A Year of Living Perilously

How a case of mistaken identity shattered an immigrant family

Apparently, according to the confession of one of the four arrested, all the perpetrators were wearing masks. When asked why Yoo was indicted based on such a flimsy identification, Queens D.A. spokesperson deBourbon says she understood that the five robbers were wearing bandannas over the bottom part of their faces and that "the eyes and upper faces were visible." But it is not clear how he could identify anyone through a bandanna. "From our experience," says deBourbon, "eyewitness identifications can sometimes be mistaken." Officer Hong and Detective Sung said they were unable to comment on the case.

As far as Yoo is concerned, he thinks it wasn't simply a case of mistaken identity but of police misconduct. "The police were a real problem," he says. "When Detective Sung picked me up for questioning, I asked for my lawyer, and he just said, 'You don't need a lawyer. You're Korean, I'm Korean, let's help each other out.' When I didn't say anything, he kept slamming the table with his fist a few inches from my arm saying, 'Be a good son, don't make [your parents] waste money on bail. Just confess and you'll get six months probation. You're never going to go home or see your parents again if you don't!' "

"I can understand how this could happen," says Mrs. Yoo. "In Korea, the police get bribed and they detain people without reason. These Korean detectives are just bringing that culture over here."

Chang Ki Yoo: ''I can't go anywhere anymore without thinking that they will pick me up for something I didn't do.''
Michael Sofronski
Chang Ki Yoo: ''I can't go anywhere anymore without thinking that they will pick me up for something I didn't do.''

In several interviews conducted by the Voice, some in this close-knit, isolated Korean community have talked about Detective Sung and Detective Jae Shim (Sung's partner), relating firsthand experiences about their aggressive policing. (Sung and Shim are the only Korean-speaking detectives in the Asian Crime Investigation Team.) Though most would not go on the record, Jeyong Jeong, former executive director of the Korean Association of New York, a community organization, confirms that they "have received a number of complaints. A few years ago, when we first started hearing about them from people in the community, we didn't believe it. But now, after receiving more complaints, there might be something to it."

In June, a group of more than 20 Korean and non-Korean church leaders in Queens formed The Committee Against Miscarriage of Justice, to address acts by these same two detectives in another case. "We are concerned about the police procedure in terms of their interrogation and identification," says Reverend N. J. L'Heureux Jr., chairman of the newly formed committee. "There seemed to be something improper about the quick arrest and incarceration of Peter Lee."

Peter Lee, a 35-year-old Korean American grocer made headlines last May when he was arrested and charged with killing two alleged loan sharks. (The Queens D.A. is not seeking the death penalty, but instead life without parole.) In the case, which attracted major headlines, the only eyewitness to the crime was a 70-year-old Korean man known as "Carpenter Park" (not his real name), who identified Peter Lee as the shooter before the grand jury and the police. Later however, Park, according to an article in the Sae Gae Times--a Korean-language daily--said he did not identify the shooter. In a translation of the audiotaped interview obtained by the Voice, when asked by Sae Gae reporter Justin Lim if he saw the face of the shooter, Park replied, "I don't know the face of the shooter." Later on in the interview, Park said: "Detectives showed me [Peter Lee's] passport and asked, "Isn't this the person?' and I said, 'I don't know.' "

The Civilian Complaint Review Board received only one complaint filed against Detective Sung and none against Detective Jae Shim, but that may be misleading, according to Mr. Jeong of the Korean Association of New York. "Korean people are afraid to complain," he notes. "They don't want to go to any authorities in matters like this."

A separate complaint filed against the same detectives with Internal Affairs led to an investigation a few years ago, but it was dropped, according to a police source in IAB, "after we discovered that the person making the complaint was forced to do so by Korean gangsters." The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, went on to defend these detectives, saying, "These guys do a lot of good community policing because they know the people in the community."

But one person in the community disagrees: "They don't know who I am," says Yoo. "They just thought the worst about me. And I had to suffer for it."

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