Arrest made in murder of Durham restaurant owner Hong Zheng
Federal charges were filed Wednesday against the five men accused of killing Chinese restaurant owner Hong Zheng last year outside his Durham home.
The federal arrest warrants accuse the suspects of violating the Hobbs Act and other federal laws, Durham County Assistant District Attorney Michael Wallace announced in court.
Violations of the act that result in death can lead to a maximum sentence of the death penalty or life in prison, according to a federal report on the act.
Zheng, 42, died in the driveway of his Hope Valley Farms North home around 11 p.m. April 15, 218, after being shot during an attempted robbery, police said. He and his wife were returning from their China Wok restaurant on South Roxboro Road.
It was the fifth time that someone had tried to rob or break into their home since 2015, family members said.
They believe they were among a group of restaurant owners being targeted by those who think the restaurant owners have money.
Zheng’s death stunned the Asian community and highlighted the risks Asian business owners say they routinely face.
In the next month, police arrested and charged five men.
Hykeem Deshun Cox, Darryl Bradford, Semaj Maleek Bradley, Charles Winfor Daniels and Maurice Owen Wiley Jr., all of Durham, were all charged with first-degree murder, attempted first-degree murder, attempted robbery with a dangerous weapon, attempted first-degree burglary and seven counts of discharging a weapon into an occupied dwelling/moving vehicle.
The federal arrest warrants were filed Wednesday as criminal complaints. Federal officials will have 30 days to indict the defendants, said Wallace, a former federal prosecutor.
On Friday Durham prosecutors plan to dismiss the local charges as the case moves into the federal court. It is unclear what will happen to other charges that some of the defendants face from other cases.
The Hobbs Act
The Hobbs Act prohibits actual or attempted robbery or extortion affecting interstate or foreign commerce and “physical violence to any person or property in furtherance of a plan or purpose to do anything in violation of this section” for the purpose of committing robbery or extortion, according the the U.S. Department of Justice’s website.
“Although the Hobbs Act was enacted as a statute to combat racketeering in labor-management disputes, the statute is frequently used in connection with cases involving public corruption, commercial disputes, violent criminals and street gangs, and corruption directed at members of labor unions,” the website states.
The federal warrants describe the offenses as attempting “to interfere with commerce by robbery” and “possession, and the discharge of, a firearms in furtherance of a crime of violence.”
The News & Observer emailed Lynne Klauer, spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District, asking why they took the case and other questions. Klauer didn’t respond by 5 p.m. Wednesday.
Two of the five men charged, Wiley and Bradley, were in court Wednesday for hearings in which their attorneys successfully argued to have their bail set and/or reduced.
Durham County Superior Court Judge Michael O’Foghludha reduced Wiley’s bail from $2 million to $500,000. Bail for Bradley, whose bail hadn’t been previously set, was also set at $500,000.
The bail reduction, however, won’t help the defendants much. Federal detainers now prevent them from being released, Wallace said.
O’Foghludha set the bail amounts anyway after a hearing where Wallace and Assistant District Attorney Mitchell Garrell weren’t familiar with the details of the case and struggled to explain the evidence against the men.
Garrell served as an assistant district attorney for 16 years in Durham but left the office in 2010. He returned as a homicide and violent crime prosecutor this month.
From the start of the bail hearing, which started in the morning and continued in the afternoon because Zheng’s family wasn’t notified, Wallace made clear that he expected federal officials to file the arrest warrants.
“At 9:15 the U.S. Attorney’s Office emailed us that we should have the warrants in our hand in the next hour,” Wallace told the judge.
The two men’s defense attorneys successfully argued to still have the hearing, saying it was a separate proceeding from the federal prosecution.
“There was talk of them being indicted for months and months, and it didn’t happen until now [as] we are addressing bond, and now detainers [have] been lodged,” said Lamar Proctor, who represents Wiley. “I think that is pretty transparent that this is an attempt to make sure my client doesn’t get a bond he can make.”
Proctor said Wiley has been in jail for about 16 months waiting for lab results and for federal officials to decide whether to take the case, among other items.
Proctor and Bradley’s attorney, Emilia Beskind, argued the evidence was weak in the case and relied on an unreliable statement from Cox, who was cooperating with prosecutors.
Proctor said Cox has a history of making deals with police, pointing to one he made days before he was charged in this case.
On April 5, 2018, 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.
Wallace said former District Attorney Roger Echols asked federal officials to take the case when he was still in office.
Wallace said federal officials will have more resources to investigate and prosecute the case, and it will likely be resolved much faster — a year at most — than if it stayed in Durham County.
The defendants will have to get new attorneys who can practice in federal court.
Lisa Williams, who represents Bradford, who wasn’t in court Wednesday, said it is unfortunate that it took federal officials so long to take the case because the state’s been paying for the men’s defense until now.
“The discovery is humongous. They are expensive to defend, and it all could be for nothing,” Williams said. “And it turns out it was.”
Discovery is the process in which evidence is shared with defendants.
After the hearing, Beskind said regardless of who prosecutes the case, it is still problematic.
“It doesn’t change because the federal government comes to take it,” she said. “The evidence is still weak.”