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Former Hyundai executive extradited in 2005 hit-run death

Yuon Bum Lee fled to South Korea after the crash on the 55 Freeway that caused the death of motorcyclist Ryan Cook, authorities say. Lee could face 15 years in prison if convicted on all counts.

January 31, 2009|My-Thuan Tran

Ryan Dallas Cook was homeward bound on his motorcycle on an October night in 2005 when he clipped a stalled, darkened SUV that had rammed into a concrete barrier on the 55 Freeway, an impact that hurled him to the pavement, where he was hit by several passing cars and died.

Police said the driver of the SUV was a Hyundai executive who had allegedly spent a long night drinking.

Twenty-four hours later -- as Cook's parents and three sisters were just beginning to search for answers to the death of the 23-year old musician -- authorities said the SUV driver boarded a plane bound for his native South Korea and vanished.

For three years, officials in the United States and South Korea looked for him.

On Friday, Yuon Bum Lee, 41, was extradited to Orange County after being arrested by South Korean officials in Seoul in December. He arrived at Los Angeles International Airport escorted by the U.S. Marshals Service.

Lee, who is being held at the Orange County Jail in lieu of $1-million bail, faces charges of felony gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs with injury, and hit-and-run with injury or death, said Susan Kang Schroeder, a spokeswoman for the Orange County district attorney's office.

"It's been a long, laborious process over the last three years to get to where we should have been the day after Ryan was killed," said Carlton Cook, the victim's father. "It won't bring back our son, but at least it will finish off something that should have been started a long time ago."

Cook said the family will be in court Monday, when Lee is to be arraigned. If convicted on all counts, Lee faces a maximum of 15 years in state prison.

Lee, a former personnel administrator at Hyundai Motor America, had been drinking with six colleagues at the Garden Grove Korean BBQ restaurant in October 2005, according to authorities. Police said the group later moved to a nearby karaoke bar, where Lee continued to drink before getting into a black company-issued Hyundai SUV just before midnight.

He later crashed into a concrete barrier in the southbound lanes of the 55 just north of MacArthur Boulevard in Santa Ana as he was heading to his Irvine home. The car was reportedly stalled in the carpool lane with its headlights extinguished.

Cook was heading home after practicing with his band when he struck the rear of the SUV and was thrown from his motorcycle.

The next morning, authorities said, Lee showed up for work and later headed with colleagues to Los Angeles so he could meet with a criminal attorney. Lee later asked a colleague who was driving to drop him off at LAX, according to police statements. Instead, uncomfortable with Lee's request, the driver told authorities that he pulled into a parking lot of a hotel near the airport, where Lee jumped out and hailed a cab.

Lee bought an open-ended ticket to South Korea and boarded a plane. Nine hours later, a vice president of human resources for Hyundai at the firm's Fountain Valley headquarters reported the incident to the Fountain Valley Police Department. Lee was later fired from his job.

Cook's parents, who live in Huntington Beach, have filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Hyundai Motor America, alleging that company officials helped Lee leave the country before he could be questioned by police. The civil trial is set to begin in June, said Wylie A. Aitken, the Cooks' attorney.

Hyundai America did not return calls seeking comment on the case, but officials have previously said the company had been cooperative throughout the investigation and had helped authorities search for Lee.

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my-thuan.tran@latimes.com

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