The parents of a Korean immigrant killed by sheriff's deputies two years ago in what one police witness termed an "execution" agreed Tuesday to accept $999,999 to settle their suit against Los Angeles County.
The settlement marks a victory for the family of Hong Pyo Lee and local Korean community groups, who launched a series of angry protests over what they claimed was the Sheriff's Department's cover-up of an "ugly mistake."
The victim's father, Sung Kyu Lee of Cerritos, announced the settlement at a news conference at a Koreatown television studio.
"It has been so long that my family and my (liquor store) business have been put on hold," he said. "I hope, now, my son's name has been cleared. Now it's time to take care of the rest of the family."
The five deputies involved in the killing alleged that Hong Pyo Lee, 21, tried to run over them moments before they fired 15 rounds into his car, striking him nine times in the neck, back and arm.
The deputies were subsequently cleared of any wrongdoing by sheriff's homicide investigators and the district attorney's office.
Lee's parents maintained in a $5.7-million civil suit filed in U.S. District Court that the deputies' account of the shooting was a desperate, collaborative effort to justify the brutal and unnecessary killing.
The family's attorney, George V. Denny III, said the settlement confirms their contention that the deputies overreacted.
"The county doesn't hand out almost a million dollars of taxpayers' money for a vague notion of wrongdoing," Denny said. "It is a very direct admission of guilt of their officers."
Lawyers representing the deputies--who were all stationed in Lynwood--declined to comment on the settlement, which must be approved by county supervisors.
On March 8, 1988, about 2:30 a.m., deputies saw Lee's car run a stop sign in Compton, sheriff's officials said. Deputies signaled Lee to stop, but his car accelerated and he led deputies on freeway and surface streets toward Long Beach.
The chase ended 15 miles away when deputies and Long Beach police officers cornered the car in a dead-end street in an industrial area. With no place to escape, Lee waited in his car.
Sheriff's Sgt. Paul Tanaka, 31, and Deputies Robert Papini, 29, Daniel McLeod, 30, and Brian Lee, 31, drew their guns and watched as Deputy John Chapman, 31, approach the car and ordered the driver to surrender.
At that point, sheriff's investigators allege, Lee put the car in reverse and tried to run over the deputies. The family claims that Lee's car lurched forward as he tried to escape. They maintain that Chapman was not struck, but fell as he jumped away from the car.
In that moment of confusion, investigators said, the four other deputies, believing "something had happened to Chapman," opened fire.
Lee's family claimed that the sheriff's investigation of the shooting was, at best, sloppy, and, at worst, a cover-up.
Denny said the county's case suffered when discrepancies surfaced in witness accounts--including depositions by a Long Beach police officer who reported that the victim's car was moving away from deputies when the shooting began. The officer, Richard R. Boatwright, said he turned to his partner after they witnessed the shooting and said, "We just observed the sheriffs execute somebody."
Denny also claimed that sheriff's officials did not follow proper procedure when questioning deputies about the shooting. According to homicide investigators, the five deputies waited together in the coffee room of the Lynwood sheriff's station for 10 hours after the incident, Denny said.
"There were no supervisors to keep them apart and to make sure they were not coming up with the same story, which goes against all proper procedure in a homicide investigation," the lawyer said.
And as many questions as the family raised to sheriff's investigators, the deputies countered with their own questions about Lee.
Why did he flee? Why didn't he surrender? they asked.
After a coroner's autopsy found traces of cocaine in Lee's blood, family members conceded that Lee was a drug user. They had no explanation for why he was driving through Compton that morning.
After the district attorney's investigation cleared the deputies, community groups held a series of demonstrations demanding a new investigation and changes in the Sheriff's Department's training on the use of deadly force.
Sheriff Sherman Block eventually met with community leaders to reassure critics that the department had conducted a thorough investigation. The protests stopped, but Lee's family pressed their civil suit against the county as well as a call for an investigation by the U.S. attorney's office.
The victim's mother, Seung Ja Lee, still visits her son's grave at least twice a week, according to her older son, Paul. She shines the bronze marker and sometimes imagines her slain son's face in the burnished metal, he said.