FOUNTAIN VALLEY — The two-hour home video could have been a chronicle of any happy suburban family over a 10-year period, a house full of proud parents and growing children on a number of joyous occasions.
They celebrate birthdays. They take family trips to American landmarks. In one culturally distinctive ceremony for this affluent Korean-American family, the children come forward one by one and bow to their father, touching their foreheads to the floor in a gesture of obeisance and respect.
There is no hint of what was to ensue.
The father, Kyung Mook (Edward) Cho, 54, a multimillionaire Orange County real estate developer, was accused of molesting four of his children. His oldest daughter and her boyfriend committed suicide soon afterward, another daughter denounced him in court as "possessed by Satan," and a year ago this month he was convicted of 25 counts of sexual abuse and child molestation.
Cho's 84-year prison sentence on Dec. 17, followed by his shocking Christmas Day suicide in the Orange County Jail, made headlines throughout Southern California. But it was in the Korean-American community--where Cho was already controversial--that the tragic saga provoked the most soul-searching and continues to puzzle many.
While the judge called Cho's behavior despicable and his children were devastated, Cho continued to assert his innocence in the days after his conviction.
"People are confused because Mr. Cho killed himself," said Dr. Injong Hong, executive director of the L.A. Korean Family Counseling and Legal Advice Center. "Some people believe he killed himself to prove he was innocent."
To this day, many in the Korean-American community believe that Edward Cho was the victim of vindictive children who rebelled against his strict, traditional parenting by inventing unthinkable accusations, believed by the jurors.
"Culture killed him," said Chris Nam, vice president of the Korean Assn. of Orange County, who emigrated from the same Korean village as his friend Cho.
Cho strongly asserted the same point. In a letter to his minister--written from jail and later published in two Korean-language newspapers--Cho contended that "Orange County's all-white jurors' biases and their inability to understand other cultures brought about" his conviction.
During a custody case and a criminal trial, and in documents filed for a civil lawsuit over Cho's estate, Cho's children argued that his behavior grew from his feudal notion that they were his property.
Cho's son claimed at the criminal trial that his father sexually abused him because Cho appeared to believe that "he owned me or something."
"Sometimes Korean fathers exert unreasonable discipline or exercise an authoritarian way of rearing children, which creates tremendous emotional turmoil in their children," agreed Moon Ju Kim, education minister at Bethel Korean Church in Irvine.
The revelations that have poured out in the three court proceedings stand in stark contrast to the idyllic image the Cho family offered to the world.
After immigrating in 1971, Cho prospered in Orange County, concentrating his real estate business in Garden Grove and amassing holdings that at one time were estimated at nearly $3.5 million. He lived in a large home in Fountain Valley and worked his way to prominence in the Korean-American business community.
But even before allegations of sexual abuse were made against him in 1992, Edward Cho was a controversial figure.
"Some people in the Korean community didn't like him because they thought he was like Scrooge," said Myong Hwan (David) Son, one of Cho's best friends. Cho was well-known for his reluctance to pick up a meal check, and he argued over bets at weekly penny-ante poker games, he said.
At the same time, Cho made large donations to civic and cultural organizations, said Son, a frequent visitor to Cho's home.
All who knew Cho--family members, business associates, attorneys and even his minister--agreed that he was a strict disciplinarian, an authoritarian father who inflicted corporal punishment at times. He tried to exert almost total control over his children's lives, dictating everything from whom they could befriend to what colleges they would attend and what professions they would pursue, friends and family said.
"In the Korean household, the father is the dominant figure," said Erica Kim, Cho's civil attorney. "Everyone obeys everything that Dad says. Mr. Cho was an extreme example of that. He was extremely stingy, very shrewd, very bright, very aggressive."
The fourth of eight children born to poor, uneducated parents in a rural Korean village, Edward Cho worked his way through a church college in Seoul. Upon his arrival in the United States, he worked as a Seventh-Day Adventist minister for eight years in the Northern California community of San Lorenzo. After a short marriage that produced two children, Cho remarried and had two more children.