A Life Won and Lost

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the long, rainy days after Evan Hunziker came home from a North Korean prison, accused of being a spy, there was only one time anybody can remember him laughing--really laughing.

He was sitting in a bar in downtown Tacoma a week ago. He'd bought a pitcher of beer for his old drinking buddy, Mike Mares, but Mares was doing most of the drinking that day. Mares was the one telling stories and rolling out philosophy and making a stab at the occasional joke. Hunziker was mostly just watching Mares talk, watching Mares swallow down the beer, quietly buying a second pitcher when the first one drained dry.

Then Mares tried another approach. "I made a joke about him being overseas," he said. "I said, 'My name is Bond. James Bond.' And he had a flying laugh at that. I mean, he really laughed."

But just as quickly, the smile faded. An uneasy silence dropped like a drape between the two old friends.

Now, Mares said, "I think something bad must've happened over there. Something really bad."

On the morning of Dec. 18, Evan Hunziker was found slumped on a long bench in an empty hotel restaurant where he often sat out the nights since his Thanksgiving Eve return from North Korea. Desk clerk Ginger Blodgett found him there, figuring he'd just fallen off to sleep. Except there was a bullet in his head and a gun next to him. Police combed the basement and ruled it a suicide.

Thus ended the improbable story of this 26-year-old--a high school football star, the son of a brash South Korean hotelier and an American bus driver, either a missionary or a drunk or a spy (depending on who's telling the tale) whose misadventures thrust him into the middle of an international diplomatic incident and just as abruptly dropped him back into anonymity in a rundown hotel here.

"I'm very saddened by this turn of events," said Rep. Bill Richardson (D-N.M.), who negotiated Hunziker's release after three months of captivity in North Korea. "Evan was a gentle young man who sought peace for all people."

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Hunziker kept what he called his "bible" books behind the front desk at the Olympus Hotel, the cheap residential place his mother owns near the downtown bus station.

There, in the lobby with the cracked paneling and dusty Coke sign, Evan would pull out his books and spend hours at a time talking about God to anybody who couldn't think of a reason to leave. The books weren't really the Bible; there was a dusty copy of a self-help book, "Your Maximum Mind: Tapping Your Inner Resources on the Way to Success," and another one, "The Good Samaritan Strikes Again."

His father, Edwin Hunziker, pointed out that if Evan really cared so much about God, why didn't he go to the seminary and join the priesthood? Go to missionary school and get a job as a missionary? Just get a job?

"He went down and he got the Bible and he read it. He read it two or three times. He got to where he could quote Scriptures up and down," recalled the elder Hunziker, sitting over a plate of fried meat and potatoes in his cramped kitchen. "But the thing is, he didn't understand what he read. If he'd have understood, he wouldn't have done what he did. He wouldn't have killed himself. He'd be here today."

It was that newfound religious passion, his friends and family said, that prompted Hunziker late last spring to borrow money for an airline ticket to South Korea--his mother's birthplace. He wanted to get a job as an English teacher, he said, and "spread the word of God." He left without even saying goodbye to his father.

For years, Evan Hunziker had been looking for a place to go, and something to do when he got there.

Edwin Hunziker had married Jong Nye while he was posted in Korea during the war. The couple moved to Tacoma and had three children, and Edwin--working jobs ranging from cement laying to bus driving--started drinking. When things got to be too bad, Jong Nye left, taking Evan--still in grade school--with her to Alaska.

The tiny immigrant who spoke only broken English started up the Trade Winds Motel in Anchorage, a rough-and-ready place that catered to itinerant oil workers and cashed in big on the pipeline boom. Evan Hunziker lived with a succession of relatives in Anchorage before Jong Nye moved back to Tacoma, opened the Olympus Hotel and sent him to high school.

He played football so well that he earned an athletic scholarship to a small college in south central Washington. But it was there, his father said, that Hunziker started drinking and using drugs and eventually wandered up to Anchorage again, where his mother had gone back to run the Trade Winds with her longtime boyfriend, Kevin Hux.

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She sent Hunziker to South Korea to marry a young woman she'd selected for him. But when he came home with his bride, the marriage seemed destined to fail. The drugs and the alcohol, his family said, were turning him into someone they didn't recognize. He would be loving and cheerful one day, violently angry the next.

It was almost "like he was Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," Hux said in 1993 court papers as the family began applying for a series of restraining orders against a young man whose rage was growing out of control.

Jong Nye went to court the first time a day after Hunziker smashed up the furniture in the motel, looking for his wife, who had left the house. "He just flipped out," Evan's brother, George, told the court. "My brother has a very violent temper, and what . . . we feel that he needs is psychiatric help. He needs to talk to somebody to control himself."

Jong Nye interjected at this point, saying her son's wife was afraid of him. "She cannot move, nothing. He just beat her up, anything she does," she said.

Hux filed for another restraining order in November 1995, saying Hunziker had tried to stab him in the face with a pencil. He had attacked other employees and guests, Hux said, and he was grabbing cash out of the till. The family no longer knew how to stop him.

"Finally, he's even attacked me. The night before, he beat up the maintenance man and slapped the desk clerk," Hux told the court. "In the last 30 days, he's beat up 12 people over on that property. I'm surprised nobody's sued us, OK? I've got employees and tenants. I mean, if you're renting from me, do you expect the landlord's son to come busting through your front door and knock the hell out of you?"

"My son needs help," Jong Nye said.

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It was when Hunziker was serving a jail sentence for reckless driving last year that he found God, his family said. And when he came out, he still had a bad temper, but he began spending most of his time reading and talking about God.

Faced with his mother's attempt to have him committed for mental evaluation and pending criminal assault charges, Hunziker fled back to Tacoma and began spending most of his days around his old friends at the Olympus Hotel.

"He was pretty mellow here. He preached the Gospel to anybody who would listen," said Blodgett, who had known Hunziker for more than a decade. "He was just a big teddy bear, a nice kid. Somebody would come up to him and say, 'Hey, man, I'm hungry,' and he'd give him 20 bucks."

Mares struck up a friendship with him because Hunziker had a way of making him feel good. Mares used to talk about his daughter, the one who was born when he was 14 years old. He raised her, with his parents, as a single father, adored her from the beginning and dreamed she'd be a military woman the way he and his father had been Army men.

He was on duty in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War in 1990 when she was struck down by a drunk driver while riding her bicycle. He wasn't allowed to come home for the funeral. And so he would talk to Hunziker about the girl, about how he couldn't let go of her. "I've been making her life," he explained. "I'll say to myself, 'She's 17 now. She's in ROTC, she's a brigade commander in ROTC, she's a lieutenant colonel in ROTC.' So we'd talk about that. He would say I just have to accept it."

Then Hunziker would take him up to the Thriftway and buy him a beer and something to eat.

Sometimes, Hunziker would drive out to his father's house in nearby Parkland for dinner. During his last visit, he chopped and stacked a load of firewood, asking if there was anything else he could do.

By that time, Edwin Hunziker suspected there was something wrong with his son, although he couldn't put his finger on it. "One day he'd come out here and he'd be fine, and the next time he'd come out here and I'd say something and it was like I wasn't even there. Like he was spaced out. He'd just come and go."

One day last summer, he said, Evan announced that he was going to South Korea. "He told me he was going to go over there and try and find a job teaching English, and try and teach people about religion to teach and spread the Gospel," the elder Hunziker said. "He left here in July. The next thing I know, last part of July, first part of August, I get a call from his mother saying he was in North Korea and they was gonna shoot him as a spy. What can I say?"

Evan Hunziker told diplomats that he'd wound up touring China, gotten drunk with a friend on the banks of the Yalu River on the North Korean border and, on a lark, plunged in and started swimming. He was floundering by the time he reached a midstream island, and farmers handed him over to North Korean authorities.

Inconveniently, Evan Hunziker washed up just as relations between the United States and North Korea were in deep freeze over the grounding of a North Korean military submarine near South Korea and subsequent landing of 28 commandos onto South Korean shores.

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For three months, he remained under house arrest, and later imprisoned, under the threat of execution. "Don't worry. I am fine," Hunziker said in a long letter he wrote to his father on Oct. 12.

"Please tell everybody I have not confessed to espionage but I told the interpreter that I am concerned about the current situation on the Korean Peninsula, since Mom is Korean and half my family is Korean. And I told them first and foremost that I am a Christian man and wanted to foster peace and better communication between America and North Korea, to stop the senseless military aggression on both sides. . . .

"Please tell the media this truth," he wrote. "That I am a Christian man and I crossed the border as an act of faith and to promote peace. . . . I have NOT confessed to being a spy. That is very important, Dad. We must have truthful communication, and that is the truth."

Then came a phone call from the State Department: Evan, his father was told, had tried to commit suicide.

But all the Hunzikers could do was worry, until Nov. 27, when Richardson flew to North Korea and secured his release with payment of a $5,000 "hotel fee." Evan Hunziker flew home to Sea-Tac International Airport to a crush of reporters, his eyes blinking in the television lights as he stepped off the plane. The North Koreans had treated him well, he said in response to questions. He added: "I am very happy."

But he had seemed anything but very happy these last weeks, his friends and family said. "He was a lot more quiet," Blodgett said. "He didn't talk much. I can't even imagine what it was like for him over there, but he wouldn't talk about it."

"I tried to get him to talk about it," Edwin Hunziker said, "but he wouldn't talk about nothing. All he'd say was the food was edible and it was sustainable, but it was lousy food. I asked if anything bad had happened to him. He said, 'I don't wanna talk about it.' "

On Dec. 17, the last time Blodgett saw Hunziker, he was walking through the hotel lobby. "I spoke to him, and he didn't reply. He looked like he had something to do. He had kind of a determined look."

Mares remembers Hunziker being even more quiet than usual. "He was kind of solemn," he said. "Kind of quiet. In a way, I guess you could say distant."

The next morning, Mares was down at the grocery store by 6, buying breakfast and a few beers. He walked back and saw several police cars outside the hotel, and then the coroner's van. "They brought his body out, and that's it," said Mares, slumping over in the back of the Olympus laundry room. "I broke down," he said, and the words became a sad chant. "I broke down. I broke down. I broke down. I broke down."

Then he stumbled back to the elevator and went upstairs.

* Correspondent Liz Ruskin in Alaska contributed to this report.

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