Two years ago today, the South-Central market and dreams of a hard-working Korean American couple went up in flames during the second day of the Los Angeles riots.
Six months later, before they had recovered from the riots’ fury, Kyu Shup and Kyung Sin Lee were roused from sleep in their Cerritos home at 6 a.m. Law enforcement officials handcuffed them in front of their tearful children and hauled them off to jail. Much to their disbelief, the Lees were accused of arson and other crimes in the torching of their business.
A 16-month Kafkaesque journey through the criminal justice system finally ended in February when they were acquitted of all charges. The Lees’ story is among the most traumatic chapters in the saga of the local Korean American community, which suffered heavy heavy damage during the rioting.
The Lees may have been vindicated in court, but they remain jobless, nearly $200,000 in debt and in poor health. On some mornings they are so depressed, the only thing that makes them venture outside is to take their 8-year-old daughter to school.
Two years after the riots, which directly affected 10,000 people of Korean ancestry, more than a third of the 2,500 Korean-owned businesses that were damaged or destroyed remain closed. The combination of the riots and the lingering recession has put the once economically vibrant Korean American community in a financial and emotional depression. Incidents of alcohol abuse and domestic violence are up, according to community social service agencies. Cases of bankruptcies and post-traumatic stress disorder are rampant.
Among those hardest hit are market operators with liquor licenses who struggle to reopen their businesses in the face of new city restrictions imposed since the riots to limit the number of liquor stores in South-Central. Of the 172 liquor stores wiped out during the riots, only eight have reopened.
Another 15 liquor store owners have received city permits to rebuild, but they have not been able to get back on their feet.
Some merchants have given up all together, returning to South Korea or moving to Colorado, Washington state and elsewhere in search of a more hospitable environment. Others are trying desperately to start over again, but bureaucratic obstacles, financial difficulties and health problems have been hard to overcome.
Some Korean American community organizations, staffed by well-meaning but mostly young college graduates who are not fluent in Korean, have not been much help, exasperated victims complain. So, their anguish continues, mostly unseen and unheard by the mainstream.
“The invisible people of the April 29th riots are the Korean immigrant victims,” said K.W. Lee, retired editor of the Korea Times English Edition. “Right after the riots, every luminary under the sun from George Bush to Bill Clinton came to Los Angeles. They made all kinds of promises, but they delivered absolutely nothing.”
“Not guilty!” Fourteen times the jury forewoman repeated those words inside a hushed Los Angeles courtroom.
After the fourth “not guilty” verdict, Kyu Shup Lee began to tremble. He grabbed his attorney’s hand and started to sob. His wife, Kyung Sin Lee, seated beside her lawyer, was crying too.
After the verdicts were read in the case against the couple, Kyu Shup Lee got up slowly, straightened his tall frame and walked up to the forewoman. He hugged her; she reciprocated. “I love America,” he said in heavily accented English. “There is justice in America. Thank you. Thank you.”
But the legal victory was only paper-thin. It has neither eased their pain nor helped piece together their shattered lives.
“We’re exhausted from the ordeal,” said Kyung Sin Lee, 41, who was a nurse in Seoul. “There isn’t an ounce of energy left in us.”
Like many Korean American business owners, the Lees lost nearly everything inside their store.
But unlike other victims, they say they were victimized twice--a second time by the criminal justice system-- when they were accused of removing merchandise from their market, then getting others to burn it down to collect insurance money.
Exonerated by the jury, the Lees are trying to get back the Small Business Administration loan that was canceled after their arrest. But two months after their acquittal, all they get is the runaround from SBA officials, they said.
“It’s maddening,” Kyu Shup Lee said. “I have not even received one letter from them. There is no accountability anywhere.”
Unloading his frustration, Lee, who has a degree in textile engineering from a prestigious Seoul university, spoke in Korean, the volume of his voice rising with the intensity of his emotion:
“How is it possible that law enforcement officials could bring such grave charges against myself and my children’s mother based on remarks of disreputable people? If they had done their homework, they would have known that those so-called witnesses had lied to cover up the fact that they stole from my store during the riots. Yet, they chose to prosecute my wife and me--law-abiding citizens.
“As long as I live I can never forget the humiliation my wife and I were subjected to by agents of the law who descended on our home and hauled us to jail like common criminals.”
The Lees were initially charged with arson, insurance fraud and grand theft.
Several witnesses, who claimed to authorities that Kyu Shup Lee had told them to help themselves to what was in the store and solicited neighborhood residents to torch the place, did not testify in court. One witness who did testify contradicted the prosecution.
The arson charge was dismissed, but when the case was refiled in Superior Court, the prosecution tacked on seven counts of falsifying mortgage documents. On the day of the trial the prosecution dropped the grand theft and insurance fraud counts, so the case was tried only on the allegations of altering mortgage papers.
They were accused of making false financial statements when they bought their home. But the Lees, whose English proficiency is limited, testified that they had relied on their loan agent and simply signed their names as instructed.
By the time the trial was over, the couple had incurred $85,000 in attorneys’ fees. To satisfy their $1 million bail, which was reduced to $150,000, Kyu Shup Lee’s relatives put liens on their homes.
What hurts Lee more than the pain he and his wife have endured is the suffering inflicted on his 82-year-old father and their children. After his father, who lives in Seoul, heard the news of his youngest son’s arrest, the right side of his face became “paralyzed like a stroke victim’s,” Lee said. “My father cannot speak anymore.”
The elder Lee came to Los Angeles to be with his son. “Every time my father sees me, he points to the right side of his face and then at me,” said Lee, 44.
His children, 13 and 8, are terrified of police officers. “Whenever they see a police car, they take cover,” Lee said.
“I was in jail on the eve of Halloween, thinking of my children’s unfinished costumes,” his wife said. “The dream we brought from Korea that made us work so hard for all those years is gone.”
Lee’s attorney, Angela Oh, said the district attorney’s office picked the Lees to use as an example, emphasizing the widespread publicity generated by the district attorney’s press office when the couple was arrested.
“They definitely wanted to send a message that people who cheat and defraud our financial institutions would not be tolerated, but they had the wrong people,” Oh said.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Michael Cabral called Oh’s characterization unfair. “We looked at the evidence and we thought there was sufficient evidence to file charges,” he said. “Sometimes juries agree; sometimes juries don’t agree.”
The Lees were not provided interpreters when officials began their investigation. Oh said the Lees were misunderstood by everyone they dealt with--from the insurance company to agents from the Fire Department, the district attorney’s office, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and members of the news media.
Kapson Yim Lee, editor of the Korea Times English Edition, said she hopes law enforcement agencies will learn from this case.
“For Korean immigrants the language barrier is a chronic problem,” she said. “It is a miscarriage of justice that these two industrious immigrants were subjected to this ordeal. Who is going to give them back their lost years and their health?”
Many Korean Americans see the plight of the Lees and other riot victims as a reflection of their community’s political impotence.
“When two Japanese students were killed (in a San Pedro carjacking), even the President of the United States apologized, but when Korean grocers are killed, nobody even mentions their name,” said Jee Hee Min, a Korean homemaker who lives in South-Central.
Last year, 46 Korean Americans in the Los Angeles area were shot during robberies and 19 died.
“We didn’t come to America to be cannon fodders,” said Young Jin Lee, who runs a clothing store in Downtown Los Angeles.
Nearby, in the Los Angeles garment district, Arison Kang, 22, whose family went from riches to rags after the riots, says the lesson from the civil disturbances is getting involved in the political process.
“As long as we don’t vote, the American government won’t take us seriously,” she said. “Koreans living in the U.S. should become citizens and vote.”
Her father, Shin Dal Kang, took his life on April 1, unable to get over the depression from losing what he had worked for during a quarter-century in the United States. His death shocked the Korean American community, a poignant reminder of the riots’ continuing toll.
With him gone, Arison dropped out of school temporarily to help her mother, Kyung Pun Kang, run a women’s clothing store.
Many times during the workday, Kang retreats to her office in the back of the store and weeps, thinking of her husband.
“My husband would be alive now, if it hadn’t been for the riots,” she said. “I am still upset with the police chief (Daryl Gates) and the mayor (Tom Bradley). Why did they let their bad relationship get in the way of protecting citizens of Los Angeles?”
Since the Kangs’ clothing business in a South-Central swap meet was destroyed during the riots, they have lost an apartment building and their $1 million home in Hancock Park because they fell behind in payments.
“In one night, our credit went from excellent to bad,” Kyung Pun Kang said. “Now, nobody will lend us money to start over.”
She said her husband fell into a deep depression after they lost their home. “We had lived there for 15 years,” Kang said. “We had a one-acre home with a stream running through the back yard. We had so many happy memories there.”
Now, all the trappings of success, including a Mercedes-Benz and Arison’s horse, are gone. “My only solace is my religion,” she said.
Her husband killed himself while their son, Donald, was on a solo journey around the world in a sailboat. “Our son wanted to become the first Korean to go around the world on a boat,” she said. “When he left, my husband said he would wait for him.”
Dabbing her eyes with a handkerchief, she said: “Donald is returning home from Samoa. He wants to be at my side right now. I told him to complete his journey, but he said he’s coming home.”
Now, looking at a picture of her husband, she said she wishes she had not quarreled with him. “Things were so difficult after the riots, we exchanged harsh words. I wish I had been more patient with him.”
It is only minutes after 10 on a Wednesday morning, and Kumja Park is busily packing wild rice with pecans and Peking salad into lunch boxes inside a cafe she runs in the Wilshire district.
With 500 office workers patronizing her place, she is on her feet 13 hours a day.
In February, Park (not her real name) started the business with the $390,000 SBA loan she received last year after her Crenshaw district liquor store burned to the ground on the first day of the riots. She wanted to go back, but her landlady put the lot up for sale.
For six months Park, a widow with no children, looked for a business she could run alone.
“Running a restaurant--even if it’s small like mine--is so difficult because of hired help,” she said. “I can’t even go to the bathroom, when my cashier doesn’t show up.” She has four employees--all non-Korean. “When two employees call in sick, the place is paralyzed.”
In 1988, she and her late husband opened the liquor store with the money they had saved for 20 years. Six months later, he was diagnosed with cancer and eight months after that he died. Park was still mourning her husband’s passing when her business was destroyed.
It was easier to operate a market because she could get relatives to help, she said. “With restaurants, you’ve got to have people who know how to prepare food.”
Business hours are from 7 a.m. until 6 p.m., Monday through Friday, but Park spends many hours on evenings and weekends making purchases and preparing vegetables and meats.
Park, who is in her mid-50s, said her body aches constantly from the stress of the business and working on her feet all day.
“I don’t know how much longer I can continue,” she said. Her predicament is between a rock and a hard place. “If I quit, I won’t get a penny because the SBA will get everything.”
Remembering the happier days before the riots when her husband was alive, Park looked sad.
“If it hadn’t been for the riots, I could have retired comfortably in a few more years.”
That plan was buried with the ashes of her market.
“All I have is a 30-year SBA loan to pay off. I won’t live another 30 years. But I have nothing left, so I have to try--just to survive,” Park said. “The last thing I want is to lose my home. I want to die in my house. I have so many memories with my late husband in that home.”