Illustration by Carolyn Arthur
Bryan Chang sent this email to his mother in 2008:
"Hi Mom, Just saying that I love you, no matter what. Hope you are doing well, and all the rest of the Chu family. I know I have been very distant and weird lately, but believe me, strange things are happening to me, and I just want to protect you by keeping you at a distance…Although right now I have no job, no car, no phone (please cancel the subscription to Nextel for my account), no credit card, I am trying to save my soul through Jesus Christ my Lord and Savior. That is all you need to know. Take care. Again, no matter what, I am not in any sort of trouble with the law or anything like that. I am just trying to stay sane. I wish you the best always. Love, your son, Bryan"
Probably, he did not get the reaction he hoped for. The return email from his mother, Sherry Chu Chang, started with an announcement that she had just sold her business and was going to move away. She told Bryan: “The only way I can save myself is to let go. I have to convince myself that I did the best I can as a mother.”
They must have had a terrible fight, because Sherry also wrote: “I don’t know where I will be in the near future but I guess that wouldn’t be your concern either, since you made very clear to me that you don’t want me in your life. I will always remember and love you as my good old ‘Hua Hua.’ I will do my best to block out your ugly face I saw last time. I know that’s not you, my son.”
The woman sounded weary, even then, in 2008, of handling Bryan’s problems: “I have always managed your car ever since you were 16…I am asking you the last time, do you want the car or not…otherwise, I will give to Boa or Steven who desperately need a car. The things and love you don’t appreciate, I should benefit to other needed people.”
Sherry wondered: “I don’t know what happened in your life to cause you addict to drugs and not tune in this world.” She admonished her 26-year-old son: “I have no sympathy or the respect to see your young life wasted. My heart and soul hurt so much beyond you can even imagine.”
Her frustration was plain: “We all love you but I don’t know how to drag you out of your current situation.” She begged: “Please shape up and be a useful man to contribute good deeds to this world.”
By the end of her email, the dedicated mother was still offering help: “Hope you can get needed help. If I can be that help, please let me know. I will always love you no matter where I go. I sincerely hope you can get out from these mess and to be reborn again.”
Sherry never gave up on her son.
When Bryan received that email from his mother, he wasn’t discouraged. He immediately emailed back: “Hi Mom, I think we should meet again sometime soon, at your earliest convenience. Last time we met, I was literally insane, schizophrenic…I just didn’t want you to know about how bad my mental breakdown was. For the record: I AM NOT ADDICTED TO DRUGS. I have been sober for months now…. I am much more stable now…. If you are up for it, please let me know when you can drive up to L.A., and I will see you then. I would like to have my car and a new phone again, if you can do me that favor. I deeply appreciate it. In a lot of ways, you really are still the only person I have left in this world…. I am deeply committed to rebuilding my life, but you know that I am an artist. Love, Bryan.”
On July 15, 2008, Bryan sent this message: “Hi Mom, Please let me know when you are ready to meet me again. I really want to take dance lessons hardcore and become the best dancer in the world. No joke. This is what I was meant to do from day one without any outside interference like school. If there is one thing left for you to try on me, this is it: dance. I want to privately audition for you next time we meet, and you give me your honest, brutal opinion. I still have a long way to go…. Thanks for your support. Love, Bryan”
An outstanding student
Bryan Chenhua Chang was born in Los Angeles County in 1981. He is an only child.
His parents, Anthony and Sherry, were married in Taiwan; they separated around the time their son entered high school. Bryan was an outstanding student in the Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School District, an exclusive area of Los Angeles County.
After high school, Bryan went on to Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He worked for a time in computer programming. Then he went to Hastings law school in San Francisco. Bryan studied law for a short time before dropping out; he did not attempt to get a law degree.
Bryan’s parents never divorced, although they lived separately for years, Anthony in a large home in Alhambra, east of downtown Los Angeles. Anthony had contact with Sherry only when he wanted to discuss their son, Bryan. The father claimed that Bryan was closer to Sherry. He described her as a perfectionist. For example, if Bryan got 95 percent on a test, she would want to know why he’d missed those five points.
In spite of an extensive and prestigious education, Bryan stopped working. Early 2008, when he was 26, was the last time he held a regular job. It was the same year that Anthony noticed a change in his son’s behavior.
There was an ugly incident at Thanksgiving, when Anthony and Sherry drove together to their son’s apartment in a small community in West Los Angeles called Westgate. Bryan was not glad to see his parents. He told them they shouldn’t have come and then disappeared into his room. After some words, Anthony and Sherry left. As they drove away, Sherry received a call from Bryan on her cell phone. Anthony heard Bryan loudly telling his mother: “If I go to hell, I’ll take you guys with me.”
There was a time when Bryan felt that his father and mother were his only friends.
Sherry paid all expenses for her son. She provided the apartment at 1628 South Westgate Avenue, a nice address, only four miles from the beaches of Santa Monica.
The manager at the Westgate apartments later spoke with investigators. She told them she’d witnessed a loud fight between Sherry and Bryan. The manager heard Bryan yell at his mom, “It’s all your fault I’m this way!”
Sherry sold her business
Sherry sold her finance-and-accounting business, PSS West, to a company named WASSCO, which sold industrial supplies; they did especially well with sales to governments — local, state, federal, even foreign governments. Under the terms of the sale, Sherry would receive $8300 per month for three years, a total payout of more than $300,000. An accountant hired to help Sherry prepare her taxes said that, in the event of her death, the beneficiary of any remaining amount due would go to her son, Bryan.
After the sale of her business, Sherry moved from Los Angeles to San Diego County. She continued to work, now for WASSCO; her position was comptroller and vice president in charge of finance. WASSCO had a branch in Poway, and Sherry went to work every day at 12778 Bookprinter Place, commuting from a nice, new home on the coast, 20 miles away.
The million-dollar house was in Solana Beach, a two-story on high ground overlooking her neighbors and with sweeping views of the ocean and coastline. Later, investigators found that the home was listed as belonging to “Bryan C. Chang.” It’s unclear whether Bryan was aware of this before his mother’s death.
Investigators also found a savings account in Bryan Chang’s name, at United Commercial Bank, into which Sherry had deposited $130,000.
Bryan needs a new car
Bryan had a credit card and a cell phone provided by his mother. Sherry also bought him a shiny black Lexus to drive around Los Angeles; she had a matching black Lexus at her home in Solana Beach.
Even with everything she’d given him, Bryan tested the generosity of his mother.
The summer of 2008, Sherry sent an email to her son: “Do you still have the phone or you threw it away? I left you so many messages and never got responses. What do you mean to have a new phone? Please clarify for me and let me know. Mom”
Bryan replied within minutes: “I don’t have the phone anymore, so I will need a new one. Thanks, and sorry for the inconvenience.”
Sherry sent an unsigned email the next day: “Hi Bryan, You dumped the car in an open parking lot. It cost me a lot of money, grief and energy to tow the car back home…then you expect me to drive the car up to your place and find a way back home at your convenience. You threw a perfect cell phone away and expect me to go through the trouble to buy you another one and deliver to you…. You can be whoever you want to be and do whatever you want to do. Please do not abuse me anymore. My heart has broken to pieces and my life has ruined. I got nothing left.”
Bryan was undiscouraged, again replying in minutes: “Hi Mom, You can drive your car up, and we can drive back down to San Diego together…. All I need is a car and a phone again. I have said before that I literally lost my mind about a month ago…. It tells you just how far gone I was that I abandoned the car and phone. It’s no joke, Mom — I was insane, in severe distress and pain (both physical and mental) and I am still recovering. I’m sorry for all the inconvenience and money it costs you, but please try to understand that I was not in a normal state of mind when it all occurred. At some points, I felt like I was fighting for my life.…Please help me get back on my feet again, after this last month of hell (which was the absolute worst of my life). Thank you. Love, Bryan”
His mother wrote back: “You need to help yourself by not doing drugs and dealing with devils/evils. Words are cheap. [NB: Sherry bold-faced those three words.] Go get a job and live a simply and solid life so you will never need to have a light on to sleep.”
Bryan did not get a job. But significant changes were coming.
No more love from Bryan
In December 2009, Bryan emailed his mother to share his newest artistic goal: “Hi Mom…. Right now, I am planning to apply to the Los Angeles Recording School.…I hope we can work together as a team like we did in the old days.…Thanks for your help. Sincerely, Bryan”
The sign-off from Bryan expressing “love” was gone. Soon his “sincerity” would disappear, too.
Sherry wrote her son the next day: “I am hoping sometime next year you will be able to be independent….”
As it turned out, Bryan did become independent in the new year, but not by getting a job.
Three weeks after receiving Sherry’s note, Bryan emailed to ask for “access to your Lexus as my temporary vehicle.” That was in early January 2010.
But mom had become wary. Only a few hours earlier she’d sent him a message: “I can’t be responsible for driving my car to commit whatever the crime.”
Bryan wrote: “I really need a car right now, because I’m busy promoting materials for my upcoming ‘Hate Me When I’m Young’ World Tour…right now I need a car as my highest priority….”
Sherry’s response: “Did you dump this car somewhere like last time you dumped in San Diego airport? I know you can’t sell because I am the registered owner…. I thought you said the car got stolen and you filed a police report. I need to know the absolute truth. Help me Bryan. Let me have a peace in my life and knowing you are all right and I am too. Also your account in Regents was overdrawn last night. In recent two days, you withdraw $2200 in cash. I can’t make money that fast. I will just let your check bounce next time if you have excessive withdrawal…. You need to find a way to partially support yourself or at least control your spending.”
Maybe Bryan was getting an idea about how to support himself without his mother’s help.
Bryan contacted Sherry with good news: police had recovered his car. Bryan now said he was worried; the thief might have made copies of his car keys. He asked Sherry to “look into the other car options I emailed to you, because I want to trade in the Lexus as soon as possible.”
Sherry did not trade in her son’s Lexus.
Less than two weeks later, on January 20, 2010, Bryan emailed: “Hello Mom, It’s been a rough week, and the car was stolen again yesterday afternoon…. As stated before, I feel like that car attracts too much attention…. I prefer to maintain a low profile. I would also like to start looking for other housing options…. The police have visited my room on several occasions, I would like a fresh start in a new environment…. Please visit L.A. so that we can look for housing and car options…. Regards, Bryan.”
Bryan had signed off with “regards.”
Five days later, Sherry was found dead in her home.
On a Friday, Bryan sent an email to his mother in the middle of the day: “Hi Mom, I really need a ride in your car this afternoon if possible. Please visit my place in Los Angeles, and allow me to drive your car. My future safety and legal options are dependent on your ability to provide a vehicle. Just to put this into perspective, my car was stolen twice within a month, and I am currently appealing a gun charge for self-defense purposes. If there is any way for me to have access to your car for the next few days, please let me know. This is really an emergency. It doesn’t get more urgent than this. Regards, Bryan.”
This was on January 22, 2010, the last day Sherry’s coworkers would see her.
Within minutes, Sherry emailed Bryan. She told him she could not come to Los Angeles that day. She was at work, and she would not leave until after 5:30 p.m. Sherry suggested that Bryan rent a car, take a taxi, or phone his father.
She sent an email to her husband a few minutes later: “Call me please. He is in big trouble this time, I think. God help us.”
Sherry’s husband, Anthony, later told investigators that he spoke to his wife for the last time the following morning. Sherry had phoned that Saturday and told him she was at Bryan’s apartment. She said she’d driven there to sort out his car problems, but Bryan wasn’t there. She decided to wait for his return.
On Monday, husband Anthony emailed his estranged wife: “Good morning Sherry. How are you? Hope everything is OK.”
Sherry was not okay.
A concerned coworker
At around the same time Anthony sent that last email to his wife, a concerned coworker was driving to Sherry’s home. Albert Rios had become worried when always-dependable Sherry did not arrive at work and didn’t answer her phone.
Rios had known Sherry for 13 years and, recently, they’d developed the habit of lunching together every Wednesday at In-N-Out Burger. Rios knew that Sherry lived alone in a big house; when she needed things fixed, he helped her out.
Rios drove the 20 miles from work to Sherry’s home in Solana Beach. He parked in the driveway. When no one answered the door, he walked around the side of the house and looked in a window. He saw Sherry’s purse sitting on a kitchen counter. Rios then walked toward the garage. The small door was busted open, and he could see Sherry’s black Lexus inside. Rios phoned for help at about 11:30 on the morning of January 25, 2010.
What the deputies found
When deputies entered the home, they saw a black bag sitting in the entryway, on the floor near the front door. It was a small duffle bag, a size suitable for airplane carry-on; it was packed with neatly folded clothing. Detectives were informed that Sherry had told people she planned to travel that weekend, to Taiwan or Philadelphia. Different sources recalled different destinations.
Her purse on the kitchen counter held a wallet with $23.42 cash, but all the credit cards were missing. Detectives were told that it was common for Sherry to carry $2000 cash in her purse.
Sheriff’s detective David Hillen said he found signs of cleanup. Upstairs, said the detective, “I noticed that the carpet was wet. You could just tell it was wet by stepping on it, the squish sound.”
One of the upstairs rooms was set up as a tearoom. A low table had a tea set on it and there was one chair. “They saw what appeared to be bloody footprint impressions on the carpet leading from the hallway to that room,” Detective Hillen said.
In the autopsy report, the medical examiner noted that she found on Sherry’s body “a small amount of dried blood adhered to the soles of the feet.”
The elegant tearoom had blood spatter on the walls. There was a mop in the room with red stains. The mop was still wet. Crime-scene technicians found a bloody fingerprint on the window blinds. The blood was identified as Sherry’s, the print as Bryan’s left index finger.
Another upstairs room was apparently Bryan’s: it contained his clothing and mail addressed to Bryan Chang at the Solana Beach address. A stuffed dinosaur was propped on the bed. The medical examiner noted in her report: “Examination of a nightstand in an upstairs bedroom revealed two fragments of skull with attached black straight hair sitting within a drawer of the nightstand on the right side of the bed.”
In the closet of Bryan’s room, sticking out of a box, was a wooden baseball bat. It appeared to have stains on it and was collected as evidence.
Some weeks later, investigators collected another baseball bat. Bryan had reported his black Lexus stolen a second time, on January 19, six days before his mother’s body was found. Two weeks after Sherry’s death, the missing car was found in a strip mall in Santa Monica, not far from Bryan’s apartment. Under the driver’s seat investigators found a small wooden Louisville slugger, a souvenir version of a baseball bat.
Detective Hillen believed Bryan’s car had been abandoned, not stolen. “There were no signs of forced entry,” he said. “The car was locked, and the alarm had been activated.”
Deputies find Sherry
On that grim Monday morning, deputies searched for Sherry. Downstairs, a deputy cautiously opened a shut bathroom door. “They saw a female lying facedown,” Detective Hillen reported. “The back of her head, [the] skull area wasn’t there. They saw two large cuts to her right leg, one below the buttocks on the hamstring, and one behind the right knee. And they saw plastic bags around the decedent. She was just wearing panties and a bra.”
Sherry’s right arm was missing. Deputies found it in the refrigerator, wrapped in a white plastic bag; they could clearly see fingers through the thin plastic. There was a piece of skull in the fridge, too, sealed into a clear, sandwich-size zip-lock bag.
The medical examiner
Sherry died of blunt force trauma to the head.
Deputy medical examiner Dr. Bethann Schaber: “A large portion of the skull from the back of the head was absent, and many of those fragments were recovered at the scene. Most of the brain had been eviscerated, and only a small portion was recovered. A large amount of brain tissue was matted into the carpeting at the scene.” Dr. Schaber had been summoned to the home that morning. She recognized at once that it was brain matter in the carpet of the tearoom.
Dr. Schaber counted a “minimum” of 58 separate, individual impacts on Sherry’s body. “She had multiple patterned circular injuries on the mid-back and lower back.” Sherry had been struck with something that made distinct round shapes. “I was able to clearly delineate 17 separate circles,” the doctor stated.
At first, investigators guessed that the weapon had been a hammer. “The object would have had to have some circular structure,” the medical examiner confirmed. Later, she was asked to consider a baseball bat found in the home. “Certainly, blunt-force trauma could be inflicted with this bat, from this bat, to cause some of her injuries.”
When Bryan was charged in court with his mother’s murder, on January 29, 2010, the alleged murder weapon was described as a “hammer.” Later, the charging document was changed to read “blunt-force object.”
While alive, Sherry must have tried to fend off some of the blows. Dr. Schaber found on Sherry’s left arm “a large area of purple-blue bruising extending from the distal forearm all the way onto the fingertips.” The fingers on that hand were fractured.
The doctor concluded that the deep cuts — or “incised” wounds — on the back of Sherry’s neck and leg were postmortem (made after death) injuries, because of a lack of bleeding from those areas.
On Monday, soon after they found Sherry’s body, investigators said they were looking for an adult son named Bryan. On Wednesday, Bryan was found at his apartment. That same day, a criminalist with the San Diego County Sheriff’s Office found blood in Bryan’s ear and around his toes. The criminalist took evidence swabs for the lab. The blood was later DNA-matched to Sherry.
Sherry was 5´4˝ and weighed 127 pounds when she died. In sheriff’s records, Bryan is described as 5´1˝ and 165 pounds. Bryan was 28 years old when his mother died; Sherry was 60.
One of the credit cards missing from Sherry’s purse was found in Bryan’s apartment in Los Angeles, under his bed. Investigators learned that card had been used at an ATM in Solana Beach several times, at a little after 2:00 a.m. on the morning Sherry died. Attempts at withdrawing cash were unsuccessful. The user did not have the correct PIN code.
Bryan speaks with detectives
The day investigators found Bryan at his apartment, San Diego County sheriff’s detectives Ritchey Hann and Troy DuGal recorded a two-hour interview with Bryan.
When asked about his mom, Bryan spoke of her in the past tense. “He referred to her as a relative, or a mother figure,” said Detective Hann.
Investigators already knew that Bryan depended on his mother financially. “What are you going to do now that she’s dead?” they asked. “How are you going to get money?” Bryan reportedly answered, “I will have to look for work.”
When detectives told Bryan they believed he’d killed his mother, Bryan said, “I don’t think I killed anybody.” Then he said, “But over the last couple months I’ve had blackouts and seizures.”
Bryan told detectives that he used medical marijuana to treat his epilepsy and other “things.” He had memory problems and mental-health problems. He claimed he had been to the hospital and seen psychiatrists.
Bryan’s story changed over the course of the interview. Eventually, he admitted to being at his mother’s home that weekend. He said he’d left the home on Monday, in the early-morning hours. His mom was fine when he left; she was asleep. Detectives confirmed that Bryan had engaged a cab at about 3:00 a.m. in Solana Beach. He paid the driver cash in advance, to get him home to his apartment in Los Angeles.
Detectives said that Bryan never did ask about his mother. He had no reaction when they informed him that she was dead. He did not seem upset, and in fact displayed no emotion during the two-hour interview.
A not-guilty plea
Bryan pleaded “not guilty” to murder. His defense attorney, Kathleen Cannon, said: “This is a tragic loss…It is a case of tragic loss, the loss of a mother, of her son that she knew, the loss of his ability to think clearly, a loss of a brain that was promising and brilliant, and, ultimately, because of that, the loss of her life.”
Cannon seemed to be suggesting an insanity defense. “This is probably something that occurred out of an explosion of violence, or a moment of a breakdown, or something like that…. When he talked to the police officers, Bryan talked about having problems, having been to the mental hospital, having been troubled, sick, ill.”
The prosecutor, Rachel Solov, said: “We’ve heard self-serving statements about the defendant, about mental illness and hospitalization.”
At a court hearing in late 2012, almost three years after the murder, a San Diego judge remarked on the importance of the email evidence.
Superior-court judge Aaron Katz especially noted the email exchanges from January 2010, because of their nearness in time to the death of Sherry. “They do definitely demonstrate a frustration that Mrs. Chang had with her son,” Judge Katz observed. “She was at her wits’ end and was tired of supporting the defendant.”
Prosecutor Rachel Solov charged two special allegations, each making Bryan eligible for the death penalty: murder for financial gain and murder with torture. Katz confirmed that there was sufficient evidence for the special allegation of murder for financial gain.
Katz considered the evidence for the allegation of torture — “There’s no question this was a brutal attack on Mrs. Chang” — and reviewed the many injuries found all over her body. “These wounds were inflicted by Mr. Chang with the intent to inflict extreme physical pain and suffering on the victim while she was still alive.” Katz ordered Bryan to face the second special allegation, murder with torture.
Bryan, who is now 31, will next be in court on June 25, 2013. It is expected that a date for trial will be set at that time.