Retired art teacher recounts the tale of how he accidentally apprehended notorious serial killer, Charles Ng

The funny thing is Sean Doyle wasn’t even supposed to be working on that hot, summer day when his life flashed before his eyes.

On Friday, July 5, 1985, Doyle had been working his regular summer hours as internal store security at a Hudson’s Bay Company department store in downtown Calgary, when the security supervisor stopped by to ask the high school art teacher and part-time security guard for a favour.

With the next day being the first Saturday of the annual Calgary Stampede, and them being short-staffed for the weekend, Doyle was asked whether he would mind taking a shift out on the floor.

“‘Oh sure, I’ll work the floor,’ I told him,” Doyle recalled, “One of the other part-timers, who was a cop, came over to me and said ‘What are you doing? You’re too old for that job.’ So I said, ‘I bet you $10 I’ll catch a shoplifter before you do.’”

For Sean Doyle, recognizing the most defining moment in his life had never been a challenge. Starting with a $10 bet, the 5-foot-7 art teacher would find himself staring down one of the most notorious serial killers in American history on that day 30 years ago.

Doyle, who was 46 at the time, came to work the next day dressed in his red plaid and brown cowboy hat, fully embracing the Stampede theme at work. He was set on catching a shoplifter before the police officer, to prove not only to himself, but to the others he was a capable security guard, and not “too old” for the job.In 1985, Sean Doyle was working part-time as security at a department store of the Hudson’s Bay Company when he caught notorious serial killer, Charles Ng. Photo courtesy abdallahh, Creative Commons Licensed

“I was sitting with my good friend, another part-timer, who was an inspector for the fire department, and we were having a coffee in the lunchroom. I told him about the bet, and he said, ‘Yeah let’s go get one.’”

Still eager to win the $10 bet, and more importantly, the bragging rights that came with it, Doyle and his partner, the fire inspector George Forster, went down to the basement of the Bay, where the store sold food. It wasn’t long before they noticed a man standing off to the side, where the bread was shelved.

Little did he know, Doyle had just had his first glimpse of Charles Ng.

The serial killer

Ng, who had recently fled the San Francisco area due to almost being caught shoplifting, was now on America’s Most Wanted list. His near arrest in San Francisco had led the police straight to his accomplice, Leonard Lake. As Ng fled toward the Canadian border, Lake was taken into police custody as authorities began searching his property.

A police search of Ng and Lake’s compound just outside of Wilseyville, California revealed the enormity of the pair’s crimes.

An assortment of personal items, chunks of human bones, teeth and even an infant’s burnt liver were found scattered about the grounds. With at 11-25 murders being linked to the two men, Lake decided to swallow cyanide pills he had previously sewn into his shirt, killing him four days later.

While the police continued to investigate the horrific acts conducted by these two men, Ng had found his way to Calgary.

The shoplifter

Doyle’s first impression of Ng didn’t have much of an impact, but the more he observed him, the more suspicious he became. Thirty years later, a changed Doyle recounts the events of that day as if it had happened yesterday.

“I stopped my friend, and I said ‘This guy is stealing I think,’ because he had a tin of salmon in his hand and he had a bag and he was looking around and then he dropped it into the bag. Then I said, ‘Oh, definitely he’s stealing.’”

Doyle knew he needed a closer look, so he made his way to a backroom that had two-way mirrors. From his new vantage point, Doyle observed the short and stocky Asian man choose a two litre bottle of Pepsi, which he stealthily placed in the same bag the salmon had disappeared into moments before.

Ng procured a few more items before he seemingly decided it was time for him to leave, but he hadn’t made it far when Doyle and Forster caught up to him.

Flashing his badge, Doyle took Ng by the arm in one hand, and the bag of stolen goods in the other. It was at this moment things began to take an ominous turn.

“The muscle in his arm was really twitching, and I thought to myself, ‘This guy is going to do something; he’s going to run, he’s going to fight, he’s definitely going to do something.’”

Mugshot of Charles Ng in 1982, one year before the killings started. Ng had been convicted on theft and desertion charges by the U.S. Marine Corps. Public Domain Image 
Keeping a tight grip on the unknown shoplifter’s arm, Doyle noticed that Ng was beginning to fumble around with a fanny pack he had around his waist. When Doyle informed Ng he’d be taking that as well, Ng responded emphatically that it was his bag.

In as soothing a tone as he could muster, Doyle reassured Ng he would get his fanny pack back later, all the while wondering what Ng might have inside that he was so keen to hold on to.

The fight

“He started fumbling around with the pack, and I said ‘What the hell are you doing?’ ‘Well, I just want my wallet.’ I told him he could get his wallet when we got to the office. We kept walking and I thought ‘Oh, this guy is going to do something any moment.’ And then all of a sudden, George shouted out.

“My partner was on the other side, I was holding on to his right arm and George was on the other side. And he shouted ‘He’s got a gun!’ Now, just like that, everything stopped and went to slow motion.”

Choosing to react rather than let fear freeze him, Doyle acted quickly.

Using his past experience apprehending drunk, unruly shoplifters, Doyle kicked out Ng’s feet and then shouldered him to the ground. As the pair struggled on the department store floor, Doyle reached to grab the gun Ng had a firm grasp on, planning on holding his hands around the trigger, thus preventing Ng from firing a potentially fatal shot.

Wrestling on the ground, Ng, a martial arts expert, began to knee Doyle in the back of the head as Forster attempted to hold onto the man’s powerful legs. Twice, Ng bit Doyle’s left wrist down to the bone in an effort to get him to release his hold on the gun. Somehow, Ng managed to get his finger around the trigger and pull.

“It was ten minutes to 12, and there was a crowd. Two old ladies who were watching told me after that they believed it to be some show the Bay put on for the Stampede. I wish that was true.”

As the first shot whistled through the department store, never to be found again, Doyle managed to get on top of Ng. Ng had the gun firmly in his hands, slowly pointing it towards Doyle’s chest. Slowing the gun’s progress as best as he could, Doyle made a desperate attempt to avoid being gunned down by the serial killer.

“I put my left hand over the barrel, I wasn’t even thinking. And then came a ‘Bang!’ and the gun went off. I looked down and saw the black gunpowder marks on my hand, thinking, ‘He missed.’ At the same time, it felt like someone had just smashed my hand with a hammer.”

Fuelled by the taste of adrenaline in his mouth, Doyle managed to whirl Ng around onto his stomach, all the while reaching around the stocky man to once again have a firm grasp of the gun.

“I didn’t know how much I had left in me. I was thinking about my kids, my job, everything but the gun. I was tired. Ng was at least 20 years younger than me, and I thought back on the words the police officer had told me just a day before. Maybe I was too old for this.”Now 76, Sean Doyle’s regular Sunday morning routine involves a steaming cup of coffee and a newspaper in hand. Photo by Colin Macgillivray

After what felt like an eternity struggling with Ng, Doyle recalled breathing a sigh of relief once he saw the shiny black boots of Calgary police officers.

Doyle was a bloody mess, with bite marks on his wrist, a throbbing head and a bullet hole in his left hand. The doctors told him that three of his fingers would be paralyzed for the rest of his life. They were right.

Struggling with the aftermath

Unfortunately for Doyle, the injuries sustained in the fight for his life were the least of his worries.

After learning of the horrific crimes that Ng and his partner had committed, Doyle was frightened. Coupling the images of Ng roasting a child alive with the terrible altercation he went through, Doyle began to suffer from traumatizing nightmares.

“What was really disturbing was that every night I was dreaming about these horrible images in my head and night after night, I was dreaming of this murderer in a bear pit and I had a high powered rifle with a telescopic sight, and every night, I put him in the cross hair, pulled the trigger and shot him.

“And then I would look a few yards away, his mother was looking at me and even though she wasn’t saying anything, she was saying it with her eyes. ‘You’re no better than he is.’ I hated going to bed, and even more, I hated waking up. I wanted to die.”

After several months of this, Doyle was finally diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, most commonly known as PTSD. He had tried everything to vanquish these thoughts from his mind. Sometimes he decided to forego sleep altogether.

However, Doyle was not willing to let the horrible acts of one man control him for the rest of his life.

Finding peace

By reaching deep within himself and finding the strength and spirituality to forgive Ng for the horrific crimes he had committed, Doyle said he managed to be at peace with the man who had almost killed him.

“I got out of bed, I knelt down, and I prayed for the power to forgive him, for the crimes he had committed, and like that it was over. I have never dreamt of it since. I was cured by the act of forgiveness. I was cured of PTSD,” said the now 76-year-old, who still resides in Calgary.

Original paintings are strewn across Doyle’s downtown Calgary apartment. The retired art teacher first picked up a paintbrush when he was four years old and he hasn’t put it down since. An oil painting of Fish Creek Park is one of Doyle’s personal favourites. Photo by Colin MacgillivrayDoyle has been able to maintain that serenity, in part, thanks to his artwork. Born in Ireland, he began drawing and painting since the day he could pick up a paintbrush.

“I have not had an easy life, but I have had a long life. I have gone through a lot, but I have always been able to find a place to go and be at peace through my artwork.”

Doyle has been teaching instructional art classes to other retired teachers, and he plans on continuing sharing his passion with others throughout his retirement.

As for Charles Ng, he now resides on death row in San Quentin State Prison in California, after being extradited back to California in 1992. He was tried and convicted of 11 out of 12 counts of first-degree murder in 1999.

Ng’s prosecution cost the State of California approximately $20 million, which was, at the time, the most expensive trial in California’s history.

Doyle plans on venturing down to San Quentin in late April to speak to Charles Ng for the first time since the heavily publicized trial in 1999.

Doyle said he plans to finally find closure with the man who almost took his life 30 years ago. He also plans on filming a documentary centered on the trip, titled “Forgive/Ng.”

cmacgillivray@cjournal.ca 

The editor responsible for this story is Zoe Choy, zchoy@cjournal.ca