ALHAMBRA — The death of a real estate agent Monday in an attempted Alhambra carjacking represents a deadly turn in an increasingly common crime in the San Gabriel Valley, authorities said.
Luxury cars have been forcibly taken from owners over the past two years in San Gabriel Valley cities such as Alhambra and Monterey Park, Los Angeles County sheriff's investigators said. But since the beginning of the year, Lexus and Mercedes-Benz models have been favorite targets.
Kathy May Lee, 27, of Monterey Park, the woman killed Monday in the parking lot of the House of Fabrics store at 1635 W. Valley Blvd., was driving a gray, four-door Lexus.
That pricey vehicle likely made her a target for her assailant, who opened the car door, fired one shot into Lee's upper body and fled as the woman backed the automobile out of the lot, sheriff's Detective Jerome Beck said.
Investigators believe Lee's death came at the hands of an "opportunistic carjacker and thief" whose attempt went awry, Beck said. The assailant was described as a slender, 5-foot-7 Asian man, 17 to 19 years old, who wore dark clothing.
Although Beck and local police officials had no count of carjackings in Alhambra, Monterey Park Police Detective Ed Riojas said forcible auto thefts began occurring with some regularity about two years ago in his city.
"We get about one or two a month; it's pretty common," he said. Asian and Latino gang members often are the perpetrators, he said.
Riojas said he advises residents not to resist carjackers, because most are usually armed with a knife or handgun.
"I think when the victim does resist, it puts the suspect into a corner and he takes violent action, resulting in a shooting or stabbing," Riojas said.
Vehicles carjacked from the San Gabriel Valley usually do not surface locally, but instead are shipped out of state, to Mexico or overseas. Often, the destination is Taiwan or Germany, Riojas said.
Lee, who ordinarily drove her own red Acura Integra or her fiance's white BMW, on Monday took the wheel of her mother's late-model Lexus. A real estate agent who was to be married next month, she had taken the day off to do wedding errands, Beck said. She had planned to shop for wedding rings with her fiance that night, the detective said.
During the day, Lee and her mother, Amy, stopped at the post office for stamps to mail her wedding invitations. The two went on to the fabric store about 2 p.m. to buy material for her wedding dress, Beck said.
The gunman fled after shooting Lee, leaving her mother unharmed. Witnesses said the seat belt still held the mortally wounded woman inside the car when it stopped on the sidewalk in front of the store.
Lee's distraught mother held her head in her hands and kept repeating, "I have to call my husband, I have to call my husband," as paramedics took away her daughter, according to witnesses. Kathy Lee died about an hour later at County-USC Medical Center.
Family members, including Lee's fiance, declined to be interviewed.
But news of Lee's death halted work Tuesday in two offices, one in Pasadena and another in Montebello, where Lee had been employed.
"She was like a daughter to me," said Thomas Pottmeyer, owner of a Pasadena property management company, where Lee worked from 1990 to 1992. "The entire office cried. The loss is tremendous."
Pottmeyer said his son, Adam, was a close friend of Lee, her fiance and a dozen other young people who socialized together. College-educated and from prominent San Gabriel Valley families, the group bowled, went to the movies and played basketball. All of it seemed part of a youthful, "perfect world," Pottmeyer said.
On Tuesday, after learning of Lee's death, Pottmeyer said his son took the day off to "sit at the beach and think." A day later, Wednesday, the young man was still distraught, weeping as he refused to talk to reporters.
Similarly distressed were Lee's current co-workers at Dynamic Brokers in Montebello, who also took a day off Tuesday.
"There were a lot of tears shed," said office manager Bob Archuleta.
In the seven months she worked in the office, Lee "just became a real special person," Archuleta said. Lee often brought in Chinese pastries for her mainly Latino co-workers, who responded by sharing Mexican bread, he said.
Born in Taiwan, Lee grew up as a teen-ager in Monterey Park with her younger brother, Robert. She became a naturalized U.S. citizen and graduated from UCLA in 1989 with a degree in economics, co-workers said. She worked as a property manager in the San Gabriel Valley until she entered real estate sales, earning enough to buy her own Monterey Park home.
After a recent six-month trip visiting relatives in Taiwan, Lee returned with a renewed sense of how much she appreciated her life in the Los Angeles area, Pottmeyer said.
"It was a different style of life there, hot and humid," Pottmeyer said Lee told him of Taiwan. "She liked the opportunities here."
Neighbor Alan Munguia, 31, said Lee's father owned a hydraulic pump manufacturing business, operating the Taiwan company from his home. The family was prosperous enough to own several luxury cars, which Kathy Lee borrowed at times, he said.