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Conflict Brings Tragic End to Similar Dreams of Life : Shooting: An immigrant grocer is accused of murdering a girl, 15. Both sought to overcome adversity.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Latasha Harlins and Soon Ja Du--though separated by language, culture and years--shared a common struggle even before a bullet bound their fates in a South Los Angeles liquor store. Each has come to embody, in a tragic way, the hardships of everyday life in the city’s most impoverished neighborhoods.

Du, 49, was a mother of three when she traded her Korean homeland for the uncertainties of America. She first labored in factories, then invested with her husband in the run-down Empire Liquor Market. Unnerved by cultural differences and violence outside the store, Du worked only on quiet weekend mornings and was always near a handgun stashed by the register.

Latasha, a studious and self-assured 15-year-old, also was no stranger to the troubles that disrupt life in the mostly African-American neighborhood. When Latasha was 9, her mother was fatally shot in the chest during an argument at an after-hours bar. Within weeks, Latasha’s distraught father left home for good.

The private struggles of Soon Ja Du and Latasha Harlins collided last month at 91st and Figueroa streets, when the grocer fired a single bullet into the teen-ager’s head during a dispute over a bottle of orange juice in the store.

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Du now stands charged with murder. Authorities say she shot Latasha after the girl placed the juice in her knapsack and approached Du to pay. Du, who says the gun fired accidentally, contends she was attacked after accusing Latasha of shoplifting.

The shooting has stirred outrage, confusion and bitterness in the two minority communities, inflaming suspicions that have occasionally divided Korean merchants and their African-American customers in cities across the country.

In the days since the slaying, black activists have protested outside the Empire market, while Korean-American leaders have called for conciliation. Fearing flare-ups, police have stepped up patrols around the store, which, for a time, bore a makeshift sign reflecting the deep divisions: “Closed for Murder & Disrespect of Black People.”

Behind the discord, however, is a shared fight for opportunity. Although the paths of Latasha Harlins and Soon Ja Du met in conflict, each came to the crossroads knowing adversity, prejudice and misfortune.

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“The underlying story here is one of minority groups trying to make it in American society,” said Halford H. Fairchild, a social psychologist at Cal State Los Angeles. “I feel so bad for Latasha and her family, but I also grieve for Mrs. Du and her family. In a way, both are victims of their circumstance.”

Soon Ja Du, the eldest daughter of the only doctor in a Korean farming village, was born into a life of privilege that Latasha never knew.

Although the sluggish drawl of her native North Chung Chang province was the butt of national jokes, Du’s family enjoyed a position among the town’s elite. She left her peers behind to attend college in Seoul, where she married Hung Ki Du, the son of a construction company owner.

Later, while her husband schooled Korean soldiers in the art of tae kwon do, Du dutifully fulfilled the role of consummate housewife: washing, cleaning, cooking and catering to his guests.

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“She had a good life in Korea,” said Sandy Du, their 23-year-old daughter. “She never had to work outside of the house.”

But in 1976, the year of Latasha’s birth, Soon Ja Du embarked on a new and precarious course. Concerned that her children were suffering under the extraordinary competition of Korea’s school system, the family boarded a jet for Los Angeles with hopes for a better life.

Du suddenly found herself in a small apartment in Inglewood, in a startlingly diverse culture, with no job skills and a minimal grasp of the language. For the first time, she was forced to labor for wages. She worked as a couch assembler, then became a crocheter for St. John Knits, a women’s garment factory in San Fernando.

“She had a lot of stress after she got here,” said Chan Ock Kim, a friend and co-worker at St. John Knits. “She was only a housewife in Korea. Here, she had to work to survive.”

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Meanwhile, her husband, accustomed to running a family company, saw his poor English limiting his chances to go beyond being a repairman at a Radio Shack store.

Like many Korean immigrants willing to work long hours if they can reap the fruits of their own labor, Hung Ki Du decided to go into business for himself. In 1981, with no experience, he bought a convenience mart in San Fernando.

“It was his,” said Sandy Du. “That was important.”

But for Soon Ja Du, who joined her husband behind the counter, the strain was too much. The 14-hour days, shoplifters and street hoodlums left her drained. She suffered from chronic migraine headaches and was hospitalized for several weeks after falling into what the family describes as a coma.

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Hoping for higher profits elsewhere, the family sold the store and bought another in Newhall. Then, in 1989, before purchasing Empire Liquor for $380,000, Du asked her husband to consider moving to the beach where they could spend quiet days fishing.

“My father said our family should buy the market,” their daughter said. “As a parent, he always wanted to earn enough to leave something behind for us.”

Du was beset with conflict, often asking herself: Who should have to do business with a loaded gun? How can a deaconess of the Valley Korean Central Presbyterian Church earn a living selling liquor? How long must we stay?

“It made her uncomfortable to do business like that,” said Kyung Hu Cho, a church elder and family friend. “A lot of conservative church people feel it’s not right . . . like working in a nightclub or massage parlor.”

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Business at the store did not offset her worries. Grocery suppliers said orders from the market began to diminish last year. Snack food, beverage and newspaper distributors all cut off deliveries when the Dus failed to make payments.

One neighboring grocer cashed a $100 paycheck from the butcher at Empire Liquor, only to have it bounce. Du wrote out another check and apologized. “But,” the grocer said, “the check bounced again.”

Du turned to the traditions of her native land for relief. Twice, she returned to Seoul with her sons so that each could marry according to custom. Even in her San Fernando Valley tract home--filled with black-lacquer and mother-of-pearl furniture from Korea--her thoughts remained far away: Every month she sent money to a leper colony in the Yellow Sea.

But every weekend, she was forced to return to the realities of Empire Liquor, where the family kept an M-1 carbine rifle under the counter along with the handgun. In the surrounding 32 blocks, 936 felonies were reported last year, including five murders, nine rapes, 184 robberies and 254 assaults.

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Earlier this year, three suspected gang members were arrested for allegedly assaulting the Dus’ son, Joseph, as well as robbing, burglarizing and terrorizing the market. After the Dus reported the crimes to police, the suspects--who are now awaiting trial--returned to the store and allegedly threatened to kill the family.

“My mother’s biggest prayer was to sell the store,” said Sandy Du. But after months on the market, there were no takers.

Latasha Harlins lived a five-minute walk from Empire Liquor. She would stop in from time to time, but told friends she was acutely aware of eyes watching her every move. Her grandmother told her not to go inside unless she meant to make a purchase.

Latasha had come to the neighborhood in 1981 from East St. Louis, Ill., a Mississippi River town of decaying buildings and cocktail lounges that is among the most impoverished urban centers in the United States. It was no place, her family said, to raise a child.

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The family arrived on a Greyhound bus, first renting a place near 89th Street and Broadway, about four blocks from where Latasha died. Her mother found a job as a waitress in a tavern, studying in the day for a real estate license. Her father worked in a steel foundry. She had a brother, now 10, and a sister, now 9.

“When you go someplace else, you’re always expecting things to be better,” said her grandmother, Ruth Harlins, a clerk with the county Department of Public Social Services. “You always have dreams.”

Whatever dreams Latasha’s family had were shattered on Nov. 27, 1985, when her mother was found shot to death at 3 a.m. on the floor of the B and B Club--now home to the Greater Resurrection Church--on Florence Avenue.

The family says Crystal Harlins was there to celebrate her boss’s birthday, but witnesses told police she was also a regular customer, known for boisterous behavior. The assailant, who contended that Harlins had threatened her, was sentenced to five years in prison.

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Latasha tried to put the loss behind her. She rarely talked about her mother or allowed her hurt to show. But whenever she passed the Inglewood Park Cemetery on nearby Manchester Boulevard, she cried.

“I guess it made her think of her mom,” said her cousin, Shinese Harlins, 14. “She’s not even buried there.”

The void in Latasha’s life was filled by her grandmother, a strong-willed and dignified woman from Tuscaloosa, Ala., who raised her with a sympathetic heart and iron hand.

Like any teen-ager, Latasha bridled at restrictions on her freedom. She had to be somewhat furtive about contact with boys, for instance, as her grandmother did not yet approve of her dating.

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“It was always just simple stuff, like staying out after dark,” said Deona Tucker, 17, a friend from the neighborhood. “It wasn’t nothing big like getting a hole in her nose or a tattoo. Tasha wasn’t like that.”

In many ways, Latasha seemed wise beyond her years. While friends remember her for the schoolgirl bangs and wide smile that earned her the nickname “Lil’ Gizmo,” adults saw her as a self-aware young woman with a gift for expounding on weighty topics.

She thrived when bused to solidly middle-class Westchester High School. When a friend suggested the world needed more African-American lawyers, she quickly set her sights on USC. Maybe, Latasha thought, she could have sent her mother’s killer to prison forever.

“She knew the pressures of being a youth in South-Central,” said Jerry Foster, an assistant at the Algin Sutton Recreation Center, where Latasha spent afternoons. “She knew she had a lot of doors to kick in to become what she wanted to become.”

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In Los Angeles County, there are about 3,300 Korean-American grocers, many of whom do business in low-income, minority neighborhoods. Faced with hurdles of their own, they have found opportunity in the region’s most economically depressed areas.

African-Americans have accused the merchants of rudeness, price gouging and failing to employ residents of the communities that support them. It is an uneasy relationship, one that has occurred with earlier immigrant groups.

Korean-American grocers say they are among the few willing to risk investing in neighborhoods plagued by crime. In the last decade, 19 Korean-American merchants in Los Angeles County have been slain on the job, according to the National Korean American Grocers Assn.

In the neighborhood surrounding the Empire Liquor Market, those resentments had been strong long before the shooting. Grocers in the area said they have been torn between serving their good neighbors and guarding against the bad. They conceded that distinguishing between the two--especially for someone unfamiliar with the argot of the streets--is fraught with pitfalls.

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“This is where the stereotype of Korean merchants being rude comes into play,” said one grocer, who expressed regret that his attitude hardened while serving a nearby housing project. “I know I am being rude, but during busy hours you have no choice.”

Like the Harlins, other residents in the area have complained that grocers--including the Dus--treated them with disrespect. During a grief counseling session at Westchester High, nine of Latasha’s close friends spoke of similar experiences.

“All of these kids have felt like victims,” school psychologist Barbara Snader said. “They walk into a store and feel like people suspect them . . . looking them up and down. It’s a very humiliating experience. It’s like they’re guilty because they’re black.”

Latasha entered Empire Liquor for the last time at 9:45 a.m. on Saturday, March 16--just the kind of quiet weekend morning that was supposed to be safe for Soon Ja Du. She was working alone, while her husband slept outside in the family’s recreational van.

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As Latasha approached the counter, Du accused her of stealing the plastic bottle of orange juice that was slipped inside her knapsack. Latasha turned her shoulder to reveal the juice and displayed $2 in her hand, said detectives, who studied a security-camera videotape from the store.

Du grabbed Latasha’s pack. Latasha struggled back. Du then pulled a .38-caliber handgun and fired once, police said the videotape shows. Du said Latasha had tried to take money from the cash register moments before. But police said the girl had thrown the juice on the counter and was leaving the store when she was shot in the head.

“It is clear and evident, Mrs. Du is a danger to society,” Deputy Dist. Atty. Roxane Carvajal would later say. “She said she was under attack, (but) the evidence in this case doesn’t bear that out.”

Still, the Du family insists the shooting was an accident, brought about by the scuffle. Du, they say, even fainted after pulling the trigger--reportedly the first time she had ever wielded a gun.

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“To call it a murder--that defies reason,” said Du’s defense attorney, Charles E. Lloyd. “It was a mistake.”

At Du’s arraignment in Compton Municipal Court late last month, the two families faced each other for the first time since the shooting.

The Harlins sat in the front row, center aisle, businesslike in their dress and demeanor. They had come not for vengeance, they explained, but to see that justice be done.

The Dus sat just to the right, surrounded by more than 100 friends and fellow church members. Their only thought, they said, was to bring Soon Ja Du home.

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Du, appearing feeble and overwhelmed, was slumped in a chair. She wore a blue county jail smock and crisp, white, Reebok high-tops--the laces removed as a standard jail precaution against suicide. An interpreter whispered in her ear as the murder charges were read.

When the judge set her bail at $250,000 on the condition that she not return to the store, the Korean-American crowd applauded tentatively--happy she would be released, but unsure whether a display of emotion was appropriate.

The Harlins, distressed that Du would be walking free just three days after they had buried Latasha, were angry.

One of Latasha’s relatives leaped to his feet and pointed at Du’s attorney, who is black. “How much did they pay you?” he shouted, adding under his breath: “You’re a disgrace.”

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Du’s husband--relieved about his wife’s release, but undone by the horror that had befallen his family--collapsed to his knees on the courtroom floor.

As his children looked on, the former martial arts master covered his face and cried.


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