Motive missing in triple slaying, attorney says
Prosecutors say they have the evidence proving the who, what and when in the trial of a man accused in the shooting deaths of a 2-year-old boy, his mother and the family’s nanny in Los Angeles’ Miracle Mile area nine years ago.
It’s the why that remains a mystery.
As the monthlong murder trial in a downtown courtroom nears an end, the prosecution has presented DNA evidence linking Robin Kyu Cho to the gruesome slayings but has yet to offer a compelling motive for the insurance salesman who lived in the same apartment building as the victims.
A prosecutor told jurors that Cho, 53, was under tremendous financial pressure at the time of the slayings and constantly hounded by creditors, some of whom even waited outside his front door. But nothing was stolen from the victims’ two-bedroom apartment. The mother, Chi Hyon Song, wore a wedding ring and a Gucci watch that were left behind by her killer.
It’s a weakness in the prosecution’s case that Cho’s defense has seized on to argue that the suspect with salt-and-pepper hair had nothing to do with the killings.
“There is absolutely no motive for Mr. Cho,” his attorney, Andrew Flier, told jurors.
The 2003 killings rattled Los Angeles’ Korean community. The boy and nanny were found shot and slumped in a white bathtub. The 30-year-old mother was bound and gagged with packing tape, then shot in the head.
Koreatown newspapers dubbed the crimes the “Miracle Mile murders.”
Evidence at the trial has illustrated detectives’ struggle in trying to establish a motive for the crimes, especially the killing of a toddler, who would not have been able to identify the perpetrator.
Immediately after the killings, with no witnesses, DNA match or surveillance images, policed focused on Byung Chul Song, the child’s father and the mother’s husband, as the primary suspect. In questioning Song, detectives pressed for a reason why someone would want his family dead.
“Two women and a little boy don’t get killed over some ... jewelry,” LAPD Det. Brian McCartin told Song during one interrogation, according to a transcript of the interview. “Somebody was very angry or had something to gain.”
Shortly after the deaths, police received an anonymous letter -- typewritten, then photocopied, in broken English -- offering an explanation for the killings and pointing the blame at Song.
“Song’s husband have a young girl friend ... Husband hired guys from Korea to be free from wife and guys went to Korea last week,” the letter, postmarked from Hollywood the week after the killings, said. “I do not know how much he paid for this service to guys from Korea.”
Investigators tapped the husband’s phone and followed him to establish evidence of his involvement. All they saw, however, was a grieving father. In a series of surveillance photos shown at trial, Song was seen alone and dressed in black at his wife and child’s grave site, somberly cleaning the headstone.
Frustrating detectives was the fact that they had a partial DNA profile that could have come from the killer but were unable to match it to a suspect. The genetic material was from fragments of latex gloves discovered on the tape used to restrain and gag the mother.
The break in the case came five years later when Cho, who lived three floors below the Songs on the ground floor of the apartment building, pleaded guilty to orchestrating a $2-million Ponzi scheme. Cho was sentenced to five years’ probation and required to give a DNA sample. It matched the DNA found at the crime scene, according to prosecutors.
In March 2009, detectives asked Cho to come in for questioning in the triple homicide under the pretext that they were re-interviewing everyone who had lived at the apartment complex.
When he was asked if there was a reason that any of his belongings might have been found in the Songs’ apartment, Cho brought up gloves he said he kept next to his parking spot in the garage because he had sensitive hands and an allergy to oils. Cho’s parking space was next to where the Songs parked. Investigators pressed him about the gloves.
“I didn’t understand about the rubber glove. You know, my wife uses that big red rubber glove...” district attorney investigator Scott Paik said in the interview, referring to dishwashing gloves commonly used by Koreans.
“No no, not like that,” Cho said. “You know, you go to doctor’s office, you see the glove, doctor wear the disposable glove, right?”
“Like a latex glove?” Paik asked.
“Yeah,” Cho responded.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Frank Santoro told jurors the statement was incriminating because at the time of the interview, information about pieces of a latex glove found at the crime scene had not been made public.
A police officer also testified that Cho had a typewriter that could have produced the anonymous letter received by police. The letter, however, could not be conclusively tied to the typewriter because it was a photocopy.
Cho’s attorney told jurors that without evidence of a motive, the prosecution’s case does not make sense.
“Their theory is, Mr. Cho is so despondent and disheveled over his finances that he’s now resorting to being a burglar carrying a gun, executing everybody,” Flier said.
But given that the killer went as far as to kill a young child and bind his mother before shooting her, Cho, himself the married father of two children who appeared to have little connection to the victims, is an unlikely suspect, his lawyer said.
The defense attorney maintained that the person most likely to want the three people dead was Byung Chul Song, the child’s father, who admitted in police interviews that he had had affairs during his marriage.
Song took the stand in recent weeks and immediately broke down in sobs as the prosecutor projected on a screen photos of his family. He whispered his answers to the interpreter in a voice choked with emotion, telling jurors he did not know Cho but had a vague recollection of having passed him at the apartment complex.
Police had searched in vain for a connection between the two men, even tapping Song’s phone after Cho’s arrest to see if the two men would contact each other. They never did.
Song testified that the police never showed him the anonymous letter that blamed him for the murders.
“Did you hire some people who left to Korea after they killed your family?” Flier asked the father.
“No,” Song responded.
The case is expected to go to jurors next week after closing arguments.