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Store Owner's Slaying Jolts La Palma, Fellow Koreans

Crime: The father of two is shot and killed in a city where murder is rare. Two teenagers are arrested.

October 24, 1998|BONNIE HARRIS HAYES and STEVE CARNEY and K. CONNIE KANG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Soo Woong Jun worked at his La Palma liquor store and delicatessen every day of the week, often 15 hours at a time, to support his family and put his two daughters through graduate school.

"When I would get here in the morning, he'd be open already," said Roy Kitano, 75, who owns a nursery next door to Jun's business. "And when I'd leave at night he would still be working. He was always so pleasant too. I don't know how he did it."

Late Thursday, the 58-year-old immigrant and prominent member of the Southern California Korean community, known to many as James, was shot and killed in a robbery attempt by two teenagers.

It was a violent crime that unnerved residents of a small city that boasted no murders in 1995 and 1996 and only one last year. Jun himself bought the store in part because he considered the location safe.

And the death left the victim's family and members of the Korean community devastated.

"We feel like we've been hit by a thunderbolt," said Sung Soo Jun, the victim's younger brother. "We cannot believe what has happened. My brother's store was in a good area. It was supposed to be safe."

As the day wore on and news of the shooting spread Friday, grief gave way to frustration and fear for many of Jun's friends and colleagues, who described him as a hard-working, educated and politically active man who beamed with pride over the academic accomplishments of his two daughters.

Jun was a past president of the Koreatown Assn. in Los Angeles, a regional business organization with members throughout Southern California. He helped raise money for the thousands of Korean business owners whose stores were devastated in the l992 riots.

A cancer survivor, he was admired for his work ethic in a business community where long hours are a way of life, said Peter G. Lee, current president of Koreatown Assn.

"He was so industrious," Lee said. "He persisted . . . to support his family even though his health was poor."

Police said Jun was preparing to close the store shortly before midnight, just as he had for the past six years, when he activated a robbery alarm. The call sent a swarm of officers to the Orangethorpe Avenue address, where they found Jun sprawled in the doorway and an 18-year-old suspect huddled in a stolen van outside. Police identified the suspect as George Edward Fitzgerald III of West Covina.

Jun had been shot in the head and chest, said La Palma Police Sgt. Mark Yokoyama.

For nearly six hours, a second suspect inside the Granada Liquor store refused to answer a SWAT team's demands for surrender. SWAT team members recovered Jun's body about two hours into the standoff, but authorities believe he died instantly and that earlier medical treatment would not have saved him.

"It's tragic, really awful," Yokoyama said. "It makes absolutely no sense."

Police later learned that during the standoff the second suspect, 16, tried to hide in the ceiling rafters and fell, suffering a gash to his leg that officers at first believed was a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

The teenager, who is from Los Angeles, finally gave up about 5:30 a.m. and was taken to UCI Medical Center in Orange for treatment. He and Fitzgerald were arrested on suspicion of robbery and murder. Police did not release the name of the minor.

The 16-year-old could be tried as an adult and sentenced to life in prison without parole, officials said.

"They steal a car, they come here, and then not only do they commit a robbery, but they commit the ultimate crime: murder," Yokoyama said. "They've ruined their lives."

Officers had not found the murder weapon by late Friday, but Yokoyama said they suspect the 16-year-old hid it somewhere inside the store.

While murders are uncommon in La Palma, officials said the city does suffer from crime spilling over from nearby Los Angeles County. Tucked as it is between Cerritos and Buena Park, the city has long been an attractive "rest stop" for wandering criminals who dip across the county line and enjoy fast getaways on the nearby Riverside Freeway.

"A lot of these suspects think they can come over the line and then they assume we have communication problems with L.A. County," Yokoyama said. "Fortunately, we don't see this type of violence very often."

The shooting rattled the confidence of employees at nearby stores, with many vowing to ask their bosses to take more precautions with security systems.

Edwin Custodio, 27, a clerk at the Mobil Mart across the street from Jun's store, said the killing has convinced him and his co-workers that they may not be as safe as they once thought.

"Everybody here says this place is safe--La Palma, Cerritos," said Custodio, who has worked at the grocery mart for four years. "Even with the freeway so close to us, we didn't worry about the danger. We thought it was safe. But it's getting crazier."

Ironically, friends said, Jun wanted to move to the La Palma store because he believed it was a safer neighborhood to work, particularly since his wife had recently begun sharing shifts with him.

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