This story is republished from MEL Magazine. MEL aims to challenge, inspire and encourage readers to drop any preconceived notions of who they’re supposed to be.
It was just before dawn when a street sweeper found the fifty-year-old man face-down on the ground next to his car in an isolated, industrial stretch of East Anaheim. The man hadn’t been dead for long. Blood was pooling around his head, and he had a large shoeprint on his back. The trunk of his car was open. A jack lay on the ground and a tire rested on the curb.
“It was really cold, and it was out in a remote area,” remembers Detective Julissa Trapp, who got called to the scene around four a.m. on that January 2011 morning. “There’s not a lot there. There’s railroad tracks, so it’s noisy, because the train passes by often.”
Anaheim is about an hour south of Los Angeles. It’s mainly a sunny tourist destination. Disneyland is there. So are the American League’s Angels, and the NHL’s Ducks. Same for the largest convention center on the West Coast. Millions of people visit the suburb — the de facto capital of Orange County — every year.
The dead man was one of them.
“Everybody was convinced it was some kind of accident,” Trapp says. “Like the car had fallen on him, or something had happened while he was changing his tire.” But the man was next to the car, not pinned underneath it. “I’ll admit I’ve never changed a tire,” Trapp says, smiling. “But it didn’t make sense to me. If a car falls on your head, you’re not making it out from underneath.”
Trapp is petite, with shoulder-length dark hair and a warm, engaging smile that belies her many years of experience and low tolerance for bullshit. While she’d spent a majority of her career with the Anaheim PD as a gang investigator and a family crimes detective, this was her first homicide.
If it was a homicide. For now, it was ruled a “suspicious death,” despite Trapp’s almost immediately thinking that couldn’t be the case. “It just didn’t feel right,” she says.
Here’s what she knew: The man’s head and hair were covered in blood — clearly there had been some sort of trauma, but it was hard to tell exactly what. Blunt object? Bad fall? Gunshot? In the field, at a crime scene, Trapp tells me, it’s often not immediately apparent. Nor was there a wallet on the body, no ID either. The car, however, was a rental. Anaheim PD pulled the records and soon the dead man had a name: Yeon Woo Lee. A tourist, visiting from Korea.
Trapp looked into his background and found that he’d visited Anaheim before. In fact, he had a sister who lived nearby. Rental car records showed the name of the motel where he was staying. As Trapp headed there, she got a call from the coroner: An X-ray had revealed a single bullet lodged in Lee’s head.
“So now we’re working a homicide,” Trapp says.
Lee listed an emergency contact on the car rental agreement and with the motel: Beong Kwun Cho, including a local cell phone number. Police started pulling Cho’s cell phone records, and Trapp sent two detectives to his home. When they showed up, he confirmed the phone number was his, and that he knew Lee but that he hadn’t heard from him in a few days. He agreed to help police, and even drove himself to the station. The detectives didn’t tell Cho that Lee was dead.
As Cho headed to the station, Trapp heard back from her two partners, whom she affectionately calls “the cellphone gurus.” “They tell me, ‘Hey, this Mr. Cho you’re bringing back? He was at the crime scene. Most likely when Mr. Lee died.’ And I’m like, Well, that changes things.”
Cho wasn’t what Trapp was expecting. He didn’t look like someone who had committed a murder only 24 hours earlier. He was a quiet, shy Korean man in his fifties, with a slight build, eager to help the police. He spoke some English, but she still brought a Korean translator into the room with them. He declined having a lawyer with him.
“He started lying pretty much right off the bat,” Trapp says. “And he wasn’t a good liar.”
Cho said he hadn’t talked to Lee in days; he assumed Lee had taken a short trip to Mexico or gone home early to Korea.
Trapp was patient at first, suggesting that maybe there had been an accident, encouraging Cho to tell the truth. But after an hour or so passed, she switched tactics and bluntly asked: “How many times did you shoot Mr. Lee?”
“He didn’t need translation [for that],” she says. “He knew exactly what I was talking about.”
She asked again: “How many times did you shoot Mr. Lee?”
Cho asked for a break.
“Can I smoke a cigarette and then I’ll tell you everything,” he said, according to police transcripts. Trapp said no. Talk first, then a break.
“Okay, okay…” Cho said.
He admitted that he — and his cell phone — were indeed at the scene the previous evening when Lee died. But it wasn’t murder, he said. It was suicide.
“For about six months he’s been telling me he has a favor to ask,” Cho said. “One day he finally told me…”
Cho then explained that Lee traveled to Anaheim to die and wanted help — his help.
Cho and Lee first met as kids, around the age of thirteen, when they were still living in Korea. They’d been friends ever since. Cho described Lee as “my closest friend from junior high school all the way till now” in court papers. Another junior high school friend of theirs, Seong-han Hong, described in court a clear dynamic to the friendship, even when they were young. “[Lee] always wanted to win,” said Hong, who flew from Korea to testify for the defense at Cho’s trial. “[Cho] is sometimes kind of foolish. Sometimes he was manipulated by others very easily. … He doesn’t know how to say no to other people.” He added that Lee was more of a leader, and that Cho would do whatever Lee said.
Lee and Cho carried the gifts at each other’s weddings — the Korean equivalent to being a best man. For a few years they shared a real estate business in Korea; they also often took beach and ski vacations together. After they had children, they gathered at each other’s homes for family eel barbecues. All the while, they confided in each other. For example, when Lee started having marriage trouble, he came to Cho for counsel. “I told him that everybody is going through difficulties in life,” Cho said in court, speaking through a translator. “Endure it for the sake of your kids.”
Over the years, Cho distanced himself from Lee, and they talked less frequently. Cho was working with an engineering company that made ship parts; Lee was working in his mother’s hotel business. But their history formed a bond that was hard to shake. “I tried to end the friendship a few times,” Cho said in court. “But it didn’t happen. [I] couldn’t end the friendship that I have with him. It’s kind of like the relationship with your wife. I just cannot end it. It’s weird. It doesn’t happen.”
Once Cho moved to the United States in 2004, he and Lee saw each other less frequently but remained friends. That being the case, Lee visited Anaheim once a year, sometimes staying for weeks at a time. He visited his sister, who lived nearby, as well as Cho.
Throughout, according to Cho, Lee’s depression persisted. His business started failing, his marriage was ending and his wife and children had moved to New Zealand. Lee was close to his mother, whom he called a “big mountain he could lean on,” according to Hong. But when she died, about 10 years ago, Lee became despondent. “He said he couldn’t live,” Cho explained in court. “He was very lonely. He said it quite often.”
When Lee visited the U.S. at the end of 2010, he brought up the subject of suicide to his friend once again. But he didn’t want to kill himself. Cho explained that the shame in Korean culture around suicide runs deep — despite the fact that South Korea consistently has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. In Seoul, the city government recently even created plans to raise the guardrails on Mapo Bridge, which had earned the nickname “suicide bridge” because of the large number of people throwing themselves to their deaths into the Han River.
Still, if Lee killed himself, Cho told the court, it would bring shame to his family. It was a “sin against his ancestors.” And Lee had a life insurance policy that suicide would nullify. He wanted to find someone to kill him.
Cho said he tried to brush it off at first. While Lee was in town, the two men went out nightly — dinners, drinks, gambling. Lee paid for everything. Despite his failing business, he was still doing better than Cho, who had a job making about $10 an hour as a welder. “Mr. Lee had money and Mr. Cho didn’t,” Trapp says. “So it’s kind of like, ‘My rich friend’s in town, and we’re going to live it up.’”
Cho told police Lee talked about hiring a hitman. But he didn’t know whom he could trust, Cho said. What if he paid a killer, and the man didn’t follow through? Took the money and disappeared?
Finally, Lee asked Cho straight out: Will you kill me?
Cho told Lee he was talking crazy. But Lee said he was serious. He had already wrapped up his affairs in Korea. He was ready.
“You’re killing me,” Cho told his friend. “Asking me to do that is also killing me.”
When he first sat down with police, Cho said that Lee had shot himself. He drew an elaborate diagram of a configuration where one end of a string was tied to Lee’s foot, the other tied to the trigger of the gun. “Like how people in Korea used to have their tooth pulled as kids,” Cho offered.
But after Trapp pressed — How many times did you shoot Mr. Lee? — he came clean. “He took a long pause,” Trapp remembers. “Then he said, ‘Just one time.’”
As Cho would later do in court, he immediately insisted that it was at his friend’s behest — but legally speaking, that didn’t justify the act. “If he’s saying, ‘I want you to kill me,’ and you say, ‘Okay, I’ll kill you,’ that isn’t a defense,” explains Orange County Deputy District Attorney Scott Simmons, who prosecuted the case. For other crimes, a coercion argument can work. “If I’ve got a gun to your head and say, ‘Go rob that bank,’ you could have that defense,” Simmons says. “It doesn’t, however, apply to murder.”
There was one other detail Cho told Trapp he needed to add, too. Something else. Something he was hesitant to bring up to police because he was embarrassed: Lee had raped Cho’s wife.
It started as a joke.
One night, Cho and Lee were drinking at Lee’s motel. Cho was drinking soju, a Korean vodka-like drink; Lee was sipping whiskey. At some point, Lee brought up the $2,000 he’d recently loaned Cho for a security deposit on a new apartment he and his family were moving into. He wanted collateral to make sure he was paid back. He wanted Cho’s wife.
“[Lee] said jokingly, ‘Oh, I need my money back,’” Cho explained in court. “‘There is nothing free in the world,’” and asked Cho to draw up a contract. Lee dictated while Cho wrote on the pad of motel stationery. If Cho didn’t pay back the money in two days, Lee could have sex with Cho’s wife.
They made contracts like that with each other all the time when they were kids, Cho said, so he thought nothing of it.
A few nights later, though, the two men were again drinking, this time at Cho’s house. According to court papers, Cho’s wife came home from work late from her waitressing job, took a shower and went to bed. The men kept drinking, staying up until one or two in the morning.
Cho finally went to bed; he had to work in the morning. Lee stayed on the couch to sleep off his buzz before driving back to his motel.
Asleep in bed, next to his wife, Cho heard a noise that awoke him. In the dark, he reached his hand over to his wife, and instead, touched Lee’s leg. Cho opened his eyes, just barely, to look. Lee had sneaked into their bed.
“He came next to my wife naked,” Cho said, in court transcripts. “He was touching my wife’s body… My wife’s pajama was all rolled up, up to her breast…”
Cho pretended to be asleep. Lee continued to touch and molest Cho’s wife. She said later in court that she had tried to fight him off, but was too ashamed to wake her husband. Cho listened to it all, facing the wall, his back to them. “I couldn’t let them know that I was aware of what’s going on,” Cho said. “I just tried to be silent, to be still…” It was a small house; their two daughters, ages twelve and nineteen, were sleeping.
“I was worried my wife will get shocked … [and feel] more shame,” said Cho. “I thought it was better for her to know that I didn’t know.” (Cho’s wife corroborated the story, adding in court that Lee returned in the following weeks and raped her two more times when Cho wasn’t home — something she had never told her husband.)
“If you ever had a reason to kill your best friend — that was the moment,” Trapp tells me. “Right? He’s raping your wife in your home, while you’re there; you wake up to this happening.” She shakes her head in disbelief. “But he did nothing.”
In effect, Cho had two stories. One, that the two men were close friends and Cho helped his friend end his life. The other, that Lee raped Cho’s wife, and Cho hated him for it and wanted him to die. To hear Cho tell it, the stories weren’t mutually exclusive. “The story was so strange, I didn’t know what to believe,” says Trapp. “I think at one point I even told him that.”
After the episode in the bedroom, Cho claimed, he confronted Lee. “He told me, ‘Did you forget the contract you wrote?’” Cho said. He wondered if Lee was just trying to provoke him. “I realized, Oh, this guy is doing everything for me to do that thing … the suicide is not a joke.”
The next day, Lee bought Cho’s wife a $3,000 kimchi refrigerator — she’d always wanted one — specially designed to keep fermented vegetables fresh.
Afterward, Lee and Cho somehow continued to hang out. They went to karaoke, out to sushi dinners; they holed up at bars. At the same time, they started to plan Lee’s death. Lee bought a gun, and he took Cho to a local shooting range to practice on two separate occasions.
“I just find it hard to give him [Cho] sympathy because he had so many chances to do the right thing,” Trapp says. “He could’ve called the police. He could’ve terminated the friendship. He could’ve said, ‘Look dude, I’m not hanging out with you. I don’t want your kimchi refrigerator.’ He could’ve abandoned the plan — if his plan is in fact what happened. He did none of those things.”
The remaining weeks would be a countdown to what Lee referred to as “D-Day.”
“Everything is ready for suicide,” Lee said, according to Cho.
The two went to Walmart, Cho said, to buy shoes and gloves. “Because most Asians have the shoe size between seven and eight, but he wanted to make it look like it was a black person,” Cho said. “A lot of black people are athletes, and they have large shoe sizes like fourteen or fifteen. So he wanted to make it look like it was done by one of them.”
As bizarre as Cho’s story sounded to police, they found evidence to corroborate most of it. Surveillance footage of the two men in Walmart buying shoes and gloves. Records of the two times they went to the shooting range. The only thing police didn’t find? The alleged contract Cho said he wrote on the motel memo pad.
The men also scouted locations for the act itself. Lee was heavily into feng shui, and wanted to die near water. “According to the feng shui theory, if he dies near the water, then his soul goes to a better place and his descendants will also be blessed,” said Cho.
“I just played along because I knew that he was going back home [to Korea] in a few days,” Cho continued. “I just thought to myself, I will just go along with him and just go through with it for a few more days to buy time.”
“Have you ever read Of Mice and Men?” Robert Kohler, Cho’s attorney and deputy public defender, asks me. “My guy’s the big guy,” referring to Lennie, the lumbering, childlike oaf who never means to cause any harm.
At first, Kohler says, Cho was too ashamed about not only his wife’s rape but also his own crime to open up to his own lawyer. Kohler says it took time to build trust with Cho, for him to feel comfortable talking.
The role of shame in Korean culture figured prominently in Cho’s defense during the trial. It was the reason why Lee couldn’t take his own life, the reason why he asked Cho to kill him and the reason why both Cho and his wife kept silent about the rape.
It was convincing — to a point.
“There’s shame in all cultures,” Trapp says dismissively. Rape is a perfect example. “A sexual assault is commonly not reported by women because of the shame or the stigma or not wanting anyone to know this terrible thing that happened to them. A lot of things they spoke about [at trial], I don’t think are specific to Koreans.”
One night, Lee decided it was D-Day. He called Cho, and they drove out to the remote location in East Anaheim they’d scouted previously. It was a commercial area, deserted at night, and near a city water basin — the proximity to water Lee wanted. The two men smoked and talked about vacations they used to take together — to Thailand, to Japan, to China.
“We were talking about those times, and I try to calm him down,” Cho said. “I was hoping that maybe he can change his mind.”
“I held him, and we cried together,” Cho continued. “I told him, ‘We cannot do [it] here.’ I only thought to save him.”
Cho and Lee ended up going home that night; Cho said he felt relieved — he had bought another day.
But the following night, Lee was ready to go again. He called Cho and told him to put on the shoes — the size-thirteen shoes they bought together at Walmart — and meet him back at the location.
“Mr. Cho had a choice,” Trapp says. “He could’ve driven home. He could’ve called the police. He could’ve called [Lee’s] sister and said, ‘Your brother’s here, he’s not well.’ He didn’t do any of those things. Instead, he puts on the size-thirteen shoes and goes to the location.”
When Cho arrived, he and Lee set up the car to make it look like they were changing a tire. Lee told his friend to step in some dirt. Lee laid down and had Cho step on his back — to leave a large footprint and make it look like he’d been attacked.
“We sat down on the curb, we talk a lot,” said Cho. “We talked about our kids. … I was thinking maybe if he thinks of his kids, he may not kill himself.”
They talked about Lee’s marriage. “We will be 60 soon,” Cho told him. “Just try to live and try to endure all those things.” According to Cho, Lee responded, “It’s too late for everything.”
A bicyclist rode past. Cho suggested they abort the plan, in case the cyclist saw them. Lee was undeterred. “He said he didn’t care,” said Cho. “‘I have to do it today’ — that’s what he said.”
Lee knelt down in the street and picked up the gun, handing it to Cho. Lee was crying and praying, according to Cho’s testimony.
“He held my hand and he told me, ‘If you shoot just one shot to the back of my head, I will go without knowing…’” Cho said.
Cho was standing behind Lee, who was still kneeling. Lee didn’t want to feel the gun against his head, the “feeling of cold,” Cho said. Lee asked if they could keep talking, if Cho could shoot him while they talked.
Cho said he was crying, begging Lee to let him off the hook.
That’s when, according to Cho, Lee turned angry. He brought up that night in Cho’s bedroom. He said he had raped Cho’s wife. More than once. He’d do it again. He threatened to rape Cho’s daughter. At that moment, Cho heard the train coming. The sound, he thought, would mask the gunshot. He pulled the trigger.
Lee fell forward onto the ground.
“I felt like I heard Yeon Woo’s voice after I shot,” Cho said, using his friend’s first name. “Screaming. I don’t know whether it was real or dream. So right after that I went to my car. I just look ahead. Just walked. I didn’t look back.”
Cho went home, wrapped the gun in a white, plastic bag, and and hid it in the toolbox in his garage.
Lee’s alleged threat to Cho’s wife and daughter in those final moments became a pivotal point in the trial. Cho had never mentioned it until he was on the stand. He told police everything else, but never that.
“I don’t believe it happened,” Trapp says. “Because he had plenty of time to tell me. I think that was something he added.” (Trapp talked with Cho on three separate occasions, including taking him to the crime scene and having him re-enact it for her.) “That’s a very important detail. How do you forget that? He conveniently left that part out? All three times?” She shook her head. “No.”
“I was shocked when he said that,” says Simmons, the prosecutor. “I knew something was up because there was no real reason for the defendant to take the stand.” There were already hours of police interviews. The only reason Cho testified, Simmons believes, was to add that one detail — a vital one, since it’s the difference between first-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter. If Cho pulled the trigger in the “heat of passion,” as opposed to premeditation, the jury had the option of finding him guilty of the lesser charge.
“It’s a cold-blooded execution,” Simmons says. “There’s plenty of facts for a first-degree murder, so many facts to show premeditation,” like going to the shooting range, finding the location, buying the size-thirteen shoes and gloves. “The only theory that reduced murder to a manslaughter in this case was ‘sudden quarrel/heat of passion.’”
In court, Simmons asked Cho why he never told police that Lee threatened his family in those final moments. Cho said he tried, but that police redirected him.
It’s possible. Kohler notes that a couple of times during the police interview, Cho alluded to it, saying that the moment before he pulled the trigger, Lee “said something that hurt my heart.” Kohler also says Cho had trouble coming out and repeating Lee’s words. “This isn’t two guys at a bar,” Kohler offers. Lee talking about raping Cho’s wife, threatening to rape his daughter, “these are the most intimate details of his life. … It was difficult to talk about his wife and his daughter in such graphic detail to the police.”
The jury believed it.
“Maybe that was the truth, I don’t know,” Simmons says. “If the jury believes Mr. Cho, then it’s a fair verdict.”
Last summer, after a two-week trial, they convicted Cho of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced him to ten years in state prison. He will likely be released in fall 2019.
“These cases are always lose-lose,” Simmons tells me. “Everybody loses.” Lee lost his life, and his family lost a husband, father and brother. “Mr. Cho was a law-abiding citizen up until this point. There’s no good that comes of any of it.”
Plus, Kohler adds, “Mr. Cho lost his best friend, whether you agree with what he did or not.”
“I think he’s remorseful,” Trapp says. “I don’t think that’s an act. I just think that he had choices. He chose to take a life.”
She thinks back to the night of the interrogation. “I asked him several times, ‘Why did you shoot Mr. Lee?’ And multiple times he told me, ‘Because I hate him, and I wanted him to die. My life would be better with him dead.’”
“As crazy as his story was, there was a lot of truth to it. I do believe Mr. Lee wanted to die,” Trapp says. “I just believe Mr. Cho could’ve done a lot better by his friend than putting a bullet in his head and leaving him on a lonely street.”