Ending a six-week investigation, the district attorney's office Wednesday found that four sheriff's deputies acted in self-defense when they fatally shot an unarmed 21-year-old Korean man in Long Beach after a 15-mile car chase last month.
In deciding not to file criminal charges against the deputies, the district attorney's special investigations division cited the account of an eyewitness who corroborated deputies' reports that the man had suddenly backed his car toward the deputies.
The witness, a truck driver awakened in the early morning hours of March 8 as he slept in his cab in a north Long Beach industrial area, told authorities that Hong Pyo Lee nearly ran over deputies moments before they fired a total of 15 rounds into the car. Eight of the bullets struck Lee. He was pronounced dead at the scene.
"The other officer had to get the hell out of the road or he'd of got run over," James Hodgson, the truck driver, told investigators in a taped interview. "The guy was defending his own life, that's all."
But the 12-page district attorney's report acknowledged several contradictions between the accounts of deputies, Hodgson and two Long Beach police officers who joined the chase.
The Long Beach police officers, who stood 10 feet behind the deputies, said they never saw Lee's car back up toward the deputies before the shots rang out. Hodgson said the car was traveling backwards at a slow, steady speed. The deputies said they felt their lives were in danger because the car was backing up rapidly with its tires screeching.
"We note that such conflicts in the evidence are not unusual, and do not necessarily have sinister significance," the district attorney's report concluded. "Under the pressure of shock and excitement, perceptions do become distorted and honest witnesses recall things differently."
But the inconsistencies are likely to fuel more questions in a Korean community that has already protested the shooting as racially motivated.
"I'm afraid many Koreans in Los Angeles will not accept this decision," said Tae Hee Park, deputy consul general of the South Korean Consulate in Los Angeles. "I'm afraid they will think it was made on the basis of discrimination and not on justice."
Deputy Dist. Atty. Richard Healey, who headed the investigation, visited Lee's home in Cerritos Tuesday to deliver the report. Paul Lee, the dead man's older brother, said it failed to answer several questions.
For instance, Lee said, the report noted that his brother's Audi was found crashed into a fence 120 feet in front of the spot where the shooting took place. The report concludes that a mortally wounded Lee was able to shift from reverse to forward and travel the distance.
"It doesn't really make sense. You got eight bullets in your body and you can do that?," asked Paul Lee. "My dad can't understand why there were bruises on my brother's face. Mr. Healey said that maybe he was mugged before he got into the car chase."
The family has filed a $5-million lawsuit in U.S. District Court alleging Lee's civil rights were violated. The suit names the five deputies and Sheriff Sherman Block.
Lee, who had a troubled adolescence that included drug use and truancy, was putting his life together at the time of the shooting, according to family and friends. He was working 50 and 60 hours a week at the family's liquor store in Anaheim and had just signed up for auto mechanic classes at a Los Angeles trade school.
His family and friends remain puzzled why he was out at 2:30 a.m. on a weekday and driving through a rough area of Compton. Sheriff's officials said Lee ran a stop sign turning from Atlantic Drive onto Atlantic Avenue. 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, a dead-end 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 car. A sheriff's helicopter made passes overhead.
Five deputies--Sgt. Paul Tanaka, 29, and deputies Robert Papini, 27; Daniel McLeod, 28; Brian Lee, 29, and John Chapman, 29,--got out of 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, according to investigators. That's when four of the five deputies fired their weapons.
"In retrospect, we are not certain that Lee meant to run down any deputy. Perhaps he meant merely to flee," the report stated. "We are not certain that his car rushed back at the deputies with quite the speed they now recall.
"But these are perceptions formed at leisure, in quiet circumstances. Some allowance must be made for perceptions formed in the heat of the moment by those who actually stood in the path of the car."