Motorcyclist Ryan Dallas Cook was taking the 55 Freeway home after practicing with his band, but he didn’t know a disabled SUV loomed ahead of him in the carpool lane. Within moments, he was dead.
About 24 hours later, the Hyundai executive who was driving the SUV had left for his native South Korea, according to investigators.
Now, 1 1/2 years later, an arrest warrant has been issued for Youn Bum Lee, and the victim’s family told prosecutors that they want other Hyundai executives held liable, believing they helped him leave the country before police could track him down.
Orange County prosecutors last month charged Lee in absentia with three felonies in the death of 23-year-old Cook: gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated; driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs with injury; and hit-and-run with injury or death.
Officials at the California Highway Patrol, who are leading the investigation, said Tuesday that the FBI, the U.S. Department of Justice and the Orange County district attorney’s office were working to find Lee. His wife, who moved out of the couple’s Irvine home with their son days after the accident, is believed to be with him.
“We don’t know where he’s at right now,” said CHP spokeswoman Jennifer Hink.
Hink said the investigation had been complicated by Lee’s status as a foreign national, his decision to leave the country and language barriers. She said some of Lee’s colleagues at Hyundai Motor Co.'s U.S. subsidiary in Fountain Valley failed to cooperate during early stages of the investigation, but “for the most part, they have provided helpful information.”
Cook’s relatives, on the other hand, say they are convinced there was a cover-up at Hyundai. They said they plan to file a wrongful-death lawsuit today against the corporation and several employees, including Lee, alleging they helped thwart the investigation.
“Getting Youn Bum Lee out of the picture before he could be questioned or investigated immediately after the accident, that was a significant roadblock,” said the victim’s father, Carlton Cook of Huntington Beach. “Personally, I feel like Hyundai and its employees were accountable for the events that led up to the accident too.”
Calls to Hyundai’s legal department and company officials named in court records were not returned Tuesday.
Police reports and other documents on file at Orange County Superior Court in Santa Ana allege the following, in chronological order:
Lee, a 40-year-old personnel administrator at Hyundai Motor America, joined six colleagues for dinner at Seoul Oak Korean restaurant in Garden Grove about 7:30 p.m. on Oct. 18, 2005, to welcome one of the businessmen to the U.S. The group ate barbecued ribs and soup and consumed 14 bottles of Saan Soju, a Korean rice wine with a 21% alcohol content. Lee drank about eight shots, one of his colleagues later told police. The tab, including tip, was $337.
About 10 p.m., the party moved to 25 Si, a nearby karaoke bar, where they drank 16 cans of Hite beer in a room reserved for VIPs. They spent $297 and left just after midnight, Lee driving alone back to his home in Irvine.
A short time later, several 911 callers described a dark SUV weaving in the southbound lanes of the 55 Freeway, then crashing into the concrete barrier in the carpool lane just north of MacArthur Boulevard, with no lights on and appearing stalled.
One caller looked back and saw “one headlight approaching” Lee’s car. That turned out to be Cook, a trombone player, who was returning home from a practice session with his band, the Suburban Legends, after a day spent studying for a college exam.
Cook applied the front and back brakes of his Honda Nighthawk, resulting in a locked-wheel skid. He struck the left rear of the SUV as Lee backed away from the barrier. Thrown from the motorcycle, Cook was struck by three other vehicles. He was pronounced dead at the scene. An autopsy showed he died of multiple traumatic injuries. Tests for drugs and alcohol came back negative.
About 12:50 a.m., Lee called one of the colleagues who had been with him earlier and told him he had been hit from behind by a motorcyclist, according to a statement that that businessman gave to investigators. Lee allegedly told this colleague that he had gotten out of his car and looked around, saw a motorcycle but no rider with it, and thought the rider might have fled for some unknown reason.
The next morning, Lee parked his car at work as he normally did, but moments later came back out of the office building and reversed the vehicle in the parking stall. He came back a second time with the same colleague he had called after the accident, and they surveyed the damage together. These actions were recorded on parking lot cameras.
Later that day, Lee met with his supervisor and told him he needed legal advice. He went with two colleagues to see a company attorney, who referred them to a second attorney in Los Angeles.
On the way home, Lee asked the colleague who was driving if he could be dropped off at LAX, saying that “something had come up.”
Instead, uncomfortable with Lee’s request, the driver pulled into the parking lot of a hotel near the airport and tried to talk to Lee.
At that point, Lee hopped out and jumped into a taxi. His two colleagues hailed their own cab and tailed Lee.
At the airport, the colleagues later told police, Lee seemed agitated and asked them to leave him alone.
They said they left him about 9 p.m. and went back to the office.
Lee’s wife, meanwhile, told authorities that Lee had called her about 5 p.m. and asked her to pack him a bag and meet him at the airport.
She said that when she dropped off the bag it was about 8 p.m. and he was alone. She told authorities it wasn’t unusual for her husband to pack his bags for last-minute business trips but that this was the first time he had asked her to come to an airport and the first time he wouldn’t tell her where he was going.
Lee bought an open-ended ticket to South Korea and boarded a 12:30 a.m. flight on Oct. 20, court records show.
Nine hours later, the vice president of human resources for Hyundai was given a news article about a fatal hit-and-run by an employee who knew Lee’s car had been in an accident.
After looking at Lee’s car, which was still in the company parking lot, the vice president drove to the Fountain Valley Police Department to report the damage.
Two days later, on Oct. 22, Lee called one of the colleagues who had been with him at LAX to tell him he had touched down in South Korea, and asked him “to take care of his family,” according to a statement the colleague gave to authorities.
This employee and other colleagues said they had not seen or heard from Lee since.