Charlie Ng, a British-educated former Marine, faces the death penalty if convicted of torturing and killing 12 people, then burning, dismembering and burying the bodies.
Though the evidence against him appears overwhelming - including a videotape said to capture the rape and murder of two of the victims - Ng has kept himself out of court since his arrest in 1985. Just in the past few months, he has insisted his new glasses were hurting his eyes so much he was unable to concentrate on preparing his defence. His insistence on playing origami in his cell led to a long legal tussle resolved by a judge who finally ruled that the Japanese folding paper could be used to conceal messages from the outside.
Most recently, Ng has fought to defend himself, instead of relying on two court-appointed attorneys. That application has been thrown out, removing, apparently, the last obstacle to a trial that has provoked deep anger and thoughts of revenge in Wilseyville, the town where the murders took place.
According to the prosecution, Ng and his friend Leonard Lake lured victims to their house by placing trade adverts in the local paper.
Although only 12 killings have been linked to Ng, at least 19 people are believed to have been tortured to death.
Lake was arrested for the routine theft of a piece of construction equipment at a San Francisco lumberyard in 1985, only to astonish his police captors by fatally swallowing cyanide in custody. Ng had been at the lumber yard as well, but fled before he could be captured.
When police followed the trail back to the house in Wilseyville, they began a series of gruesome discoveries - a charred bone here, a shoe there. By the time they were through, they had turned up 45lb of charred bone fragments and teeth, jewellery, torn clothing, Lake's diary, a body in a sleeping bag and a videotape showing the torture of two women, one of them a neighbour.
Ng was arrested a month later in Calgary, Canada, after he was caught trying to steal a soft drink from a store. It was then that the police hunt ended and legal odyssey began - starting with a six-year struggle to have him extradited; a further three years' futile attempt to put a trial together locally in Cavaleras County; the case's transfer to Orange County, south of Los Angeles; then the series of objections and delays that were largely the doing of Ng himself.
The case has generated six tons of paperwork and forced locals in and around Wilseyville to sit through more than 70 pre-trial hearings. When the case was transferred in 1994, it was partly due to fears that Ng would receive a lynching on his home turf. At one point San Francisco police destroyed a raft of evidence in the belief that the case was closed. Three witnesses have died in the past 13 years, one of them earlier this year in a car crash.
Now, however, it appears that the Santa Ana authorities are determined to go ahead. Ng's latest application to defend himself was dismissed as an attempt to play "games within games within games" with the legal system. .Reuse content