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Pinkberry co-founder Young Lee accused of chasing, beating transient

Young Lee apparently was offended by the man's tattoo when the attack occurred in East Hollywood in June, police say. Lee's lawyer says the man had made threats. Lee has been abroad and was arrested at LAX.

January 18, 2012|By Scott Gold, Andrew Blankstein and Victoria Kim, Los Angeles Times
  • Young Lee is shown in 2007. Pinkberry said that it ended Mr. Lees involvement in 2010 and that he is now a passive, inconsequential shareholder.
Young Lee is shown in 2007. Pinkberry said that it ended Mr. Lees involvement… (Armando Arorizo / Bloomberg…)

The frozen business empire of Pinkberry was always about control.

Dating back to Pinkberry's first shop in West Hollywood in 2005, no detail was too small for the company's suave, visionary co-founder, Young Lee: flooring of tiny pebbles, meant to suggest the feel of the beach. Lively music set at a precise volume — a hint of an old-timey ice cream truck.

Today, Pinkberry has more than 170 stores in more than a dozen countries and has achieved corporate nirvana by securing a niche in the collective consciousness. Many began calling it "Crackberry," and Lee's rewards were clear. He drove a Porsche, smoked high-end cigarillos and lived in a 3,000-square-foot home in Malibu, his walk-in-closet, according to one press account, stuffed with Hermes suits.

On Tuesday, police alleged that Lee chased down a transient on the roadside last year and beat him with a tire iron. Lee, 47, was charged with one felony count of assault with a deadly weapon, with a special allegation that the assault caused great bodily injury. According to police, the victim, who was not identified, was left with a broken arm, a cut on the head and other injuries.

Reached on his cellphone, Lee called some of the allegations "false" but said he had been instructed by his attorneys not to talk. "I apologize sincerely," he said. "I'm not trying to hide anything from you."

Pinkberry declined to respond to detailed questions. The company said that it "ended Mr. Lee's involvement" in 2010 and that he is now a "passive, inconsequential shareholder" with "no influence or input into the company in any way."

According to the Los Angeles Police Department, Lee was driving a rented Range Rover on the 101 Freeway in June 2011, with an acquaintance in the passenger seat. When he got off the freeway at Vermont Avenue in East Hollywood, he spotted a transient who had been asking passing drivers for money.

The man was changing into a sweat shirt, revealing a sexually explicit tattoo, and Lee seemed to have viewed the tattoo as a suggestion of disrespect, a police official said. Lee rolled down his window and apparently got into an argument with the man, then parked on Vermont and left his car to confront him.

Lee demanded, officials said, that the man kneel and apologize, and the man consented. But Lee attacked him anyway, chasing him down, kicking him and "beating him down" with a tire iron, said LAPD Lt. Paul Vernon, commanding officer of the Central Detective Division.

A witness called 911 and gave authorities the license plate number of the car Lee was driving. Investigators later recovered the tire iron through the rental car agency. While detectives worked the case, Lee traveled overseas, spending some of his time in South Korea, authorities said.

Lee was taken into custody at Los Angeles International Airport on Monday night by the LAX Fugitive Task Force, which includes LAPD officers and FBI agents. Lee said he had flown in from London.

Lee's attorney, Philip Kent Cohen, accused authorities of attempting to try Lee in the press. Cohen said the officials' version of the incident is wrong — that there were six people in the Range Rover, not two, and that the transient "made explicit threats as if he had a weapon, which he may have had."

"As the evidence comes out, the reality will be much different than has been presented," Cohen said. "All of the people in the car felt at risk and felt threatened."

Lee has been released from jail on $60,000 bond.

Many of those who had squared off with Lee in business struggled to reconcile the LAPD's version of events with the man they knew.

But those closest to Lee — and his Pinkberry co-founder and ex-wife, Shelly Hwang — knew what the public did not. For years, according to court documents, interviews and law enforcement officials, Lee had struggled with drug use. And some alleged he was quick to make threats.

In 2001, he was charged with felony possession of cocaine and two misdemeanor counts of battery of a spouse — a woman who was not Hwang — and carrying a loaded firearm. According to court records, he pleaded no contest to some of the charges and was sentenced to two days in jail and three years' probation.

Court records indicate that Lee was then sober for a number of years. It was a critical era for Pinkberry, culminating in a $27.5-million investment from a venture capital firm co-founded by Starbucks Corp. Chairman Howard Schultz — which some credit with fueling Pinkberry's striking expansion around the globe.

Lee relapsed in 2009, according to a court declaration filed by a man who described himself as a "former friend." The man asked for a restraining order against Lee in 2010, alleging that Lee had an "extreme violent temper," had a gun collection and once swung a knife at him.

By that point, Lee was married to Hwang. The friend said in a sworn statement that Hwang had come to him asking for advice about Lee's drug relapse, and that they had staged an unsuccessful "intervention" with a professional.

When Hwang filed for divorce, the man said that Lee appeared to blame him.

The man alleged that Lee showed up unannounced at his home and threatened him in Korean: "Be careful." A judge declined to issue a restraining order, citing insufficient evidence.

John Bae, the owner of a competitor called Kiwiberri, also sought a restraining order against Lee five years ago, alleging that Lee "threatened to kill me, to come to my home and do so." Lee denied the allegations, portraying Bae as disgruntled, largely because Lee had accused him of opening a copycat business. A judge denied the petition.

scott.gold@latimes.com

andrew.blankstein@latimes.com

victoria.kim@latimes.com

Los Angeles Times staff writer Robert Faturechi contributed to this report.

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