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COLUMN ONE

For Korean American family, an ache 37 years long

Steve Inman of Fontana always wondered what had happened to his older sister Sally, born in South Korea and missing for 37 years. Finally, Facebook brought them together.

January 28, 2011|By Joe Mozingo, Los Angeles Times

One night in August, after his wife and 2-month-old boy had long fallen to sleep, Steve Inman got to thinking about family and heredity. With a rare moment to himself, he pulled a box of photo albums out of the hall closet at his home in Fontana.

He found an old picture of himself as a boy and laughed at how he and his son had the same round ears and the funny top lip that flipped up like the bow of a ship. He perused faded images of his mother as a young woman in South Korea, and then came across his oldest sister, sitting in a meadow before he was born.

She was about 8 months old then and had the same cast to her face as his boy, the same squint.

Seeing her in his own first child, he felt an overwhelming rush of sadness, a sense he had let her down. She had been missing for 37 years now. Although he had never even met her, it hit him how much a part of him she was.

He wondered if she was still alive.

::

How Sally disappeared was never quite clear to Steve.

He was told his father, Steve Sr., was stationed with the Army in Korea when he married his mother, Chum Ku Yi. When she went into labor with Sally, they couldn't get to the base hospital in time, and the baby was born at a house in the village of Chang-mal. The couple raised her for about eight months in Korea with the help of a nanny, an old woman they knew.

The Inmans were set to move to America, but the U.S. and Korean authorities would not approve documents stating that Steve Sr. was Sally's father. So they left her with her grandmother while they went back to Steve's hometown, Salt Lake City, to work out the problem.

Growing up, the younger Steve was told his parents got a call one day from the grandmother, who said Sally's nanny had come to visit because she missed the little girl and wanted to take her for a few days. The old woman never returned. Sally was gone.

In America, the Inmans were having problems. He wasn't making much money and was drinking, and they didn't have the means to go to Korea to look for the little girl. Chum gave birth to a girl, Connie, then to Steve. A few months after Steve was born, their father left them.

Chum remarried, settled with the two children in California and went to Korea several times, ostensibly looking for Sally. She came up with nothing.

The girl's absence haunted the family. "Sally should be here," an uncle would say at Christmas dinner.

Framed pictures of her sat on top of the television and hung in the hallway of their home in Fullerton. In an album, there was a photo of the nanny. Steve and Connie saw evil in her face.

Connie always felt the ache of something missing, as if she was homesick even when she was home. Steve worried about what might have befallen Sally. Was she an orphan, homeless?

When the Internet began to flourish, he occasionally typed her name into search engines. But then, he thought, the nanny probably changed it. He sent e-mails to news stations, trying to gin up interest, but never got a response. A private investigator told him it would cost $30,000 just to start. Steve wrote to Oprah, knowing how she liked reuniting people.

::

That night in August, Steve, then 33, resolved to try again. But how? He didn't know where to start.

He decided to create a Facebook profile for "Sally Inman (missing child)." He posted 12 photos of her and wrote that she had been abducted.

Nothing happened. He became lost in his work, editing video of mixed martial arts fighting and raising Miyka, the baby boy he had with his wife, Donya. The day after New Year's, he was relaxing, watching the Food Network, when his cellphone rang. Not recognizing the number, he let it go straight to voicemail.

He waited for the voicemail to finish, then listened.

"Steve, I was on Facebook and I noticed you were looking for your sister and I read the whole thing . . ." Her voice sounded faintly Southern. "And I would like you just to give us a call because the girl you're looking for is actually my mom."

He was suspicious. He suspected it was a prank.

He called back anyway.

"Hold on, let me get my mom," the girl said.

His heart was beating hard.

"Is this Steve? This is Sally," a woman said, also with a Southern twang.

Steve could barely speak. No way, he kept thinking. This is a scam.

"I have those same pictures," the woman said.

"Well, umm." Steve struggled for words. "Maybe we could take a paternity test."

"I know who I am," she said, sounding annoyed. "I don't need a paternity test."

They went back and forth, not really saying anything, as Steve's mind raced through the possibilities.

"Well, my mom would know it's me," the woman said, "because I have a birthmark on my lip."

Steve dropped the phone. His mother had told him this before. This must be Sally.

"I'm going to call you right back," he told her." I need to call my mom."

::

That afternoon in Lillington, N.C., Sally Blue had asked one of her daughters, Candace, to type her birth name into Facebook.

Sally learned she had been adopted when she was 9.

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