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Cries of Bias Follow Death of Korean at Hands of Law

March 17, 1988|MARK ARAX | Times Staff Writer

"Your parents go off to work, and all you have is your friends," said Kevin Chung, 23, Lee's close friend. "Because of the generation gap and the culture gap, your friends become your family.

"Hong Pyo and all of us are at the point where we're half and half. You're kind of lost."

America, at least on the surface, translated into fast cars, trendy clothes and weekend experiments with cocaine for Lee and some of his friends. But Lee, who was known to his Anglo friends as "Steven," had trouble drawing the line once he entered high school. His friends said he often used drugs during the week, missing school and coming home late at night.

They said his father, who had struggled his way up from a gas station attendant to a shoe maker to the owner of a liquor store, was generous to a fault.

"He was spending a lot of the money his father gave him on cocaine," said one close friend, who asked not to be named. "He was out of control. He just wanted too much."

Finally, about a year ago, one friend approached the father about Lee's drug use. Lee was promptly sent to South Korea to live with his mother's family.

"He came back about a month or two later, but he hadn't changed," the friend said. " . . . He hated to be alone. He liked to have a good time."

His problems worsened last September. At a party at a Fullerton hotel, Lee intervened in a fight in a parking lot involving a younger friend. He was struck in the face and over the head with a metal pipe, which ripped out his gums and front teeth and cracked his skull.

His family said he nearly died on the operating table from internal bleeding. A plate was inserted in his skull. Three weeks later, he returned home and seemed to have a new attitude.

"He told me it was his second chance at life, and he was going to do a lot better," said Frank Kim, Lee's best friend. "He was sorry to his parents . . . He wanted to make it up to them."

In recent months, he had begun working 50 to 60 hours a week at the liquor store. Two weeks ago, he signed up for auto mechanic classes at a Los Angeles trade school. He was brimming with talk about the future, how he would open up his own service station someday.

"He told me he wanted to get married, but only after he became successful," said Rachel Kim, 17, Lee's girlfriend. "He wanted to do his own thing. He didn't want to have to depend on his parents anymore."

Late to Class

After classes on Monday, March 7, Lee and Frank Kim drank a six-pack of beer each, watched Kung Fu videos and drove to a hamburger stand. They returned home at 10:30 p.m.

"I left and I thought he was going to go inside to sleep because he had school the next day," Kim said.

His family and friends remain puzzled why Lee would be driving through a rough area near Lynwood at 2:30 a.m. Sheriff's officials said Lee ran a stop sign on Atlantic Avenue, just south of Alondra Boulevard. The sheriff's patrol car flashed on its red lights, but Lee accelerated. For 15 miles, along surface streets and the Artesia Freeway, Lee led deputies on a chase that never exceeded 55 m.p.h.

By the time it ended in an industrial area in the 2500 block of Thompson Street, behind a Long Beach rubber manufacturing plant, Lee was being pursued by five deputies in three cars and two Long Beach police officers in another one. A sheriff's helicopter made passes overhead.

According to a Sheriff's Department account, Lee stopped his car in a confined loading area approximately 120 feet from a fence. Two sheriff's patrol cars stopped about 15 to 20 feet behind Lee. The Long Beach police unit was behind them.

Five deputies from the Lynwood station--Sgt. Paul Tanaka, 29, and deputies Robert Papini, 27; Daniel McLeod, 28; Brian Lee, 29; John Chapman, 29--exited their vehicles with guns drawn, according to investigators.

Shifted Gears

As Chapman approached the driver's side and demanded that Lee get out with his hands up, Lee suddenly shifted the car into reverse. Deputies had to jump out of the way to avoid being hit.

Neighbors said they heard someone yell, "The son of a bitch tried to run me over."

A moment later, gunshots rang out. Chapman and the Long Beach officers did not fire their weapons, according to investigators. The shooting ended seconds later when Lee's car lurched forward and crashed into the fence.

Sheriff's Homicide Capt. Robert Grimm said that even though the car was only able to pick up a limited amount of speed in such a tight area, the deputies had cause to fear for their safety.

"I don't think that when a car is accelerating in reverse, any normal person would think about shooting the tires," he said.

Grimm said the number of shots fired was not an issue, pointing out that one deputy fired once while another fired six times.

"Our deputies don't count bullets. They fire as long as they perceive a threat or danger."

But Korean community leaders and Lee's family argue that Lee was essentially trapped, affording deputies a number of less-severe options. Why did deputies fail to shield themselves behind their patrol cars, turn on their spotlights and just wait Lee out? How was a mortally wounded Lee able to shift his car from reverse to forward and travel a distance of more than 120 feet into the fence?

"He was just one boy in one car," said Paul Lee, 26, the victim's brother. "How much trouble could he be?"

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