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In Some Cases, the Ties Don't Bind

Families: Relatively speaking, identical twins have a special relationship. Despite the Irvine attempted murder case, animosity between such siblings is rare.

November 29, 1996|NANCY WRIDE and TINA NGUYEN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Hayley Mills was a good one. Bette Davis was a good one and a bad one.

They were movie twins, part of a rich tradition of stories dating from Genesis about that most intriguing human relationship: the identical sibling.

An Irvine case involving allegations of one twin trying to knock off the other and assume her identity--and good credit--reminds us how fascinating the bond is.

Before a pack of international media, Jeen Young Han faced arraignment last week in a Newport Beach courtroom on charges that she had the starring role in a plot to murder her identical twin, Sunny Young Han, earlier this month.

But despite legends harking back to ancient Rome about dueling twins, scientists and psychologists say their research shows animosity between twins is very uncommon. In fact, the identical twin bond "is a very close one and perhaps the closest of all human relationships," says Nancy Segal, professor of psychology at Cal State Fullerton and one of the nation's leading scholars in the field of how twins relate to each other.

For more than a decade the study of twins has served as the clearest window into human development and personality, exploring questions about the importance of genes and environment on behavior and to what degree either shapes who we become.

Usually, says Segal, whose specialty involves cooperation and competition among fraternal and identical twins, problems facing identical twins germinate "outside the twinship. Parents or teachers compare them and create a competition."

In the Irvine case of the 22-year-old sisters at odds, it would appear this theory bears out. Sunny Han and Jeen Han, who commonly uses the name Gina, were co-valedictorians at their small rural high school in San Diego County and reportedly got along until they graduated.

Then, say police in two counties, things changed. In Placentia, where they lived earlier this year, Sunny reported to police that Gina had stolen her BMW and credit cards; Sunny was arrested on a 1994 warrant from La Verne police charging her with misdemeanor credit card fraud.

And more recently, San Diego Sheriff's Department deputies investigating credit card fraud in El Cajon say the sisters were clearly warring. Gina Han would end up behind bars over the theft case, but escaped from a work furlough program when there were 98 days remaining on her sentence.

On Nov. 22, she was brought from Orange County Jail to Harbor Municipal Court in Newport Beach to face more serious charges: conspiracy to commit murder, robbery, assault, burglary, false imprisonment and criminal conspiracy. Police allege that the former honor student conspired to have Sunny killed at her Irvine condo so she could assume Sunny's identity and get out from under her checkered past.

A judge ordered Gina returned to jail without bail until her arraignment, which was continued to Dec. 13. If convicted as charged, she faces a minimum of 26 years to life in prison.

Those who know the sisters say they were baffled that such seemingly high achievers could find themselves wanted by the law at various times. It's almost like a movie, they say.

And no wonder. Hollywood has had a love affair with twins and the tricks they play at least since a sinister Bette Davis tried to snatch her sweet sister's hubby away in 1946's "A Stolen Life."

Davis starred as both sisters, of course, as she did some 20 years later in "Dead Ringer."

But then, silver screen twins aren't always half bad.

In 1961's "The Parent Trap," a young Hayley Mills plays twins who at first conspire against each other, and then unite to reunite their parents.

Less familiar to the Nick at Nite generation are Romulus and Remus, an ancient pair of battling twins. In Roman mythology, they grow into bitter rivals. Eventually, Remus is killed, either by Romulus or one of his followers, and Romulus becomes ruler of Rome, the city he built and named for himself.

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Investigators don't know much about the Han girls' childhood in South Korea. But Korean culture places great importance on birth order in the family, which some have suggested might be a factor in the discord between the twins. Elder siblings are treated with deference by younger siblings. This holds true even with twins. Sunny Han is 5 minutes older than Gina, who would have been expected to defer to her.

In 1991, records show, Sunny and Gina entered Mount Empire High School in unincorporated San Diego County during the middle of their junior year. Their teachers described them as seemingly well-adjusted honor students. In a small class of 80 students, the Han girls graduated in 1993 as co-valedictorians, along with three others.

"They were really dedicated and serious students," says computer teacher Shirley Langford.

Because people often called them the wrong names, the twins gave Langford some tips on how to differentiate between them.

"Gina wore bangs, generally, and Sunny always wore her hair long," Langford says.

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