Cries of Bias Follow Death of Korean at Hands of Law
Sometime after 10:30 p.m. on Monday, March 7, Hong Pyo Lee walked out of his house in the well-tended suburb of Cerritos and drove off in his new, white Audi--a restive young man still struggling to put a troubled adolescence behind him.
He told no one where he was going. His father was working a 15-hour shift at the family’s liquor store in Anaheim. His older brother, who is married and still living at home according to Korean custom, was asleep with his wife in the next bedroom. His mother was visiting a friend.
Four hours later, in an unincorporated area near Lynwood known for its crime and drug dealing, Lee, 21, was spotted by sheriff’s deputies as he ran a stop sign.
There had been prior encounters with police, friends said, each one brought about by Lee’s erratic driving and each one ending with his polite “yes sirs” and “no sirs.” But this time, according to sheriff’s accounts, Lee did not stop. This time, inexplicably, he accelerated and led deputies on a 15-mile chase that ended in north Long Beach only after he took a wrong turn on a road that suddenly ran out of asphalt.
There--at the dead-end merger of a loading dock, a barbed-wire fence and the elevated Union Pacific railroad tracks--Lee was shot by four deputies firing a total of 15 rounds into his car. Nine of the bullets, fired from behind his car in a flash of seconds, struck Lee.
Deputies, believing that he might be playing “ ‘possum,” removed him from the car, cuffed his hands behind his back and set him face-down on the ground, where he died a short time later.
No weapons were found. A hashish pipe, its bowl filled with cold, gray residue, rested under the driver’s seat. Coroner’s tests later revealed traces of cocaine in Lee’s blood.
Sheriff’s homicide investigators say the shooting was justified because, only moments before the gunfire, Lee had punched the car in reverse and nearly hit a deputy, striking the front of a patrol car with his rear bumper.
But the case, given urgency by a week of front-page news coverage and editorials questioning police tactics in the local Korean press, has elicited cries of racial discrimination and police brutality from the Korean community.
An association of Korean college and university students is planning a protest this afternoon outside the sheriff’s Lynwood station. Several Korean community organizations have sent letters to the department and the district attorney’s office demanding full and impartial investigations by both agencies. Lee’s funeral was even attended by the South Korean vice counsel general of Los Angeles.
“It’s like police were taking target practice,” Ki Myung Lee, the former president of the Los Angeles Korean Federation, told mourners at the Saturday funeral. “The Korean community will find out what happened. We won’t rest until we know.”
Sheriff’s officials said Thursday that their investigation will be completed within 30 days and the findings will be turned over to the district attorney’s office.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Richard Healey, who will make the decision whether to file any criminal charges, said the only eyewitness--an unidentified truck driver who was awakened in his cab by the screeching cars--confirms official accounts that the deputies fired in self-defense.
“The key question in such cases is always: ‘Did the officers have reasonable cause to believe that any one of them was in imminent danger of great bodily harm?’ ” Healey said.
“This is a problem that we see again and again in pursuit cases. The adrenaline on all sides goes up. The adrenaline of the officers. The adrenaline of the driver. It’s just a situation tailor-made for disaster.”
Sung Kyu Lee, who emigrated from South Korea with his wife and two sons in 1978, insists that his youngest child was only trying to flee from deputies when he backed up in a confined space and inadvertently struck the sheriff’s patrol car.
He surmises that his son, fearing that another traffic ticket would lead to a second license suspension, panicked when deputies tried to pull him over.
“My son didn’t have a criminal record. He wasn’t carrying a weapon, and he was in a dead-end street,” he explained through an interpreter. “He had no where to go, and they shot him like an animal.”
The father said the tragedy has shaken his faith in his adopted country.
“I never believed this could happen in America,” he said. “I work 14 hours a day. No holidays (off). No Sundays (off). I work for my two sons. I had only two sons. Now, I have just one.”
Friends say the long working days maintained by Lee’s parents led to a situation where he basically raised himself, like many immigrant children. On their own, he and his friends quickly absorbed the good and bad of American culture and spoke a language all their own--a combination of Korean and English that they jokingly refer to as “Kunglish.”
“Your parents go off to work, and all you have is your friends,” said Kevin Chung, 23, Lee’s close friend. “Because of the generation gap and the culture gap, your friends become your family.
“Hong Pyo and all of us are at the point where we’re half and half. You’re kind of lost.”
America, at least on the surface, translated into fast cars, trendy clothes and weekend experiments with cocaine for Lee and some of his friends. But Lee, who was known to his Anglo friends as “Steven,” had trouble drawing the line once he entered high school. His friends said he often used drugs during the week, missing school and coming home late at night.
They said his father, who had struggled his way up from a gas station attendant to a shoe maker to the owner of a liquor store, was generous to a fault.
“He was spending a lot of the money his father gave him on cocaine,” said one close friend, who asked not to be named. “He was out of control. He just wanted too much.”
Finally, about a year ago, one friend approached the father about Lee’s drug use. Lee was promptly sent to South Korea to live with his mother’s family.
“He came back about a month or two later, but he hadn’t changed,” the friend said. " . . . He hated to be alone. He liked to have a good time.”
His problems worsened last September. At a party at a Fullerton hotel, Lee intervened in a fight in a parking lot involving a younger friend. He was struck in the face and over the head with a metal pipe, which ripped out his gums and front teeth and cracked his skull.
His family said he nearly died on the operating table from internal bleeding. A plate was inserted in his skull. Three weeks later, he returned home and seemed to have a new attitude.
“He told me it was his second chance at life, and he was going to do a lot better,” said Frank Kim, Lee’s best friend. “He was sorry to his parents . . . He wanted to make it up to them.”
In recent months, he had begun working 50 to 60 hours a week at the liquor store. Two weeks ago, he signed up for auto mechanic classes at a Los Angeles trade school. He was brimming with talk about the future, how he would open up his own service station someday.
“He told me he wanted to get married, but only after he became successful,” said Rachel Kim, 17, Lee’s girlfriend. “He wanted to do his own thing. He didn’t want to have to depend on his parents anymore.”
Late to Class
After classes on Monday, March 7, Lee and Frank Kim drank a six-pack of beer each, watched Kung Fu videos and drove to a hamburger stand. They returned home at 10:30 p.m.
“I left and I thought he was going to go inside to sleep because he had school the next day,” Kim said.
His family and friends remain puzzled why Lee would be driving through a rough area near Lynwood at 2:30 a.m. Sheriff’s officials said Lee ran a stop sign on Atlantic Avenue, just south of Alondra Boulevard. The sheriff’s patrol car flashed on its red lights, but Lee accelerated. For 15 miles, along surface streets and the Artesia Freeway, Lee led deputies on a chase that never exceeded 55 m.p.h.
By the time it ended in an industrial area in the 2500 block of Thompson Street, behind a Long Beach rubber manufacturing plant, Lee was being pursued by five deputies in three cars and two Long Beach police officers in another one. A sheriff’s helicopter made passes overhead.
According to a Sheriff’s Department account, Lee stopped his car in a confined loading area approximately 120 feet from a fence. Two sheriff’s patrol cars stopped about 15 to 20 feet behind Lee. The Long Beach police unit was behind them.
Five deputies from the Lynwood station--Sgt. Paul Tanaka, 29, and deputies Robert Papini, 27; Daniel McLeod, 28; Brian Lee, 29; John Chapman, 29--exited their vehicles with guns drawn, according to investigators.
As Chapman approached the driver’s side and demanded that Lee get out with his hands up, Lee suddenly shifted the car into reverse. Deputies had to jump out of the way to avoid being hit.
Neighbors said they heard someone yell, “The son of a bitch tried to run me over.”
A moment later, gunshots rang out. Chapman and the Long Beach officers did not fire their weapons, according to investigators. The shooting ended seconds later when Lee’s car lurched forward and crashed into the fence.
Sheriff’s Homicide Capt. Robert Grimm said that even though the car was only able to pick up a limited amount of speed in such a tight area, the deputies had cause to fear for their safety.
“I don’t think that when a car is accelerating in reverse, any normal person would think about shooting the tires,” he said.
Grimm said the number of shots fired was not an issue, pointing out that one deputy fired once while another fired six times.
“Our deputies don’t count bullets. They fire as long as they perceive a threat or danger.”
But Korean community leaders and Lee’s family argue that Lee was essentially trapped, affording deputies a number of less-severe options. Why did deputies fail to shield themselves behind their patrol cars, turn on their spotlights and just wait Lee out? How was a mortally wounded Lee able to shift his car from reverse to forward and travel a distance of more than 120 feet into the fence?
“He was just one boy in one car,” said Paul Lee, 26, the victim’s brother. “How much trouble could he be?”