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Korean Man Slain by Police After Car Chase Is Buried

February 21, 1996|RENE LYNCH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BUENA PARK — Her body shook as she sobbed, and her face was creased with pain. As Sun Im Kim clawed at the white funeral hearse that contained her son's body, mourners found themselves looking away Tuesday, unable to watch her grief.

It was the last time that Hong Il Kim, 27, would be going home. In keeping with Korean tradition, a procession of cars bearing more than 100 mourners drove from a Whittier funeral service to make a brief stop outside Kim's family residence here, before returning to Whittier for the burial.

After Kim's mother struggled to her feet and tried to regain her composure, she said her pain was worsened by the circumstances surrounding the death of her son, who was gunned down by police Feb. 14 after a high-speed chase that ended in a hail of bullets in an Orange parking lot.

"I'm so sad I have no words to describe it. I'm so sad," she said, as she leaned for support on her young nieces and other relatives who translated for her. "I don't know why they had to do this. Why?"

The incident that led to the shooting began when Westminster police spotted Hong Il Kim making an improper turn in a Toyota 4-Runner about 11:30 a.m. Kim refused to pull over, and a 30-minute chase ensued, eventually involving more than a dozen police officers from Westminster, Orange and the California Highway Patrol.

Officers boxed the 4-Runner in a parking space and then opened fire when Kim allegedly tried to ram two of the officers.

Kim's family concedes he erred by disobeying the officers' orders to pull over. But they say Kim, who was visiting his family from his native South Korea, may have panicked or failed to understand what the officers were saying.

They say officers overreacted by shooting him at least six times--the number calculated by a pathologist hired by the family, said Rodney Chai, the dead man's brother-in-law. They say the officers could have just as easily shot out Kim's car tires--and they say a videotape of the incident proves their point.

The case has received widespread attention in South Korea, where it has been front-page news and has lead television and radio newscasts. It also has galvanized Orange County's Korean American community, whose leaders are demanding answers about law enforcement's actions during the final moments of the chase, which was captured on videotape.

Shortly before Hong Il Kim's burial Tuesday, Koo Oh, the president of the Orange County Korean American Assn., said he was forwarding a letter to police and prosecutors demanding a thorough investigation. "After numerous viewings of a videotape, which showed the car chase and shooting, we find it difficult to reconcile the officers' hasty decision to resort to deadly force," Oh said in a letter crafted by Korean leaders.

As is routine, the shooting is being investigated by the Orange County district attorney's office.

The Kims also are upset that after the shooting, police said Hong Il Kim had been arrested and jailed on more than a dozen charges, including assault. Many of those cases were dismissed, and the family said that information gave a misleading portrait of Kim.

"He wasn't committing a criminal act, like murder, or robbing a bank, and then leading them on a chase," said Hong Yon Chai, Kim's sister. "They wouldn't kill a dog like they shot him."

Outside the Kim home, two white banners carried messages. One, in English, said "Guns for protection, not killing people." Another, in Korean, sent a similar message.

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