When the gunfire ended, Yong Whan Chin lay dead on the floor of his Downtown business, an apparent robbery victim in an escalating wave of violence against Southern California garment shop owners, authorities say.
Chin's March 16 slaying shocked local garment manufacturers, who police say are being targeted by international crime rings profiting from a multimillion-dollar trade in stolen industrial sewing machines worth up to $6,000 each. During the past year, increasingly brazen bandits from several rings have allegedly committed more than 1,000 garment shop robberies and burglaries from South-Central to Santa Ana, police said.
"These guys go in so well-armed, so well-organized. They just take over and start rolling people," said Detective Gilbert Escontrias of the Los Angeles Police Department's Rampart Division, who has been tracking garment industry thefts for several years. "They have a real cowboy attitude."
Chin's slaying was the first in Central Los Angeles committed during the course of a garment shop robbery, Escontrias said. In response to the killing, Assemblyman Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles) introduced legislation Wednesday that would allow prosecutors to file felony charges for the altering of serial numbers on stolen sewing machines, computers and other commercial equipment.
Prosecutors have complained that the crime's current misdemeanor designation--punishable by no more than six months in jail and a $1,000 fine--is little deterrence to would-be robbers.
"We want to make sure that crimes of this nature do not offer criminals an incentive to continue their way of life," said Polanco, who announced the bill at a news conference in front of Chin's business near 7th Street and Towne Avenue.
Also on hand were members of Chin's family and representatives of several garment industry associations. "This is sad. We all are at a loss for words," said Myung (Joe) Park, senior vice president of the Korean American Garment Industry Assn.
A Korean immigrant, Chin came to the United States in 1974, working various jobs before saving enough money to buy his garment shop about six years ago. "His dream was to give his family the best life he could," said his son, Henry Chin.
Homicide detectives said Chin was shot several times and pronounced dead at the scene. One worker said he saw two people, one brandishing a handgun, walk into Chin's office about 3:30 p.m. and demand money. As the worker hid in a back room, he said he heard three gunshots.
No arrests have been made, and detectives say they have not yet determined whether the robbers intended to steal sewing machines.
Police say the crime rings have become more daring. In some cases, as many as 15 armed men have stormed shops during working hours. With employees bound and gagged, the gun-wielding robbers have jumped on tables and stolen wallets and jewelry before dashing off with the machines.
Escontrias said many of the robberies appear to be committed by garment industry insiders, since only the most valuable and easiest-sold sewing machines are stolen. With computerized controls, many of the machines are designed to sew specialized stitching and are worth thousands of dollars.
In recent robberies in Boyle Heights and Santa Ana, the rings have hired unknowing day laborers as "burros" to load the equipment into waiting vans, police said.
Police said that many of the stolen machines are shipped to Guatemala and Mexico, netting millions of dollars for the crime rings. Several arrests have been made in some of the Central Los Angeles cases, Escontrias said, but detectives have been unable to crack the rings.
"They work like a terrorist organization, where one cell doesn't know what the other is doing," he said. "It makes the organizations very difficult to penetrate."
In Vernon, three men were recently convicted and sentenced to prison for a July take-over robbery of a garment shop. The men were members of a ring suspected of similar robberies in Montebello, Carson and Gardena, said Sgt. Sol Benudiz of the Vernon Police Department.
Two weeks ago, five young men burst into a garment shop at 26th and San Pedro streets. Police said the armed men gagged and tied several employees with duct tape and stole several thousand dollars worth of machines. No arrests have been made.
"It's only a matter of time before they kill someone else," Escontrias said. "There's no doubt in my mind."