Man pleads guilty to 5 murders near Lancaster

February 5, 2015
(Courtesy of L.A. County Sheriff's Department)

(Courtesy of L.A. County Sheriff’s Department)

LANCASTER (CNS) – One of two men charged in the June 2008 killings of five people, including his ex-wife and her two children, at a Quartz Hill home pleaded guilty Wednesday to murder and arson charges in a deal that could spare him a possible death sentence.

Shim Jae-hwan, 45, pleaded guilty to five counts of first-degree murder and one count of arson of an inhabited dwelling, along with admitting the special circumstance allegations of multiple murders and lying in wait and an allegation that he personally used a Samurai sword or a baseball bat in the killings.

The prosecution had previously announced that it was seeking the death penalty against Shim. He will now face five life prison terms without the possibility of parole if he testifies truthfully in the upcoming murder trial of co-defendant Steve Kwon, 44.

Shim and Kwon were initially charged in July 2008 and then indicted in November 2010 for the June 23, 2008, killings of Shim’s 34-year-old ex-wife, Jenny Young Park, her 11-year-old son Justin, her 13-year-old daughter Jamie, and her cousin’s husband, Joseph Ciganek, 60, who worked at the Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base.

The victims were found dead after a fire at Ciganek’s Quartz Hill home, where Park and her children were staying.

Shim and Kwon also are charged with murdering Park’s boyfriend, Yoon Si-Sung, who taught the children tae kwon do. His Acura SUV — containing his driver’s license, checkbook and credit cards — was found near the scene, but the 34-year-old man’s body was dumped in Mexico.

“I am guilty,” Shim said through a Korean interpreter when being asked his plea to the last three murder counts.

Defense attorney Dan Kuperberg told reporters outside court, “We’re happy that there’s some closure for the victims’ family (members).”

He noted that a hearing last June in which the victims’ family members urged Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Larry Paul Fidler to speed up the trial motivated the defense to “try to resolve this case if we could.”

“Their pain was obvious and evident. It affected all the lawyers. It affected Mr. Shim,” Kuperberg said.

At that hearing, the victims’ family members said they did not know why the criminal proceedings had taken so long.

“Why has the trial not ended by now? … When will I be able to have closure?” Jay Park, the father of the two slain children, wrote in a letter that was read in court on his behalf.

The judge noted at the June 2014 hearing that he understood the families’ pain, but acknowledged at the time that there could be delays in getting the case to trial.

“Nobody’s forgotten you,” he told the victims’ family. “This case is not lost in the system … We’re doing the best we can.”

Deputy District Attorney Beth Silverman — who noted that Shim has given a “detailed explanation” to authorities — told the judge that the defendant will be required to testify completely and truthfully against Kwon and will not be sentenced until after Kwon’s trial.

The prosecutor said Shim’s motive for the killings was “jealousy, power, control and a lot of anger” against his ex-wife and others related to her.