Leonard Lake

Inside The Torture Dungeon Of Hippie Pornographer-Turned-Serial Killer Leonard Lake

Published October 3, 2019
Updated October 16, 2019
Published October 3, 2019
Updated October 16, 2019

"What I want is an off-the-shelf sex partner," Leonard Lake confessed in one of his home videos. "Slave. There's no way around it."

On June 2, 1985, a man named Charles Ng was arrested in a San Francisco hardware store for attempting to shoplift a vise. It would have been an ordinary arrest, but the officers at the scene ended up getting more than they bargained for.

As they took Ng into custody, a friend of his turned up to pay for the vise. That man was Leonard Lake, and as police soon found out, shoplifting was the least of his crimes.

The ensuing investigation soon unearthed the gruesome fact that Lake, along with his accomplice Ng, had been quietly and horrifically torturing some 25 people in a remote cabin in Calaveras County for the past two years – and that was only the beginning.

Leonard Lake’s Chilling Childhood

In 1971, long before he ever met Charles Ng, Leonard Lake was in a dark state of mind. He’d just been medically discharged from the United States Marine Corps following two tours of duty in the Vietnam War. During his last tour, he’d suffered a mental breakdown and later was diagnosed with a schizoid personality disorder.

Of course, Lake had been showing signs of this disorder for years, it was just the first time anyone had gotten close enough to him to diagnose it. But since Lake was a boy everyone who met him knew there was something off about him.

Born in 1945, Lake was often referred to as a “bright child,” though “bright” was the extent of the praise.

After his parents divorced when he was six years old, he and his siblings moved in with his grandmother. Though his grandmother appeared to be a source of support for the children during their parent’s separation, it seemed that she may also have been a catalyst for Lake’s depraved personality.

Lake Kid

MurderpediaLeonard Lake as a child.

When Lake was found forcing his sisters to pose nude for photographs, his grandmother looked the other way. When he became obsessed with pornography and started extorting his sisters to perform sexual acts, she didn’t lift a finger. And, when Lake was found killing mice and other small animals and dissolving them in acid, she again did nothing. By some accounts, his grandmother even encouraged his nude photography.

It would seem that the lack of structure or punishment for such acts left Lake with an open door; with nothing to curb his psychotic instincts, and these simply evolved into his future acts of horror.

Leonard Lake Goes From Hippie To Homicidal

Following his graduation from Balboa High School in San Francisco in 1964, Leonard Lake enlisted in the United States Marine Corps. Of course, we already know how his two active duty tours in Vietnam ended. Following what army medical techs deemed a “delusional breakdown,” he was discharged and sent back home.

Around this time, Lake discovered a hippie commune just outside of San Francisco and dropped out of college after one semester at San Jose State University to embrace the blossoming free-love lifestyle that was slowly taking over the American west coast.

By 1975, it seemed that Leonard Lake had overcome his disturbing past. He settled down in the commune with a wife he’d met there. But before long, the woman he’d married found out about his sordid interests. After discovering that Lake was making and appearing in homemade, amateur pornography films, the marriage and his life at the commune came to an end.

He spent a brief stint in prison in 1980 after stealing a car, but despite these setbacks, Lake managed to move into Greenfield Ranch, another hippie settlement in northern California that focused on living off the land. He met and married a woman named Claralyn Balazs, affectionately known to him as “Cricket,” who he met while working at a renaissance fair.

Balazs was everything Lake’s first wife wasn’t – particularly where it concerned Lake’s private interests. While his first wife divorced him after finding out his pornographic hobbies, Balazs accepted them and even offered to star in Lake’s amateur films herself.

Leonard Lake With A Dog

Bettman/Getty ImagesLake poses with a dog from the hippie commune he lived on in California.

For the next eight years, Lake lived on the ranch with his wife and continued feeding his deep, dark desires. After a while, however, it appeared that these amateur home videos were no longer enough to satisfy those desires. By 1983, Lake began to seek out and act on yet more sadistic fantasies.

Enter, Charles Ng

Whether driven by his schizoid personality disorder or simply the constant, mounting paranoia most Americans experienced concerning nuclear war at the time, Leonard Lake began to believe that the world was facing an impending nuclear holocaust.

In order to survive this disaster, Lake conceived of a survivalist bunker. However, the owner of the Greenfield Ranch halted these plans and forced Lake to take them elsewhere. To his delight, he discovered that his wife’s family owned a cabin in the woods which they were more than happy to rent him.

Charles Ng Booking Photo

Public DomainNg was imprisoned briefly in 1982 and was evading bail when he drifted into Lake’s life.

Recovered from one of his diary entries was his sinister plot, called “Operation Miranda,” during which he would, in 1983, “restart in Humboldt County” and turn his bunker into a “physical setting for my sexual fantasies…security for myself and my possessions,” and “limited protection from nuclear fallout.”

It is also believed that shortly after moving into the cabin, Lake invited his younger brother Donald and friend Charles Gunnar, who had served as best man at his wedding to Balazs, to the cabin. Whether they entered his dungeon willingly is anyone’s guess, but it was clear that they had been killed there. After their deaths, Lake stole any cash they had on them, as well as their identification, and began to pose as Charles Gunnar.

These deaths hardly quelled Lake’s desires. In 1981, he posted an ad in a wargamers magazine, looking, presumably, for another victim. What he got instead, was an accomplice.

Charles Ng was incredibly and disastrously similar to Leonard Lake. Though 15 years Lake’s junior, Ng had followed an almost identical life path.

Charles Ng

Getty ImagesCharles Ng, Lake’s accomplice.

As a child, Ng had developed a serious case of kleptomania, becoming well known in his Hong Kong hometown for his sticky fingers. Following his expulsion from a British boarding school for stealing from his fellow students, he attempted to continue his education at the College of Notre Dame in California.

Again similar to Lake’s own past, Ng only lasted one semester. After being involved in a hit-and-run accident, he joined the Marine Corps to avoid prosecution. Unfortunately, his manic tendencies were no match for the Marines and he was dishonorably discharged in 1984 for desertion.

Whether Lake intended for Ng to be his next victim or whether he saw the same psychotic tendencies in the young man as he had himself, Lake invited Ng to live at the Balazs’ cabin in the woods.

This union proved to be a match made in Hell. Over the next year, Lake invited Charles Ng into his dark world of torture and murder and the two began their infamous killing spree and stole the identities of their victims so as to procure loans in their name and continue building their survivalist fortress. Their history of kleptomania and identity theft would be their undoing.

Leonard Lake's Rules For Prisoners

YouTubeThe rules for Lake’s prisoners included: “I must always be ready to service my master” and “I must always be quiet when locked in my cell.”

The Cabin Becomes A Chop Shop

Between 1983 and 1985, Leonard Lake and Charles Ng kidnapped, tortured, raped, and murdered between 8 and 25 people, mostly women, in their bunker perhaps in a bid to prepare for the impending nuclear holocaust when they would be required to repopulate the earth. The scope of their crimes is still undetermined, as is the total of their victims.

Police remain unsure as to the team’s true kill count, as they only found the remains of 12 people on their property and suspect there could be at least a dozen more, judging by the 45-pound collection of charred human bone fragments they found on the property.

The two men would hold both male and female victims in the six-and-a-half by three-and-a-half-foot cinderblock bunker with only a bucket and toilet paper inside. The bunker was also lined with a one-way mirror.

Following the murders, Lake would dismember and destroy the corpses of their victims, using a trick he learned as a child – dissolving them in various chemicals and acids. Then, they’d sprinkle whatever remained of them throughout the grounds of the cabin.

Leonard Lake's Bunker From Above

MurderpediaA view of Leonard Lake’s bunker from above where he kept his victims and prepared for a nuclear holocaust.

Among their positively identified victims were a local man named Robin Stapley, another local named Paul Cosner, a couple who lived up the street named Harvey and Deborah Dubs, and multiple local children. Among Lake’s belongings, police found videotapes of the men torturing and raping their victims. In some cases, the partners made to watch their wives sexually assaulted before they were both killed.

One victim, Deborah or Debbie Dubs, was so violently sexually assaulted on tape that she could not have survived the ordeal.

The men hog-tied various women, forced them into oral sex and orgies, or put in leg-irons. The sex captives were aged anywhere between 12 and 20-something, and only six of the women featured in these home movies were later found alive. Fifteen of them remain missing.

According to a former cellmate of Charles Ng, the serial killer once bragged to him about sexually torturing and disfiguring women with a power drill and pliers. The pliers he used to rip off nipples, inserted a power drill attachment up vaginas, shoved rods up anuses, and broke knuckles with vise grips.

The men seemed to have no particular type besides their affinity for torturing women, as they were also known to have killed children and men. In at least two instances they kidnapped and killed a family of three, including neighbors Lonnie Bond and Brenda O’Connor who had a two-year-old son together.

The only common thread between the victims was apparently their vicinity – whether out of laziness, convenience, or some combination of the two, the men never looked far for a target.

Capture, Conviction, And Cyanide

Videotapes later found on Lake’s property show the killer describing his desire for a slew of sex slaves in chillingly plain and casual terms.

However, the quiet rampage of Leonard Lake and Charles Ng lasted only two years. In 1984, thanks to petty theft, the two killers were finally caught.

In June of that year, while on a trip into downtown San Francisco, Ng attempted to shoplift a vise from a hardware store. The clerk caught him and held him back, threatening to call the police. Ng panicked and called Lake, who made his way down to the store in an attempt to pay for the vise and smooth the situation over.

Unfortunately, by the time Lake arrived, so had the police. Even more unfortunate was that they picked up on Lake’s abnormal behavior quickly, and instead of releasing Ng, began to question Lake.

Things went from bad to worse when Lake handed over a driver’s license that bore no resemblance to him – and when it was discovered that the man in the license, Robin Stapely, had been missing for several months.

Furthermore, police found a gun equipped with an illegal silencer in the trunk of Lake’s car which was registered to a Paul Cosner, another missing San Francisco resident.

The car and the gun were enough to arrest Leonard Lake, not to mention the shoplifting Charles Ng. Following their arrests, the police searched the cabin-dungeon and found several stolen vehicles as well as some 40 pounds of crushed, burned human bone.

The 2015 trial and sentencing of Charles Ng.

Authorities also found “treasure maps” in the cabin that led them to buried five-gallon buckets. One was filled with enough stolen identification papers, credit cards, and personal belongings to lead police to believe Lake had killed at least 25 people. The other bucket was even more disturbing. Inside were dozens of pages from Lake’s personal journals, and videotapes featuring the rape and torture of two women.

Twelve people were positively identified from the remains found on the property, but experts believe there could have been upwards of 25.

It seemed that Leonard Lake knew that there was no way he was ever getting out of prison. Before he’d been arrested he’d sewn cyanide pills into the lining of his clothing. While in custody, he swallowed several of them, dying in prison before charges could be faced. His accomplice, Charles Ng, wasn’t so clever, and instead faced trial for 11 counts of murder.

In 1999, he was sentenced to death by lethal injection but today, he remains on Death Row in the San Quentin State Prison.


Next, check out another mysterious California crime, the still-unsolved Wonderland Murders. Then, read about the Lake Bodom Murders, Finland’s most infamous unsolved case.

Katie Serena
Katie Serena is a New York City-based writer and a staff writer at All That's Interesting.