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In South L.A., a bitter case of mistaken identity

A flier wrongly suggests that a grocery store owner is the woman who fatally shot Latasha Harlins at a liquor store in 1991.

August 04, 2013|By Scott Gold
  • Buddha Liquor Market, on Slauson Avenue in South L.A., is owned by Korean American Annie Shin. A flier in the neighborhood erroneously suggests that she is Soon Ja Du, the Korean American liquor store owner who in 1991 fatally shot 15-year-old Latasha Harlins -- a case that inflamed racial tensions and has not been forgotten.
Buddha Liquor Market, on Slauson Avenue in South L.A., is owned by Korean… (Jay L. Clendenin, Los Angeles…)

It’s not every day someone chases you down with citizenship papers to prove her name. Then again, Annie Shin managed to live for 64 years without being accused of killing someone. You do what you have to do.

“My name is Annie Shin!” she shouted in fractured English, waving her heavily creased documents for emphasis. Then, in case there was any confusion: “No Du! No Du!”

That name — Du — might not ring a bell. It’s been a long time since a woman named Soon Ja Du shot Latasha Harlins in a liquor store at 91st and Figueroa streets. Long enough that you may have forgotten. South Los Angeles has not.

On a Saturday morning in 1991, Latasha, 15, walked down to Empire Liquor, put a bottle of orange juice in her knapsack, then went to the counter. Du, the store owner, accused Latasha of trying to steal the juice. According to witnesses, Latasha told Du she had every intention of paying and revealed two dollar bills in her hand.

Du grabbed Latasha’s sweater. The two struggled. Latasha struck Du in the face, broke free, tossed the juice on the counter and walked for the door. Du picked up a .38-caliber handgun and fired a shot into the back of Latasha’s head.

Latasha was studious, with designs on law school; she was convinced that, had she been the prosecutor, she would have won more prison time for the man who shot and killed her mother six years earlier.

There wasn’t much mystery, meanwhile, to Du’s wariness of her customers. Korean Americans owned almost half of those liquor stores back then; 19 had been killed on the job in the previous decade. Du had begged her husband to sell the store. The stress — long hours, a razor-thin profit margin, shoplifters — gave her migraines.

Still, the details of the case were damning. Du’s husband had called the police to report that his wife had shot a “robber lady.” Police concluded that there had been “no attempt at shoplifting” — “no crime at all.” A jury found Du guilty of voluntary manslaughter, with a maximum sentence of 16 years in prison. The judge gave her probation, community service and a $500 fine.

In the African American community, it was outrage piled atop tragedy.

Outside of South L.A., Latasha’s case isn’t as well known as Rodney King’s. But some say it had as much to do with the “Rodney King riots” — which left scores of Korean American-owned liquor stores in ashes — as the King verdict itself.

Even today, in this neighborhood, there are few worse things to call someone than “Soon Ja Du.” And then, last week, it happened.

A flier started circulating through the community. No one’s sure why, or how it started. It landed on doorsteps and in churches, got passed out on bustling sidewalks, wound up tacked to the wall of a bookstore in Leimert Park. Above a photograph of Du, the flier read: “THIS WOMAN OWNS BUDDHA MARKET. SHOP AT YOUR OWN RISK!”

Really? Could Soon Ja Du be back in business? Here?

I headed to Buddha Liquor Market, down Slauson Avenue, past the ghosts of the long-closed factories that had lured thousands of African American families to Los Angeles. I asked for Buddha’s owner, who came out wearing a prim cardigan. She looked about right — coiffed black hair, roughly the right age. Maybe that was part of the problem. I told her I was from the paper, and I showed her the flier: “Is this you?”

She groaned, as if a part of her had just died, and beckoned me into her cramped office, its wood-paneled walls jammed with bottles of liquor. On her desk was a copy of the flier; it turned out that people had begun confronting her with it, taping it to the windows of the store.

She rummaged through her purse to produce her driver’s license. She pointed a crooked index finger at the name: “Annie. Shin. Me.”

Sure enough, property records showed the same: nothing about Du; ownership by Shin. Before long, she produced her citizenship papers. They said the same thing. Annie Shin is 64; Soon Ja Du, wherever she may be, is 73. Shin said she had never heard of Du — not until her customers started confronting her with a picture of another woman.

Shin apologized for her English; I told her my Korean was worse. Hers was a classic immigrant’s tale: She emigrated from South Korea in 1975, found work in a sewing factory and saved enough to buy her first liquor store, a tiny place in Compton. Every few years, she would sell her store and upgrade. She bought the Buddha, her fourth store, for $1.5 million in 2010.

This one was different — a full-fledged grocery store, or as close as you can find for miles on end in South L.A. There is fresh produce, still rarer than you might think around here. You can also buy Moet & Chandon champagne for $62.

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