Bank hostage trial begins for Korean American defendant

April 8, 2014

SANTA ANA (CNS) – A 56-year-old Irvine man should be convicted of attempted murder, kidnapping and other charges for taking a bank employee hostage and firing at three SWAT officers, a prosecutor said today, but the defendant’s attorney denied the prosecution’s claim that his client had the intent to kill.

Myung Jae Kim lost about $235,000 in cash that he put in a safety deposit box of Hanmi Bank in Garden Grove in 2007 and “wanted retaliation” when he walked into Saehan Bank in Buena Park some five years later, armed with a sawed-off shotgun, pipe bombs and a knife, and took an employee hostage, Senior Deputy District Attorney John Christl alleged.

The Saehan Bank employee, Michelle Kwon, had previously worked at Hanmi Bank, but had nothing to do with the defendant’s wife putting the cash in a safety deposit box, Christl said.

Kim filed a report with Garden Grove police after his wife went to Hanmi Bank one day and found the cash missing. He was told about a year later that the case was closed, the prosecutor said.

Bank officials did their own probe and cleared their employees of wrongdoing and suggested the defendant’s wife took the money, Christl said.

Over the years, Kim would call Kwon and ask about the status of the investigation of his missing cash. The calls came even after she transferred to Saehan Bank, Christl said.

When Kim went to Saehan Bank at 4542 Beach Blvd. on March 1, 2012, he was carrying a white box full of weapons that looked so innocuous that a security guard held the door open for him, Christl said. Kim was armed with four pipe bombs, the double-barreled, sawed-off shotgun, a knife, a lighter and shotgun shells, the prosecutor said.

The defendant held Kwon hostage for nearly four hours before SWAT officers stormed the bank, touching off a shootout, Christl said. Kwon, who is diabetic, figured she might have a shot at a rescue if she told her captor she needed food, he said.

While Kim never directly threatened Kwon with killing her, he did say he would “shoot off” her legs, Christl said.

“He didn’t say he wanted to kill her, but his actions showed differently,” the prosecutor said.

SWAT sharpshooters across the street from the bank drew a bead on Kim at one point, but the bullets clanked off a metal railing, Christl said. SWAT officers eventually entered the bank, where they shot Kim in the stomach and the defendant responded by firing a round at Kwon, who was fortunate to dodge the gunfire, Christl said.

Kim’s attorney, Kevin Song of the Orange County Public Defender’s Office, said his client had not intended to kill Kwon, who coincidentally was a customer of the defendant’s water purifying business.

Kim just wanted a Hanmi bank executive to call him with information on who took the cash, his attorney said.

“The evidence will show what Mr. Kim wanted was a phone call, a phone call that was five years overdue,” Song said.

Kim emigrated to the country “pursuing the American dream,” but he didn’t trust the bank and didn’t want to pay taxes on his cash,” so he put it in a safety deposit box, Song said.

Garden Grove police called Kim a year after he filed a police report saying “the case is closed and there’s nothing we can do about it,” Song said.

Kim would not accept suggestions his wife may have taken the cash, Song said.  At one point as he questioned bank officials, Kim was told, “If you’re going to sue us then sue us, we’re not liable,” according to Song.

Kim was “sure” after finally getting a meeting with a bank vice president that his wife did not take the cash and that the bank was responsible for the missing money, Song said.

Kim would call Kwon “once or twice a year” and she was “very professional, not rude,” Song said, adding she assured Kim that there was nothing she could do to help him.

After Kim walked into the bank and showed Kwon the weapons, he told her, “I need to talk to the vice president of this bank and I need to find out who took my money, and when I find out I’m going to kill myself,” according to Song.

Kim called his brother and wife from the bank to say goodbye, Song said.

Kwon did not appear to feel like a hostage, and at one point the two began quarreling, with Kwon telling her captor she would sue him, Song said.

Kim “actually cared about her well-being,” offering her advice to avoid tap water as a diabetic and suggesting she drink vinegar, Song said, adding that apparently their kids knew each other.”

During the standoff, a Saehan bank executive offered to give the defendant the missing money in exchange for Kwon’s freedom, Song said. Kim responded, “I don’t want the money. I’m not here for the money,” the defense attorney said.

Kim did not fire at Kwon, according to Song, who said the gun discharged once after the defendant was shot by police.

“You’ll see him grimace before the moment of discharge” in a bank surveillance video of the shooting, Song said.

“This is a case about a family man desperate for answers,” Song said. “He never had the intent to kill … He brought the weapons to send a message that he needs to be taken seriously.”

Kim is charged with one count each of attempted murder, assault with a firearm, kidnapping, possession of a destructive device in a public place, explosion of a destructive device and criminal threats, and three  counts of assault with a firearm on a peace officer.

He also faces three sentence-enhancing allegations: personal discharge of a firearm, personal use of a firearm and personal use of a deadly weapon.

 

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