Just seven months after Joong Kun Lee reopened Cat’s Liquor, which was ransacked but not burned during the Los Angeles riots, his South-Central business was closed again Monday as his stunned family tried to cope with his death at the hands of a gun-wielding killer or killers.
Lee, 55, was shot to death Saturday morning as he was opening his store at 7213 S. Broadway, the victim of an apparent robbery, said Los Angeles Police Detective Sal Labarbera. Officials do not have the identity of two suspects, and have asked anyone who might have witnessed the shooting to contact authorities.
“We can’t believe this has happened,” Young Cho, husband of Lee’s younger daughter, Doris, said Monday. “My mother-in-law is in a daze right now. My wife has gone to the morgue. We cannot make funeral arrangements until the body is released. Things are very, very difficult.”
Jae Chull Kim, a South Bay gas station owner who has been Lee’s friend since they were toddlers in Seoul, wondered out loud: “How can someone kill such a kind and pure human being as my friend Joong Kun?”
After walking a caller through memories of the good times that he and Lee shared as students of Seoul’s Pai Jai High, Kim said:
“Whether among friends or among people at the church, if someone needed help, Joong Kun was the first one there. . . . This is the saddest--the most shocking thing that has happened to me during my nearly 30 years in America.”
Lee’s killing, coming within weeks of three other shooting deaths of Korean-American business operators in Los Angeles County by robbers, has rekindled a fear of violent crime among Korean-American merchants, reminiscent of the tension-packed period this spring when Los Angeles awaited the verdicts in the Rodney G. King civil rights trial.
On Sunday, truck driver Soo Won Chough, 52, was shot to death when he refused to turn over his wallet to two bandits at a gas station at Western Avenue and Olympic Boulevard.
Ten days ago, Kim Hung Man, 55, owner of El Camino Liquor Store in Long Beach, was killed during a robbery.
Earlier this month, Myung Lee, a single woman who ran a doughnut shop at Figueroa Street and Florence Avenue, died three months after she fell into a coma after she was shot during a robbery. Korean-Americans remembered Myung Lee as a caring woman who gave doughnuts to the Rev. Chun Ye, who ministers to the homeless by serving them breakfast.
This year alone, more than two dozen Korean-Americans have been killed or wounded during robberies in Southern California, according statistics compiled by Korean-American community agencies and the Korean-language media.
“I don’t understand the (American) media,” said a Korean-American businessman in Inglewood who lost two friends to robbers this year. “They treat Damian Williams and Henry Watson like celebrities, but don’t say a word about the law-abiding people who are gun downed by criminals.” He asked that his name not be published.
Like most Korean immigrants, Lee left South Korea in search of a better future for himself and his family in the 1960s. His first stop was Brazil. Urged to come to Los Angeles by friends such as Kim, Lee moved here in late 1966.
Lee worked hard, saved money and finally obtained his own business. But Kim said he was generous to a fault, once securing a $60,000 loan for a friend and ending up paying the interest when the loan became delinquent.
After Lee was shot during a robbery five years ago, Kim urged him to move out of South-Central.
“The last time I talked with him (a day before he was killed) he told me he would like to get out of the liquor store business,” Kim said. “He was a good Christian--a deacon at the church. His conscience bothered him to sell alcoholic beverages.”
At the Torrance First Presbyterian Church, where Lee was a founding member, the Rev. Pil Jae Lee sighed. “More than 100 members of my congregation have been victims of robberies,” said the minister, who will officiate at the victim’s funeral. “Three members of the congregation were killed. Among others, many bear permanent injuries.”
After a long pause, the clergyman, who had known the slain store owner for 14 years, said that perhaps the time has come for the United States to dispatch the National Guard to make the streets safe. “Can a nation which cannot assure the safety of its citizens lead the world?” he asked.