A Bay Area man will stand trial on charges he murdered a sex worker and dumped her body in a trash bin at a 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 sex worker 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.
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. Li initially admitted to being in a romantic relationship with Wang, and 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.
Detective Jeff Horn, said police haven’t identified a direct motive, although they have considered that problems in the romantic relationship between Wang and Li could have led to Wang’s death. But they believe Li is 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 also 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 police allegations Li was involved with a 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.
“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.”
Li’s next hearing is scheduled for Aug. 20.