Murder & the DNA Dilemma

Dahlia, Cutting garden

In 2012, Amyjane Brandhagen was found murdered in an Oregon motel room. She had been brutally stabbed to death. Amyjane was no stranger to our family. We had attended church with her family, had participated in Bible Studies with her mom and dad. Our daughters had babysat Amyjane and her younger sister.

Amyjane’s murder rocked the community of Pendleton, Oregon. A vivacious girl, Amyjane had spent that spring in India with YWAM. She was active in the Evangelical community. She was a bright, artistic, creative soul. She did not live life within the confines of social constraints. She was no rule follower. She was a seeker in every sense of the word.

Almost a year-to-the-date, another woman, Karen Lange, went missing while on an early evening walk along the Umatilla River. She was found the next-day by law enforcement. Hidden in thick brush near a city ballpark, Lange had been severely beaten. The officer mistook her for dead, and was startled by a slight moan.

Lange should not have survived that attack but she did. There are many who will tell you that it was the prayers of people worldwide that saved her life. I can’t say for sure. I don’t know why Karen Lange survived and Amyjane did not, beyond the obvious, getting stabbed in the heart is usually more deadly than getting whacked upside the head. I don’t know if that’s a miracle but I am sure to Karen Lange and her loved ones it sure feels like an answer to prayer, a miracle.

The man who killed Amyjane and hoped to kill Karen Lange spends his days at the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem. He doesn’t want to talk about why he killed Amyjane, a girl he did not know at all. He told law enforcement he did it just to see what it felt like.

The thing is Luke Chang grew up in a household very similar to Amyjane’s. His parents are missionaries. He grew up in North Carolina about a stone’s throw from the library in which I now write this post. His childhood was a good one by all accounts. His parents loved him. His sister loved him. I don’t know if they were a close family, or just an isolated one. Leah and Luke were homeschooled. The only playmates they had were each other. The family came to North Carolina because  Ge Chang had accepted a job as the pastor at a Hmong church. That pastorship did not last long, although nobody wants to get into all that. After a stint as pastor, Ge went to work in one of the many furniture manufacturing sites that littered these hills back before Ikea plywood minimizing replaced Grandma’s cherrywood. Money was tight. Luke and Leah were put to work raising rabbits. Their momma still is known about these hills as the Rabbit Lady.

It wasn’t until Luke was a senior that the kids were enrolled in a local Christian school. Some people at New Manna Christian still regard the Chang family fondly.  In these hills, Christian people are still reluctant to talk against those within the “family of God.”

Luke was expelled when he was a senior for hacking a teacher’s computer. That expulsion ruined his chances at a scholarship for college. He was plenty bright enough, extremely well-read, but without $500,000 to buy off a fixer who would guarantee he could get into USC or Georgetown or Yale, or even UNC, Luke’s educational opportunities looked bleak. Or at least that was the general assessment at the time.

So he did the thing he was encouraged to do – he joined the Marines.

Where they teach you to kill somebody with your bare hands. Or with a knife. Or a gun.

Luke had a taste for killing.

It may have been something he was born with. This taste for killing.

There were others in his family who had also murdered women they didn’t know.

And that’s the story I’ve been working on for some time now: Was Luke destined to be a killer? Was there something in his DNA that made him more likely to be a serial killer? Or did the military unleash a repressed compulsion?  Or did Luke, who by all accounts had been primarily a congenial fellow, suppress a growing rage that overtook him?

We are all accustomed to DNA being the focus of murder stories, in and out of the courtroom, in real life and in Television dramas. And indeed, it was DNA at the crimes scenes of Amyjane Brandhagen and Karen Lange that led police to Luke. But using DNA to map violent behavior is a disturbing idea for a culture built on the notion that we are all self-determinate human beings.

We don’t want to believe that a lot of our behavior – good or bad – can be a result of our DNA. Scientists, however, now have the ability to edit our genes. Gene editing sounds like something out of a sci-fi flick. Imagine a world in which we can rid ourselves of hereditary diseases like Huntington’s or juvenile diabetes. Or if there is a gene that prompts a person to kill.

Should we do it?

Karen Spears Zacharias is author of Karly Sheehan: The True Crime Story behind Karly’s Law and many other books.


Karen Spears Zacharias

Author/Journalist/Educator. Gold Star Daughter.


David Kidd

about 1 year ago

Amy is dancing in the rain



about 1 year ago

Or was it being exposed to his relative's crimes of murder that triggered something in him? We get so gaslit by people saying things like, "He came from such a good family." But really, we don't know what happened behind closed doors....


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