A Year of Living Perilously

How a case of mistaken identity shattered an immigrant family

Almost a year ago, Chang Ki Yoo, then a junior at Francis Lewis High School, spent two nights at Rikers Island for a crime he did not commit. After taking the requisite cold shower and being forced to submit to a body cavity search, he was thrown into a cell with about 10 other adult and juvenile detainees.

"It was the worst experience of my life," remembers Yoo, who was 17 at the time and has no criminal record. "I sat there wondering how this could happen to me. It was crazy in there. One kid got slashed with a razor right in front of my eyes."

On October 28 of last year, Yoo was first picked up by detectives from the 109th Precinct in Flushing, Queens, on charges of attempted murder and attempted robbery of Carnegie Music Studio, a popular Korean karaoke bar located on Northern Boulevard in Queens. Yoo, who refused to confess, turned down the D.A.'s offer of seven to 21 years before his indictment six months later in April.

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.''

But three weeks ago, the D.A.'s office dropped the case against Yoo "in the interest of justice," according to Mary deBourbon, director of communications for the Queens district attorney's office, after police arrested four other suspects for the crime.

It was too little too late. On October 1, the Yoo family filed a notice of claim, the first step in their civil suit against the city, for $2 million. "The fact that the D.A. dropped the indictment because the four other youths did not name Yoo shows that this was a made-up case," says Brian O'Dwyer of O'Dwyer and Bernstein, the family's attorney in the civil case. The family, however, cannot put the incident aside.

"I don't know when we'll be able to get back to a normal life," says Jung Ja Yoo, Chang Ki's mother, speaking through an interpreter. "My husband has not been the same since this happened to us." After the arrest and the mounting financial pressure, Chang Ki's father, Hee Chun Yoo, became depressed and began drinking.

"We used to run a grocery store," says Mrs. Yoo, "but we went out of business." Her husband now delivers laundry for a dry-cleaning establishment. "It got so bad at one point, we couldn't even pay our rent," she says. "What's humiliating is the feeling that we can't do anything." The loss of the family's business, attorney's fees, and the $25,000 they borrowed for Chang Ki's bail has put the Yoos in considerable debt. "Who knows," sighs Mrs. Yoo, "maybe we'll never get out of our situation."

Originally, the Queens D.A. alleged that Yoo and four other young men entered the Carnegie bar about 11:20 p.m. on August 31, 1997, armed with guns and knives, attempting to rob the club. The robbery failed, but no one was caught or arrested at the time. Two months later Yoo was arrested. Though the D.A. would not comment on why Yoo became a suspect months after the crime occurred, Frank Hancock, Yoo's criminal attorney in the case, speculated, "It seems that someone on the street may have given Chang Ki's name."

According to the police department, the charges were dropped after "the detective assigned to the case found some exculpatory information." While the D.A.'s office would not elaborate, most likely that exculpatory information came from four Korean suspects, ages 17 to 19, who were arrested on June 19, 1998, and were later charged in connection with the Carnegie robbery. Court records obtained by the Voice show that the four made written confessions to the crime that did not implicate Chang Ki Yoo--three and a half months before the D.A. officially exonerated him. But by then, the teenager's future had changed dramatically.

"I couldn't continue with school," says Yoo, referring to this past school year, when he was under indictment and out on bail. "I was always so stressed out. I couldn't do my work. They told me I had to repeat my junior year, so I just decided to drop out altogether." For Yoo, who emigrated to the United States from Korea at the age of 10 in 1991, dropping out was especially hard given his family's expectations. He has since enrolled in a GED program at Queens College and plans on attending CUNY, possibly transferring to a SUNY school later.

The details surrounding Yoo's arrest and the Carnegie incident are bizarre. Detective Henry Sung of the Asian Crime Investigation team made the arrest based on officer Jeffrey Hong's identification of Yoo from a photo array. (Detectives snapped a Polaroid of Yoo the second time he was picked up; he was arrested days later.) Officer Hong, who was off-duty, happened to be in Carnegie the night of the attempted robbery. The D.A.'s office, however, could not confirm whether officer Hong was a patron, moonlighting, or there on an undercover assignment.

According to police sources, the suspects, who were later arrested, are alleged members of a Korean gang known as DGB, which stands for dok gae bi, the Korean term for "goblins." Operating in the Flushing-Bayside area, they are said to extort and rob Korean businesses and engage in home invasions of prominent Korean families. In an interview with the Voice, one of the alleged suspects explained that the attempted robbery of Carnegie was organized by DGB. "The plan was to steal money," said the accused suspect, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "There was supposed to be $500,000 in there."

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."

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 Gaereporter 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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