A HANDFUL OF FLOWER ARRANGEMENTS are propped up against the wall of the Koreatown apartment. A black skateboard, its wheels removed in memory of a young tenant, sits in front of a temporary wood door at unit 357. The smell of smoke and burned flesh is still thick.
It has been five weeks since neighbor Melissa Mazzei woke up to a loud bang and sounds of flames popping. When she opened her front door sometime before 5 a.m. on March 3, she saw black smoke billowing from the cracks in the doorway of the adjacent apartment. She pounded on the door and tried to pry open the locked screen. She heard no screams from inside, only the faint sound of sirens.
“It was truly the archetype of your worst nightmare happening,” said Mazzei. “I didn’t hear a soul inside. My psychic intuition told me that they were already dead.”
By the time firefighters arrived, at 4:55 a.m., at the 175-unit condominium complex on South Ardmore Avenue, flames had consumed most of the living room and were shooting out of the balcony windows. Within five minutes, firefighters had calmed the fire.
Inside, they made a gruesome discovery. In the living room they found two badly burned bodies. In the bedroom, the body of a boy lying on his bed. The coroner identified the victims as 45-year-old Chong-Kwan Yi, his wife, Kyung-Won, and their 13-year-old son, Duk.
“I saw two bodies in the living room,” said Los Angeles Police Department chaplain Jonathan Lee. “One body was on the bed. I cried. I prayed for their family. I don’t know why the fire happened there. Why would they die? I don’t know.”
Local newspapers dismissed the case as an accidental fire that claimed three members of the Korean-American community. Now, however, police believe it may have been a double murder-suicide, though it is not clear who is to blame. Both adults had stab wounds, and drugs were found in the systems of the mother and boy. Authorities have not identified the substance.
The mysterious death of the Yi family became the first of seven violent crimes — including five murder-suicides — that have claimed the lives of 14 Korean-Americans in Southern California in five weeks.
The cases, which seem to revolve around a mix of financial woes, relationships and domestic-violence issues, have forced the usually private affairs of the Korean-American community into the open. “Unfortunately we have a tendency to ignore whatever weakness we have or the dark side of the community,” said Charles Kim, president of the national Korean American Coalition. “Instead of openly dealing with it, we have a tendency to hide. It is part of the culture. We know it is there but we don’t want to face the facts. We try to collectively, as a community, to ignore it and hope the families find a way to deal with it. It is considered an embarrassment.”
Kim said that parents have a hard time separating their problems from their children. “If they feel like there is no way out, they take their kids with them. They cannot see their kids suffering because of their failures.”
NEIGHBORS REMEMBER THE YIS as a family that kept to themselves and rarely fought. Kyung-Won was polite and said hello to her neighbors. She dressed simply. She was devoted to her son, an eighth-grader at Virgil Middle School. When not in uniform, Duk, who was tall and weighed close to 200 pounds, liked to wear heavy-metal T-shirts. One of his favorite groups was Metallica. He also loved to skateboard with friends.
“A lot of kids knew him, but he was quiet,” said assistant principal Philip Toyotome. “He was a better-than-average student. He was a really good kid. It hit our staff really hard. He had no disciplinary problems. He was such a likable young man.” Duk, who was in Track A, had been out of school since December and was scheduled to return to school on the Monday three days after his death.
Henry Kim, a teacher at Virgil Middle School, said he saw Chong-Kwan last December to talk about what his son should do over vacation. “He didn’t want his son to waste his time during the vacation,” said Kim. “He was a concerned father.”
The family lived modestly. They didn’t own a car. Instead they took taxis to and from work and to the local Ralphs. Chong-Kwan worked at an indoor swap meet. Duk frequently helped out on the weekends. But things took a turn for the worse two years ago when the father became ill. As his health slowly deteriorated, he had to stop working. His wife became the sole supporter. Months later, he underwent a liver transplant. For some time, he was confined to their apartment, using an oxygen tank to breathe. Neighbors saw him constantly vacuuming. In turn, his wife was always spraying the hallway with disinfectant.
“He was afraid of reinfection,” said Mazzei. Just recently, neighbors said he had been diagnosed with cancer.
It was also rumored that the family had lost their medical insurance.
THE KOREAN-AMERICAN COMMUNITY is struggling to come to terms with the onslaught of violence. Some of the new immigrants put a lot of pressure on themselves to succeed, and those with mental or emotional problems are considered weak. Churches provide some comfort and counseling, but they sometimes lose touch with any members who are in trouble.
“The culture is catered to success,” said David Cha, a youth pastor with the Oriental Mission Church. “A lot of immigrants don’t live with pensions and 401(k) plans. They are very blue-collar. They work in the windows and in the kitchens somewhere. It is their sense of duty or sacrifice. A lot of parents carry the notion that what they are doing is for their kids. When they don’t meet up to expectations there is a sense of downtroddenness and they can’t cope with it. A lot of people don’t know how to deal with it. They are not open to seeking counseling. There is a lot of guilt and shame involved.”
Services that focus on the Korean-American community’s mental-health and domestic-violence issues are few. The Korean American Family Service Center is the only agency that provides a 52-week domestic-violence treatment program in Korean; currently, 65 Korean men are receiving counseling for anger management, stress management and communication skills as part of their probation on domestic-battery convictions.
Chaplain Lee said he plans to organize a town-hall meeting in the next few weeks to talk about the recent deaths and find out what can be done. The family center plans to expand its 24-hour domestic-violence hot line to provide help to those who are suicidal, have gambling debts or anger issues, or are the perpetrators of domestic violence. They also plan to convene a support group two times a month as a follow-up to the center’s domestic-violence treatment program.
“It is really unfortunate and sad,” said Lee. “It is sad that we cannot openly discuss it in the community. It is a wake-up call for the Korean community to deal with this. We have to deal with this issue because it will happen again.”