Fraud case concludes as defendant hangs herself

SHAKESPEAREAN TRAGEDY::Cecilia Chang took her life a day after she admitted in court that she lied to the FBI and had used students as personal servants

By William Lowther  /  Staff reporter in WASHINGTON

Thu, Nov 08, 2012 - Page 1

The sensational US$1 million fraud case against Taiwanese-born Cecilia Chang (章曙彤) ended on Tuesday in New York after her body was found hanging from a ladder in her luxury apartment.

According to widely reported sources, Chang, 59, had committed suicide.

Police sources said that just before the hanging, Chang had tried to slash her wrists and gas herself.

“It’s a Shakespearean tragedy,” federal Judge Sterling Johnson said as he declared a mistrial and closed the case.

The former dean of St John’s University, New York, Chang died a day after testifying in what witnesses said was a “belligerent and incoherent” fashion.

She took the stand — against the advice of her lawyers — to admit that she had lied to the FBI, charged personal items on her expenses and used students as servants.

Johnson said that her planned suicide could have been one of the reasons she wanted to testify.

“Sayonara. Get it off her chest. We never know how an individual handles the pressure. She admitted everything on the stand,” he said.

Chang’s body was found after firefighters broke down the door of her apartment when her son, Steven, 27, became worried that she was not answering the telephone.

She left a note in Chinese that was still in the hands of translators yesterday, but throughout the headline-grabbing case that had been pending for more than two years, Chang had pleaded not guilty, claiming that the money she took was owed to her by the university and that other charges were exaggerated.

In all, she faced 205 counts of grand larceny, forgery and falsification of business records.

Students, some of them Taiwanese, claimed that Chang treated them like servants, with one girl telling prosecutors that she was forced to wash Chang’s expensive silk underwear by hand.

Chang’s neighbors testified to her extravagant lifestyle, her pricey clothes and her three Mercedes.

The New York Daily News has also reported that Chang was the prime suspect in the 1990 murder of her first husband, Ruey Fung Tsai.

“Tsai scrawled a deathbed note to detectives claiming she was behind the hit job,” the newspaper said.

However, with Chang’s death, that case too is likely to be closed.

Chang told the court that she had raised US$20 million for St John’s and that in the process she had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars of her own money.

She said that the university owed her the money that she embezzled, but the prosecution claimed she spent a fortune on gambling and online dating services.

Chang had developed a national reputation as an ambassador and fund-raiser for the university.

After the case was closed, Chang’s lawyers issued a statement saying: “Cecilia Chang dedicated 30 years of her life to St John’s University.”

“She was a prolific fund-raiser and tireless advocate for her beloved Asian Studies program at the university. Her death today is a sad ending to a complex human drama,” the statement said.

Chang had an undergraduate degree from Tamkang University, Taipei, and a graduate degree from Columbia University in New York.

If convicted of all charges, she would have faced a prison sentence of between 10 and 20 years.