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A Cheap Life

THE 58-YEAR-OLD KOREAN-AMERICAN storeowner was talking to his sister on the telephone when his wife frantically interrupted him. Two teenagers had just stolen five cans of spray paint from their discount store in a Filipinotown mini-mall. In-Taek Kwon put down the phone and rushed outside to confront the shoplifters. While he demanded that they pay $10 or return the paint, his wife pleaded for him to drop the matter.

It wasn’t the first time that Kwon had gone after a shoplifter. Six months earlier, he got into an argument with a woman thief. They yelled at each other, and it ended peacefully. After all, the neighborhood seemed like a safe place. His store, on Temple Street, is just a block away from the LAPD’s Rampart Station.

But the case of $10 worth of paint would not end so peacefully.

Kwon wasn’t in the best of health. He had a bad leg and recently had surgery that kept him home for a few weeks. When he went outside, the 5-foot-2 father of two found himself outmatched by two much taller youths, one 5 feet 10 and the other 6 feet. When they refused to give up the cans, Kwon grabbed one of the youths by his shirtsleeves. It was shortly after 5 p.m. and the commotion was starting to draw a small crowd. A man who had been waiting for the teens rushed up to Kwon and struck him on the head. The 139-pound Kwon crumpled to the ground, hitting his head on the concrete. Kwon was taken to Good Samaritan Hospital, where he died two days later from brain injuries. Police have ruled his March 7 death a gang-related homicide.

“It was one of the safest places to shop,” said Kwon’s nephew Young B. Park. “I have a strong feeling that they were gang members from outside the community. Most of the gangs in the area know there is a police station down the street.”

The area is the turf of the Temple Street gang, which is headquartered on Coronado Street, just a block east of the mini-mall and two blocks west of Rampart Station. On March 4, the day before Kwon was beaten, alleged Temple Street gang members were seen collecting money from shopkeepers and patrons for the funeral of a fallen comrade. Temple Street gang graffiti covers store walls in the area, and bus benches on Temple Street, across from the mini-mall, bear “TS,” the gang’s insignia.

Shortly after the fatal beating, the three suspects used the spray paint to tag a location south of Sunset Boulevard. Police found the stolen cans at the scene. “They were younger members who were out to make a name for themselves,” said LAPD homicide Supervisor Fred Faustino. “A lot of these gangs are recruiting younger kids.” Faustino said that detectives pulled a description of the two teens from the store’s surveillance tape, but got precious little information from people who witnessed the beating.

Police arrested a 15-year-old alleged gang member and believe he was one of the two teens who stole the spray paint. The ninth-grader, who lives in the Valley, initially was charged with violation of probation but has since been charged with Kwon’s murder. Two other suspects remain at large.

“We believe that they had friends in the area and that would be their only connection to Rampart,” said Faustino. “That specific gang does not hang around in this area but picked a location and tagged there for whatever reason.”

KWON IMMIGRATED TO LOS ANGELES from Seoul in 1980 to be closer to his mother and sister. He landed in Koreatown and took a job as an electrician. It was a skill that he had perfected in his homeland. Kwon eventually married and started his own electrical company. At the time, he was one of the few electricians based out of Koreatown. His business expanded and he began to work on large-scale construction jobs all over the Southland. In time, Kwon, his wife, and their two children settled in Northridge.

Kwon was a workaholic. He loved to talk about politics, world issues and his support for the troops in Iraq. He was a voracious reader who enjoyed the local Korean-language newspapers. He attended Sunday Mass at the World Mission Christian Church in Northridge, where he handled the church’s bookkeeping.

In 2004, Kwon bought J J 98¢ & Discount, which was located in a mini-mall on the corner of Rampart and Temple streets next to a Pizza Hut and a handful of mom-and-pop businesses including a coin laundry, a Chinese fast-food restaurant, a Spanish bakery and a 24-hour doughnut shop.

“In the Korean community you have nothing when you arrive,” said Kwon’s nephew Park. “You do anything or will work at anything to make money. You save your money and then you open up a business. He was going to work till he got old. A lot of immigrants work hard for their children so they can become decent American citizens.”

Kwon’s 22-year-old son, a graduate student at the University of California, Riverside, would help out at the store on weekends. So would his 17-year-old daughter.

It has been four weeks since Kwon was buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery in North Hollywood. The discount store, which closed after his murder, reopened three days after his funeral on March 20. Kwon’s wife, who is wearing a brown sweater and slacks, is teaching her brother-in-law how to use the cash register. Every few minutes, he asks her how much an item costs. She responds, then continues stocking cigarettes behind the cash counter. Her brother-in-law arrived from Korea four days earlier to help out until Kwon’s wife sells the store. Park says that she plans to move closer to her son, who lives in Riverside. The store holds too many bad memories for her now.

“He was a very honorable man,” said Kwon’s nephew Young B. Park. “When things aren’t right he stands up to it. That is why he followed them out. He saw them doing wrong.”

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