Trial begins in Montco '09 home-invasion/murder

Posted: January 13, 2010

Janice Chae stepped down from the witness stand yesterday and sought to identify the three men on trial who are accused of plotting - along with her own nephew - the brutal invasion of her Montgomery Township home last year that led to her husband being slain.

She recognized only one.

Montgomery County Assistant District Attorney Todd Stephens said in his opening that none of the Chaes who survived the Jan. 9, 2009, attack, including Janice and her children Richard, 30, and Minna, 25, would be able to identify all of the defendants on trial.

He said that "mountains of evidence," like DNA and cell-phone records, and cooperating witnesses, including Chae's nephew, Angelo Shin, and two other conspirators who've also pleaded guilty in the case, would prove the guilt of defendants Joseph Page, 23; Amatadi Latham 25; and Karre Pitts, 18, whose second-degree murder trial began yesterday.

"This is going to be like a puzzle - there's going to be a lot of little pieces," Stephens said.

But defense lawyers for the three men, who are being jointly tried, claim that their clients are innocent and that the real leader of attack was Robert Eatman, a prosecution witness who "cut a deal" to plead guilty to the lesser charge of third-degree murder for admitting that he was a lookout and for agreeing to testify at trial.

"He [Eatman] has been able to cut a deal with the Commonwealth that would make Bernie Madoff be amazed," Pitts' attorney, J. David Farrell, said.

When Robert and Janice Chae, opened the garage door at their upscale Montgomery Township home around 5 a.m. Jan. 9, 2009, to head to the business they owned, Penn Beauty Supply, in the Suburban Station concourse in Center City, they were attacked by three men.

The men bound Robert Chae, 58, at his legs and feet and completely covered his head in duct tape, save for a small slit under his nose, Stephens said.

During the course of severely beating Chae, the men broke his nose, which eventually clotted with blood and led to his suffocation death.

Janice Chae was forced to open a safe, from which was stolen jewelry, bank notes and between $15,000 and $20,000 in cash, Stephens said.

She was then thrown in the basement with her children, who were also bound, before she was able to escape through a back door and call for help.

"We thought we were all going to die that day," Chae testified yesterday, through an interpreter and through tears.

Latham was the only defendant whom Chae identified yesterday, but his lawyer, Carly McClain, said that it was only because Chae had seen his face splashed on newspapers and TV before she'd even been asked to pick him out of a lineup.

Prosecutors have fingered Page as the mastermind of the scheme and the one who beat Chae to death, though all three were present and are equally responsible for his killing, Stephens said.

Shin, 25, who stayed with the Chaes when he moved from South Korea and again, in a sadistic twist, to comfort them after the invasion, pleaded guilty to third-degree murder and related charges in September. He's awaiting sentencing and is expected to testify at the trial.

For the home invasion that took his uncle's life, Shin was paid $2,000 by Page, police said.

Though he was not present on the morning of the robbery, Shin allegedly told Page about the safe in his relatives' home and helped plan the invasion.

Eatman, 34, the alleged lookout, and getaway driver Sybil White, 17, pleaded guilty to similar charges. Both are awaiting sentencing and expected to testify.

A seventh defendant, Julius Wise, is scheduled for trial in March, Stephens said.

The trial against Page, Latham and Pitts is to take between two and three weeks, with up to 30 witnesses offering testimony, Stephens said.

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