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Mother testifies in burning deaths of children; ex-husband to be tried

January 09, 2008|Tiffany Hsu | Times Staff Writer

Sun Ok Ma looked at a photo of the charred exterior of the sport utility vehicle in which her ex-husband allegedly burned her two children to death, hid her face behind her hair, and wept.

The breakdown came as Ma took the witness stand in Los Angeles Superior Court to testify against Dae Kwon Yun, 56. After a two-day preliminary hearing, Yun was ordered Tuesday to stand trial on two counts of murder for the April 2006 deaths of Ashley, 11, and Alexander, 10.

Prosecutor Todd Hicks said he had not decided whether to seek the death penalty against Yun, who he says forced the children into the vehicle and ignited it after his business and marriage failed. Yun sustained burns in the SUV, but fled to safety as the children screamed inside, a witness testified Monday.

Hicks said Yun appeared to have planned a murder-suicide, but seemed to decide at the last minute that "he couldn't do it to himself."

Acquaintances have said the father buckled under the pressure of maintaining a model lifestyle that once included private school for Ashley and a Hancock Park home. Within days of the Yun deaths, two other Korean fathers killed their children, sending shock waves through the Southland's Korean community.

Father Aidan Koh, chaplain at Ashley's school, St. James Episcopal in Hancock Park, has been helping Ma. He said she prays hard.

"She's still struggling, but she's trying to get back to normal," Koh said.

Nelson A. Calderon, 42, was driving to Mass that April afternoon when he noticed Ashley in an alley in downtown Los Angeles' garment district walking away from Yun, he testified Monday through a Spanish-language interpreter.

"She was scared," Calderon said of the sixth-grader. "She looked like she wanted to cry."

Yun began shouting at the girl, grabbed her and walked her to the SUV, Calderon testified. Yun got into the vehicle, which burst into flame.

Thirty seconds later, Calderon testified, Yun threw himself from the SUV onto the ground, his legs and back on fire.

Yun yelled for help over the roar of the blaze. But he never once gestured toward the SUV, Calderon said.

"The children were screaming," Calderon testified, then sighed deeply and looked up at the ceiling to collect himself.

A firefighter testified Tuesday that the position Alexander's body was found in suggested that the boy was trying to open the back door. As the firefighter spoke, Yun began crying.

Ma testified Monday that Yun beat her several times over 13 years of marriage and threatened to kill her and burn down the family home. In 2004, Yun pleaded guilty to beating Ma and was sentenced to probation.

Ashley and Alexander were also victims of Yun's frequent fury, and told Ma they did not want to be around their father, she testified.

"He was very hard on the children -- they had to do everything perfectly according to what Daddy told them to do," she testified. "In order to control them, he hit them."

Ma left Yun in January 2006, taking the children, she testified. He began hinting cryptically at a "plan," Ma testified, saying that "when something happened at some time, [she] would know about it."

Facing gambling debts in March 2006, Yun closed his T-shirt factory in the garment district. Ma filed for divorce on March 28. Yun began living in the SUV.

On April 2, Ma sent Ashley and Alexander out shopping and to the movies with their father, Ma told prosecutor Todd Hicks through sobs. Several times, Ma's Korean interpreter seemed to fight back tears.

During the hearing, Yun sat dressed in an orange jail jumpsuit with his head bowed and one hand shackled to his chair.

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tiffany.hsu@latimes.com

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