is no longer on probation, he remains in jail on no bail.
Dornfried said in court that no deal has been offered to Cox and said he did not know about the probation being terminated.
Efforts to reach Assistant District Attorney Matt Craven, who was listed as the prosecutor in the probation hearing, and Kimberly Lott, who represented Cox at the hearing, were unsuccessful.
At this time, the case against Wiley depends on circumstantial evidence, including Cox’s statement, which has issues, Proctor said.
Dornfried argued that the totality of evidence in the case, which is still under investigation, points to Wiley as the organizer.
On April 15, Zheng and his wife had closed their restaurant on South Roxboro Road and took a short drive to their home on Carlton Crossing Drive.
Their two children, Jade and Eastern Zheng, then 14 and 16, were watching from the house for their parents’ return, a routine the family had established after four previous robberies or break-ins.
Chan got out of the car first, as her husband pulled the car farther up the driveway. About three people started approaching her mother, Jade has said.
Eastern grabbed a gun and a magazine of ammunition from inside the house, went outside and gave them to his mother.
The gun jammed, and the attackers were running up to the house and shooting, Chan said.
Chan fell, which probably saved her life as six bullets entered the home, Dornfried said. Chan returned fire and believed she hit one of the men that she and a neighbor saw leave in a white sport-utility vehicle.
Chan later went to her husband in the car and saw a bullet hole in the driver’s side window; her husband lay in his seat unresponsive with a shot to his head.
A white SUV
Later that night, someone reported a drive-by shooting that hit Darryl Bradford, 19, who has since been charged in Zheng’s killing and is being held in the jail on no bail.
A person with Bradford later told police the Driver Street shooting never happened, but was a cover story for a shooting elsewhere, Dornfried said.
After the fatal robbery, law enforcement started looking for a white SUV damaged by a gunshot.
The next day, a woman reported a vehicle shot on Driver Street.
The woman indicated she had rented a white Lincoln SUV for Wiley, who called the woman while police were talking with her.
Wiley told police he was getting the bullet-hole damage fixed, but hung up when police said they wanted to meet with him, Dornfried said.
The Lincoln was eventually dropped off at car rental business Avis by someone who quickly jumped into a second car and couldn’t be identified, Dornfried said. The bullet had damaged the car inside and out, and blood appeared to be in the back seat, he said.
A red SUV
Investigators learned that two nights before the killing the woman had rented a red Ford Explorer for Wiley, who is seen at Avis in a surveillance video. The woman told police he gave her money to rent the SUVs, and investigators have video of him depositing money into her account, Dornfried said.
Surveillance videos show a red Ford Explorer in China Wok’s strip-mall parking lot the Friday night before the Sunday night murder.
The vehicle left when Zheng and his wife closed the restaurant and got in their car to leave, Dornfried said. Wiley’s phone records show he was near that location that night and then near Zheng’s home minutes away, Dornfried said.
The red SUV was returned Saturday, and a white Lincoln SUV, which was also later captured on surveillance footage in the strip mall’s parking lot, was rented.
Charles Daniels, 19, a cousin of Wiley’s who has also been charged in the murder, told police that he wasn’t present at the time of the actual shooting, but said he was with Wiley in the white SUV on the night before the killing, Dornfried said. Samaj Bradley, 18, has also been charged with murder in the case.
Daniels said they planned to rob the couple that night, but “the victims got into the house too quickly,” Dornfried said.
Dornfried said no deals would be offered until the investigation is complete. Proctor questioned that, saying after Cox spoke to police he told family members he was going to get 10 years for the robbery and only serve 40 percent of that.
“There were clearly other conversations that went on with Mr. Cox, where he strongly implied he was promised things,” Proctor said.
Proctor said that the four other defendants in the case are all members of the Bloods gang. Wiley isn’t a member, but “he may have other affiliation that would make him a target of the Bloods,” Proctor said.
It doesn’t appear this crime was a gang-sanctioned, only that those involved were gang members, Dornfried said.
The physical evidence “indicates Mr. Cox was the ringleader,” Proctor said. “He is the one that planned this thing. He is the one that shot the victim.”
Proctor asked that Wiley, who has been held without bail, be allowed to post a $250,000 secured bond. Dornfried asked for $5 million.
Chief Resident Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson agreed there were issues in the case, “however, I think it is still relatively early.”
Hudson set Wiley’s bail at $2 million secured. In a secured bond, a person typically pays a bondsman 15 percent of the amount to get out of jail before the next court appearance.
“That may be something we need to revisit,” Hudson said, “as we proceed through this.”
Staff writer Colin Warren-Hicks contributed to this story.