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A Life Won and Lost

Evan Hunziker apparently killed himself just days after his release from a North Korean prison. No one really knows what furies drove him halfway around the world, to be accused as a spy, or what demons followed him home.

December 26, 1996|KIM MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TACOMA, Wash. — In the long, rainy days after Evan Hunziker came home from a North Korean prison, accused of being a spy, there was only one time anybody can remember him laughing--really laughing.

He was sitting in a bar in downtown Tacoma a week ago. He'd bought a pitcher of beer for his old drinking buddy, Mike Mares, but Mares was doing most of the drinking that day. Mares was the one telling stories and rolling out philosophy and making a stab at the occasional joke. Hunziker was mostly just watching Mares talk, watching Mares swallow down the beer, quietly buying a second pitcher when the first one drained dry.

Then Mares tried another approach. "I made a joke about him being overseas," he said. "I said, 'My name is Bond. James Bond.' And he had a flying laugh at that. I mean, he really laughed."

But just as quickly, the smile faded. An uneasy silence dropped like a drape between the two old friends.

Now, Mares said, "I think something bad must've happened over there. Something really bad."

On the morning of Dec. 18, Evan Hunziker was found slumped on a long bench in an empty hotel restaurant where he often sat out the nights since his Thanksgiving Eve return from North Korea. Desk clerk Ginger Blodgett found him there, figuring he'd just fallen off to sleep. Except there was a bullet in his head and a gun next to him. Police combed the basement and ruled it a suicide.

Thus ended the improbable story of this 26-year-old--a high school football star, the son of a brash South Korean hotelier and an American bus driver, either a missionary or a drunk or a spy (depending on who's telling the tale) whose misadventures thrust him into the middle of an international diplomatic incident and just as abruptly dropped him back into anonymity in a rundown hotel here.

"I'm very saddened by this turn of events," said Rep. Bill Richardson (D-N.M.), who negotiated Hunziker's release after three months of captivity in North Korea. "Evan was a gentle young man who sought peace for all people."

*

Hunziker kept what he called his "bible" books behind the front desk at the Olympus Hotel, the cheap residential place his mother owns near the downtown bus station.

There, in the lobby with the cracked paneling and dusty Coke sign, Evan would pull out his books and spend hours at a time talking about God to anybody who couldn't think of a reason to leave. The books weren't really the Bible; there was a dusty copy of a self-help book, "Your Maximum Mind: Tapping Your Inner Resources on the Way to Success," and another one, "The Good Samaritan Strikes Again."

His father, Edwin Hunziker, pointed out that if Evan really cared so much about God, why didn't he go to the seminary and join the priesthood? Go to missionary school and get a job as a missionary? Just get a job?

"He went down and he got the Bible and he read it. He read it two or three times. He got to where he could quote Scriptures up and down," recalled the elder Hunziker, sitting over a plate of fried meat and potatoes in his cramped kitchen. "But the thing is, he didn't understand what he read. If he'd have understood, he wouldn't have done what he did. He wouldn't have killed himself. He'd be here today."

It was that newfound religious passion, his friends and family said, that prompted Hunziker late last spring to borrow money for an airline ticket to South Korea--his mother's birthplace. He wanted to get a job as an English teacher, he said, and "spread the word of God." He left without even saying goodbye to his father.

For years, Evan Hunziker had been looking for a place to go, and something to do when he got there.

Edwin Hunziker had married Jong Nye while he was posted in Korea during the war. The couple moved to Tacoma and had three children, and Edwin--working jobs ranging from cement laying to bus driving--started drinking. When things got to be too bad, Jong Nye left, taking Evan--still in grade school--with her to Alaska.

The tiny immigrant who spoke only broken English started up the Trade Winds Motel in Anchorage, a rough-and-ready place that catered to itinerant oil workers and cashed in big on the pipeline boom. Evan Hunziker lived with a succession of relatives in Anchorage before Jong Nye moved back to Tacoma, opened the Olympus Hotel and sent him to high school.

He played football so well that he earned an athletic scholarship to a small college in south central Washington. But it was there, his father said, that Hunziker started drinking and using drugs and eventually wandered up to Anchorage again, where his mother had gone back to run the Trade Winds with her longtime boyfriend, Kevin Hux.

*

She sent Hunziker to South Korea to marry a young woman she'd selected for him. But when he came home with his bride, the marriage seemed destined to fail. The drugs and the alcohol, his family said, were turning him into someone they didn't recognize. He would be loving and cheerful one day, violently angry the next.

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