MERCED - A Bay Area man was ordered by a Merced County judge Wednesday to stand trial on charges he murdered a woman and dumped her body in a trash bin at a Merced shopping center last year.
But defendant William Li’s attorney said while there was evidence his client may have moved the body of 30-year-old Lijun Wang after she died, there wasn’t enough evidence to prove Li killed the victim.
Li has pleaded not guilty to a criminal complaint alleging he killed Wang the night of Feb. 5, 2017, according to court records.
Wang, a Chinese national who came to the country in February 2016, was working as a prostitute to pay off debts incurred while traveling to the United States, police said. Wang, who was 5-feet-3-inches tall and weighed 90-pounds, was found dead, wrapped within three bags on Feb. 6, 2017, in a trash bin in the 3100 block of G Street, authorities said.
Attorney Jeffrey Tenenbaum questions Merced County Sheriff Coroner's Office Forensic Pathologist, Mark Super M.D., during a preliminary hearing in the case of his client, William Li, of San Francisco, at the Merced County Superior Courthouse in Merced, Calif., on Wednesday, July 18, 2018. Li has been charged with one count of murder in connection with the death of 30-year-old Lijun Wang, who's body was found in a trash bin of an alleyway in the 3100 block of G Street on Feb. 6, 2017.
On Wednesday investigators testified Wang’s cause of death was “asphyxiation by neck compression” and that she was killed less than 24 hours before she was found.
After a two-month investigation, police arrested Li in San Mateo and transferred him to Merced. Investigators said Li was tied to “the organized crime” group for which Wang worked as a prostitute, but did not say what Li’s role was. They believe Wang and Li were in some sort of romantic relationship that possibly soured.
Li’s family scraped together $50,000 through credit cards and $30,000 in cash to post his $80,000 bond, according to representatives from Aladdin Bail Bonds.
Detective Jeff Horn, who led the murder investigation, said Merced police haven’t identified a direct motive. But they believed Li to be the killer based on cell phone call records and geolocation records, Li’s statement to detectives and other “strong circumstantial evidence.”
That evidence, according to testimony Tuesday and Wednesday, included surveillance video from a nearby business that shows a car that matched the description of Li’s near the trash bin, the night before a homeless man found Wang.
Forensic experts testified chips of paint found on Wang’s body matched at least two paint samples from the San Mateo auto body shop where Li worked. The chips were also in the trunk of Li’s car.
Web histories on computers and an iPhone seized during the investigation included searches on the Sun-Star’s coverage of murder and how to delete phone records, Merced Police Detective Allen Adrian testified.
Li’s attorney, Merced-based Jeffrey Tenenbaum, rejected the broken relationship story and and police allegation Li was involved with the sex-trafficking organization. Tenenbaum says the evidence doesn’t point to more than a platonic relationship between the two.
Wang, Tenenbaum said, was Li’s masseuse, adding that Li helped Wang with legal issues. Tenenbaum said the purpose of a meeting between the two the day of the murder was for Li to give back Wang’s passport because she requested it.
Tenenbaum also said a lack of motive or any evidence suggesting Li killed Wang meant the murder charge didn’t fit.
“I will grant you that there’s been a lot of evidence presented that Mr. Li transported a dead body,” Tenenbaum said to Horn on the witness stand Wednesday. “But how can you be certain that Mr. Li killed this woman?”
The difference, Tenenbaum said, meant charging Li with being an accessory to murder after the fact rather than murder. The former is a less serious felony with a lighter possible sentence.
But in a preliminary hearing, a judge has to determine if the murder case should go to trial based on a “reasonable suspicion” it happened.
On Tenenbaum’s insistence that there was no motive for murder, Judge Ronald Hansen said there also was no motive for Li moving Wang’s body other than the allegation that Li killed her.
“It’s a circumstantial evidence case, but most homicides are circumstantial evidence cases,” Hansen said.
After Hansen ordered Li to stand trial for the alleged murder, Tenenbaum said Li and his family are going to fight the case against him.
“There is no motive, no direct evidence,” Tenenbaum said, noting Li has a family with three kids, and works hard as a mechanic. “He maintains his innocence.”
Deputy District Attorney Scott Drexel said the circumstantial evidence, including the established timeline of Li and Wang’s location on the day of the murder, is overwhelming enough to cast reasonable suspicion on the defendant.
“I see the evidence very differently (than the defense),” Drexel said. “I am confidant in our case. I think we did establish a motive, and I think justice will be served once this gets to trial.”
San Francisco resident William Li, right, sits with his attorney Jeffrey Tenenbaum, left, during a preliminary hearing at the Merced County Superior Courthouse in Merced, Calif., on Wednesday, July 18, 2018. Li has been charged with one count of murder in connection with the death of 30-year-old Lijun Wang, who's body was found in a trash bin of an alleyway in the 3100 block of G Street on Feb. 6, 2017.