As an Asian-American, I’m aware of cultural enclaves where segments of the Asian community will live to have a smooth transition to life as immigrants. I grew up close to Flushing, New York, and we visited every week. Flushing feels the closest to China I’ve ever experienced — almost everyone there is Chinese or Korean (as a Chinese-American, we visit the Chinese part).
Miracle Mile, California is close to one of those enclaves for Korean Americans, and it was the site of the murder of two women and a two-year-old boy in 2003. Their names were Eun Sik Min, a 56-year-old woman, Charis Song, a 30-year-old mother, and Nathan Song, a two-year-old toddler.
According to Suzie Suh at CBS Los Angeles, the May 5, 2003 murders shocked the whole Miracle Mile area. It was a brutal crime scene that seemed to lack a motive. Song especially was killed brutally. Her hands were bound and her mouth was gagged with duct tape, and she was found slumped along the bathroom floor.
The case actually had DNA evidence, but authorities were unable to find DNA for the suspect. Ben Adair and Sharon Choi say in the Strangeland podcast that the murders shocked Koreatown, and daily newspapers covered the murders frequently and revealed intensely personal details about Charis Song and her family. The Korean community was also shocked at Song’s husband possibly being involved, a former Korean Marine, self-made businessman, and respected churchgoer.
They started looking for the most obvious suspect: Byung Song, Song’s husband, who was a businessman in the community. He was the immediate suspect, and law enforcement did not believe him when he said he was not involved in the murders. The Koreatown daily newspapers did not help: they camped outside Song’s business and church, looking for evidence Song may be guilty of killing his wife, son, and nanny.
There was no DNA link between Byung Song and the crime, but the lead investigator for the case still believed Song was involved. Song and his wife were having marital problems, but for the community, the Song family was very well off. They drove fancy cars and owned a business, and they were thought of as very successful in Koreatown.
But there was still not enough evidence to prove Song was guilty of the murders, so it became a cold case, for a very long time. In 2012, the Los Angeles Times reported authorities finally found a DNA match with a neighbor named Robin Kyu Cho. Cho lived three floors below Charis Song.
Cho ran a Ponzi scheme in the community which Adair and Choi say eventually became a multi-million dollar scheme. Cho built a reputation as a reputable businessman in the community. Cho promised a friend he would get a 4% return on a $25,000 investment, and Cho made good on his returns.
However, Cho never had any real credentials or licenses. But within the Korean immigrant community, he was a very trustworthy person. Cho spoke very good English, which was a status symbol in the community.
Cho ended up receiving a life sentence without the possibility of parole in 2012. So why did Cho kill Song and her family? There remains a lack of a plausible motive, but the fact remains he still committed the murders.
Frank Santoro, the Deputy District Attorney, said the murders were “sophisticated and deliberate.” Byung Song also accused Cho of trying to confuse the investigation to make him the prime suspect. Santoro eventually said Cho’s Ponzi scheme was collapsing, and the killings may have been a “robbery gone bad” of a wealthy family.
At the same time, Santoro told the media and jurors the motive does not matter:
“Who cares why Mr. Cho committed this murder?… “He put on those gloves for whatever reason, he went into that house for whatever reason, and he pulled the trigger, six times.”
Santoro made the case that Cho was desperate in his bankruptcy. However, that motive does not make sense because nothing was stolen from the Songs’ apartment. Cho’s defense attorney made the case for Cho, but he was eventually found guilty regardless.
In 2008, Cho pleaded guilty to a $2 million Ponzi scheme. His sentence was incredibly light — he received five years of probation. His slap on the wrist required him to submit a DNA sample.
The investigators received a DNA match and started an investigation, according to Victoria Kim at the Los Angeles Times. They questioned Cho and started following him. Cho threw a disheveled newspaper into a garbage can, a detective got the newspaper. He found five .38-caliber bullets, which were used to kill the Song family, leading Cho to be accused of a triple homicide.
Cho’s crimes are shocking and confusing. Does financial desperation really drive someone to kill an entire family? Well, there was a very human cost to Cho’s actions.
Byung Song legitimately had his life ruined. Despite being innocent, many in law enforcement and within the Koreatown community assumed his guilt. He eventually told the press:
“If people understood, even a little, what it’s like to have lost a wife and child at once, they couldn’t cast me as a suspect like this…There are countless rumors, that my deceased wife was my second, that my business is not doing well.”
Song being ostracized by his community must have been difficult, and Kim reports on icy relations between Song and the investigators.
While Cho did not have a clear motive, it was wrong to assume someone else was guilty just because he was a person of interest.
The lesson is to not jump to assumptions unless the evidence points to the assumption.
Originally published on CrimeBeat on November 14, 2021.