Orange County Superior Court. Photo by John Schreiber
Orange County Superior Court. Photo by John Schreiber

An Orange County man originally from South Korea who murdered his longtime best friend in a staged suicide of sorts will have to wait until September to learn his prison fate after being convicted of voluntary manslaughter.

The defense called the case a “Greek Tragedy” and a prosecutor said it was “bizarre.”

While the victim had raped the killer’s wife and testimony showed the killer’s family would likely benefit from a life insurance policy, the defense insisted the victim had talked about killing himself for years and wanted to be shot to death.

After being convicted Thursday, Beong Kwun Cho, 56, was scheduled to be sentenced Sept. 23. He faces up to 21 years in prison. Jurors, who deliberated for about 2 1/2 hours, also had the option of considering first- and second-degree murder.

“This was a bizarre case,” Senior Deputy District Attorney Scott Simmons said. “I think it’s a fair verdict. The jury worked hard.”

The newest evidence that came out in trial was the victim, Yeon Woo Lee, telling Cho right before the defendant pulled the trigger that he had raped Cho’s wife.

Cho’s wife testified that Lee had forced her to have sex with him three times, Simmons said.

“I thought the evidence was overwhelming that it was a heat-of-passion killing,” defense attorney Robert Kohler said.

Lee had been talking about taking his own life for about a decade, but couldn’t bring himself to do it, Kohler said. The victim likely egged Cho on to pull the trigger, the defense attorney added.

Other reasons Cho killed Lee was to have his family benefit from a life insurance policy.

In his opening statement of the trial, Kohler told jurors, “You’re about to hear a story that books are written about, movies are made of… It’s almost a Greek tragedy.”

Cho and Lee had been friends since middle school in South Korea, Kohler said. A friendship that lasting can be stronger than a marriage, Kohler said.

“The families went skiing together, to the beach together,” Kohler said, adding they also started a real estate business together that failed when the market collapsed in the Great Recession.

When Lee’s mother died in 2006 he grew despondent, Kohler said.

Lee was not suffering from any life-threatening maladies at the time of his death, Simmons said.

The hotel business he ran with his mother after the real estate business collapsed was failing, as was the victim’s marriage, according to Kohler.

“Basically his life was falling apart,” Kohler said of Lee.

When Lee arrived in the U.S. in November 2010 he did not alert any of his relatives in Irvine, Kohler said.

“When Mr. Lee came here, he came here to die,” Kohler said.

Having someone kill Lee meant he could avoid the shame of suicide and divorce, Kohler said.

“This is kind of Mr. Lee’s version of the movie ‘A Simple Plan,’ ” Kohler said.

An expert on the role shame plays in the Korean culture was testified in the trial.

At one point, Cho woke up to see Lee naked in his bed pressed up against Cho’s wife, Kohler said. That enraged Cho, Kohler said.

Cho felt “intense emotions that affected his judgment,” Kohler said.

The body of the 50-year-old Lee was found next to a rental car with a flat tire on Miraloma Avenue near Kraemer Boulevard about 4 a.m., Jan. 26, 2011, by a street sweeper.

Investigators traced evidence in the car to a Howard Johnson’s motel in Buena Park, where Lee was allowed to check in without publicly registering and paid in cash, Simmons said.

Lee was vacationing from South Korea and had checked into the motel Jan. 17, 2011, and was paid through Jan. 26 of that year, Simmons said.

Police also found in the motel room an airline ticket Lee had bought for a Feb. 1 flight from Los Angeles International Airport to South Korea, Simmons said.

While searching another motel room where he stayed previously in Fullerton, police found an emergency contact number for the victim that was registered to Cho’s wife, Hyun Sook Yang, Simmons said.

Cho said he used Hyun’s name because he was in the country illegally and did not have a Social Security number required to get a phone, Simmons said.

Police checked records and found that the phone Cho was using was pinging off of a cell tower near the crime scene when Lee was killed, Simmons said.

Cho was initially evasive under police questioning, saying he knew the victim but wasn’t aware of where he might be, Simmons said. Later, Cho said Lee had confessed he wanted to take his own life, but feared the shame he would bring to his family, Simmons said.

Also, Lee’s family could not collect on an insurance policy if he committed suicide, Simmons said. Lee also considered hiring a hit man but was afraid a paid killer would take the money without doing the job, Simmons said.

“According to the defendant, Mr. Lee told the defendant, ‘You kill me. I want you to kill me,” Simmons said.

Cho told police he refused, Simmons said.

Lee concocted a plan to flatten the tire of the car he was driving and stage the scene to make it appear he was the victim of a robbery gone bad, Simmons said. Cho told investigators he had a contract with the victim, but police never found it, Simmons said.

Cho told police that Lee lent him $2,000 and if he didn’t pay it off within a couple of days then Lee could have sex with Cho’s wife, Simmons said. Cho’s wife at first denied she had sex with Lee, but then told investigators that he raped her three times, Simmons said.

When police asked Cho how it felt to have someone “raping” his wife, Cho replied, “It made me feel like I wanted to kill him,” Simmons said.

Then Cho claimed Lee threatened to sic authorities on him and his family so they would be deported if the defendant did not kill the victim as requested, Simmons said.

Cho led investigators to where the gun used in the killing was stashed in his garage.

Cho also led police to where he had dumped the victim’s wallet, gloves used when firing the gun, a shell casing from the murder weapon and size 13 shoes to create foot tracks to make it appear someone else was the killer, Simmons said.

Lee himself bought the shoes, Kohler said.

–Staff and wire reports

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