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Man who set his two children ablaze pleads guilty

Dae Kwon Yun is sentenced to two consecutive life sentences with no possibility of parole in the murders. A probation officer wrote that for Yun capital punishment would have been a reprieve.

November 27, 2012|By Victoria Kim, Los Angeles Times
  • The SUV in which two children were burned to death is examined in the garment district of downtown Los Angeles.
The SUV in which two children were burned to death is examined in the garment… (KTLA-TV Channel 5 )

When asked how he pleaded to the murder of his 11-year-old daughter, Ashley, the father — his once full cheeks sunken and his skin now a pasty white against the dark green of the suicide prevention frock — was silent for a few seconds, his eyes wandering blankly as if in a daze.

He then croaked something barely audible. An interpreter repeated it loud and clear: "Guilty."

As he admitted also murdering his 10-year-old son, Alexander, Dae Kwon Yun dropped his head to his chest. Even as his attorney discussed his multiple suicide attempts in jail and as the judge spoke of the horrific crime he had committed when he doused an SUV in gasoline and set it on fire with his two children inside, the 61-year-old father refused to look up.

"It's beyond my imagination how someone can blow up their children," Superior Court Judge Stephen Marcus said, sentencing Yun on Tuesday to two consecutive life terms without the possibility of parole. "From my vantage point there is no justification."

Yun's attorneys said that although it may not be justification, there was a complex backdrop to the murder-suicide attempt six years ago — culture, mental illness, a life in shambles after his business crumbled and his marriage fell apart. He was the oldest son in a family of nine children, saddled with expectations and responsibilities, unable to admit failure, show weakness or ask for help.

"His mental state has been fragile before Day One. That's why we had a Day One," said his attorney, Casey Lilienfeld, calling the life sentence a "just" outcome.

In exchange for Yun's guilty plea, prosecutors said Tuesday that they would no longer seek the death penalty.

"This was a horrific crime with horrific results," Deputy Dist. Atty. Habib Balian said outside court. "The sentence will assure justice will be served."

A probation officer who evaluated the case wrote that for Yun, capital punishment would have been a reprieve.

"It is the belief of this officer that the death penalty would allow the defendant to avoid the punishment which is appropriate for his crimes," the officer wrote in a 2008 report made public Tuesday. "It is therefore believed the best interest of the community will be served by a sentence to state prison for as long a period of time as his natural life provides."

The Toyota Sequoia parked in a deserted alley in downtown Los Angeles erupted in flames on a Sunday afternoon in April 2006, a few weeks after the businessman shut down his T-shirt manufacturing business and his wife of 13 years filed for divorce. Shortly before the blaze, witnesses saw Yun shouting at his daughter before shoving her into the back seat of his car.

After the vehicle went up in flames — with all three inside — Yun rolled out of the SUV onto the ground with his legs aflame, a witness recalled at a preliminary hearing. Yun yelled for help, but never once gestured toward his children inside the burning vehicle, the witness said.

The children's deaths horrified Los Angeles' Korean community, a shock that was multiplied when within days of the attack, two other Korean men committed murder-suicides, one in Echo Park and another in Fontana.

According to the probation report, Yun, while he was being treated for his burns, told detectives that he had contemplated killing himself and his children for months because he was angry with his wife.

His wife and the children's mother, Sun Ok Ma, testified that he had repeatedly beaten her and threatened to kill her and burn down their home, leading to their separation and divorce. He pleaded guilty in 2004 to beating Ma, and was sentenced to two years' probation.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Bobby Grace, another prosecutor on the case, said Tuesday that the attack was "definitely premeditated," noting that Yun purchased the gasoline, picked an isolated location and parked the car up against a loading dock, making it difficult for the doors to open.

Prosecutors told the judge that Ma had been informed of the plea and sentencing, but said she did not want to make a statement.

Yun's attorneys asked that their client receive mental health treatment in prison and be kept in protective custody, saying he was suicidal and would be a target for violence from other inmates.

The man has shown "tremendous remorse" for his crime, attorney Christopher Apostal said. Yun has attempted suicide at least three times since his arrest, his attorneys said, and has been placed on the highest level of suicide watch with around-the-clock monitoring.

The judge said he would make the recommendations but declined the attorneys' request that Yun be housed in Southern California to accommodate visits from his family. Marcus said the decision was up to the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, and that the man should not receive "special treatment."

victoria.kim@latimes.com

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