Spray victim on life support

Times Staff Writer

A Westminster woman was on life support Monday after she was pepper sprayed during a robbery and suffered a stroke while being treated at a hospital, police said.

Kun Min Kim, 50, was attacked about 7:30 p.m. Sunday as she arrived home from her snack store at the Anaheim Marketplace. She parked in a carport at her apartment building in the 15000 block of Van Buren Street, and as she opened her car door, a woman approached and sprayed her in the face, authorities said. The robber then grabbed a bag Kim was carrying and fled; the bag was Kim's lunch sack, family members said.

The victim was able to find her apartment, kick at the door and have relatives call police. Paramedics were called in, police said, and she was taken to a hospital.

While being treated at Orange Coast Memorial Hospital in Fountain Valley, Kim suffered a stroke and was put into intensive care, police and relatives said.

A brain scan showed that Kim had developed a large blood clot, and hopes for her survival were uncertain, said her nephew Kenneth Lee.

Police didn't know Kim's medical history or if an existing condition could have contributed to her reaction to the pepper spray.

"In this case, we're definitely looking into the use of pepper spray as a contributing factor to the condition she's in now," Sgt. Dan Schoonmaker said.

If Kim dies, her assailant, if caught, could face homicide charges, police said.

Doctors said Kim's stroke was probably triggered by shock and stress from the attack rather than by the spray, Lee said.

"It was a chaotic situation," Lee said. "Here she was trying to breathe and at the same time tell my uncle what had happened."

Investigators were planning to interview the victim's relatives Monday for more information.

"They didn't get much of a chance to talk to either her or them before paramedics arrived," Schoonmaker said.

Officers at the scene, Schoonmaker said, apparently had identified the use of pepper spray during the robbery because of its odor.

"Pepper spray has a distinctive smell," Schoonmaker said. "It could have been from other sprays, but based on the symptoms she had -- like tearing, coughing and redness in the face -- it's likely it was pepper spray."

Pepper spray is an oily plant resin made from such dried spices as chili or cayenne. In some products, the resin is mixed with water or mineral, vegetable or soy oil, and some form of alcohol carrier. It is injected into a canister, from which it can be dispensed in short bursts.

The family, however, suspected that the chemical weapon was mace. The spray was so caustic, Lee said, that a day after touching their mother, her children said they could feel a burning sensation on their hands.

"The spray was all over the dashboard, the steering wheel, the seat belt and the inside of the car. . . . It had like a sticky, burning touch to it," Lee said.

Mace is a tear gas whose effects are similar to pepper spray, authorities said.

Though both substances can cause coughing and gagging, their exact effect on the body is unknown and varies from person to person, Schoonmaker said.

Some researchers have speculated that the gagging reflex may cause some people to believe that they are suffocating and cause them go into shock or suffer heart failure.

The suspect in the Westminster robbery is described as in her 20s, wearing dark pants and a gray sweater or sweat shirt.

Police are asking anyone with information about the attack to contact Westminster Police Detective Kevin MacCormick at (714) 898-3315, Ext. 340.

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david.reyes@latimes.com

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