Trial By Fire

I read this painful story today and here I feel the need to mix up the story (not in its entirety) a bit in order to diagnose what led up to the fire, in an order that I feel makes better sense of what is happening with this family. I can’t imagine what this has done to their faith, but I believe this story speaks to the brokenness that is in many of our Asian American homes. While this tragedy seems to have not ended yet for the Lee family, my hope and prayer is that we would able to heal the open wounds of our generation.

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Things were rough for the Lee family that summer of 1989.

Han Tak and his wife, Esther Lee, had lived apart seven years while he got his start in the United States. She and their two girls stayed in Seoul.

Now the family was together in New York City and tension was high.

There were long hours at the Lees’ clothing store on Seventh Avenue near Madison Square Garden, where all the family worked. And Han Tak was too strict with the girls — too traditional, too many rules, Esther recalls as she traces the journey of her troubled marriage.

Worst of all, Ji Yun, 20 and the oldest child, was ill again after a few years of calm.

Manic depression had surfaced a year or so after they immigrated. Medication had helped, so well that she got into a prestigious art college to paint, but things were unraveling again.

“She didn’t eat. She didn’t sleep. She couldn’t be still,” says Esther, sitting in her quiet apartment in Fort Lee, N.J. A painting by Ji Yun — flowers, a blur of purple, white and green — sits next to the lone couch. “I was exhausted.”

Their Pentecostal pastor thought prayer might help. It seemed like a respite: a trip out to the countryside, hours from the city, a quiet, cool retreat with preachers and prayer.

So Lee woke early on that summer Saturday and father and daughter set off. They drove across the bridges out of New York, out on the interstate to rural Pennsylvania, to the church camp and its small, wooden cabins. And they prayed, with one and then two pastors, until the wee hours of the morning.

That’s when everything went much, much worse.

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In the calm, cool hours before daybreak on July 29, 1989, firefighters carefully put the charred remains of Ji Yun’s body onto a blue sheet. Investigators quickly became suspicious.

When the first responders arrived at 3:22 a.m., Han Tak Lee seemed calm. He didn’t cry. He sat on a bench across from the burning cabin with two bags of luggage at his feet. He “remained complacently seated throughout,” Patrolman James D. Leigh-Manuell wrote in his police report at 9 p.m. that night.

State Trooper Thomas Jones, doubling as county fire marshal, wrote in his report a week later: “Mr. LEE remained almost emotionless and while in view of this officer made no attempts to console his wife (when she arrived from New York later that day). Mrs. LEE on the other hand was being escorted to the scene and upon nearing the burnt building almost collapsed and had to be physically assisted from the scene.”

Prosecutor E. David Christine Jr. held Lee’s demeanor against him.

“Helping her up wouldn’t be an admission of emotion, would it, ladies and gentlemen?” he asked during his closing arguments. “That is what a husband does to his wife when their daughter is dead, and only a few hours dead?”

Several jurors later acknowledged how much that swayed them.

But Koreans say that men traditionally don’t express much emotion, and never in public [emphasis mine]. And Lee is nothing if not traditional, his wife and surviving daughter say.

“Koreans don’t go crazy with emotion like Americans,” adds Dr. Louis Roh, a Korean-American deputy medical examiner in Westchester County, N.Y., who briefly was involved in one of several appeals.

Lee says now that, watching the cabin burn, he was overwhelmed and stunned into silence.

“I found that I just lost my spirit and my mind there. It felt like all the blood drained out of my body,” he says. “In Korea, men are not allowed to cry. If your daughter is suddenly found dead, there’s nothing you can do. You just lost your soul. You can’t even think.”

When authorities interviewed Lee through a translator that morning (he speaks very little English), his story didn’t convince them:

He had fallen asleep exhausted after praying and woke to the smell of smoke. Fire was in the other bedroom in the small cabin, his daughter’s bedroom. He ran out. She wasn’t outside. He ran back, called for her, didn’t hear or see her, thought she had already escaped. He threw the luggage out the door. He banged on the bathroom door and, overcome by smoke and fire, went out the back door.

Jones, who was called to the scene before dawn, had his mind made up by 8 a.m. That was when he received word from the coroner that Ji Yun had only a small amount of carbon monoxide in her blood — too little, he instantly concluded, to have died from smoke inhalation.

“It tripped a red flag to me. … This girl was probably dead when the fire started,” he testified in court. “At that point in time, instead of being at a fire scene, I was now at a crime scene.”

The coroner, however, concluded in his documentation of Ji Yun’s death that she was alive when the fire started and was killed in the blaze. Another of the state’s arguments — that Lee had poured 60 gallons of fuel oil to start the fire — was never scientifically challenged. It doesn’t stand up, Lentini argues now, because it would have flooded the cabin, turned up in chemical tests and burned the arsonist.

But the morning of the fire, with a crime already suspected, the pieces soon fit into place, lining up neatly with the lessons the investigators had been taught at the National Fire Academy.

Pour patterns on the floor that indicate multiple points of origin? Check.

“Alligatored” charring? Check.

Crazed glass? Check.

Damaged furniture springs? Check.

Investigators had the evidence to back up their suspicions. Han Tak Lee was a killer.

Lee’s lawyer never disputed the conclusion of arson. He argued instead that Ji Yun, suffering from a mental illness, had started the fire herself to commit suicide.

The family has never accepted that. She was a quiet and troubled girl, they say, but also an innocent and religious one who viewed suicide as a sin.

The jury didn’t accept the defense attorney’s argument, either. They believed the experts.

On Sept. 17, 1990, they convicted Lee of murder.

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“I never killed my daughter. I never set the fire. I’m not the right person to be here,” Lee, now 71 and hair going gray, says through a translator during an interview at Rockview medium-security prison in central Pennsylvania. “This is not arson. This is an accident.”

The hardest part is that there’s often no clear guilty party or explanation with arson, as DNA can provide. In the Lee case, another defense investigator argued the blaze started from a short in an electrical cord, but Lentini says the hard evidence either burned up or was ignored by the county investigators, and later destroyed.

For the Lees, there’s no getting past the tragedy that took Ji Yun. But they still want one more chance from the justice system.

In prison, Han Tak Lee exudes a kind of desperate hope as he meets with a reporter and translator. For the lone Korean speaker at the 2,061-inmate prison, it is a rare chance to hear his native language. “I never regret,” he says. “I have very strong faith. I will get out as a free man.”

Back in New Jersey, his wife can’t shake her sorrow.

She doubts the justice system. She questions her own anger after her daughter’s death, guilty that it may have convinced investigators to charge her husband. And she is unsure about coming to this country at all, given what befell her family.

“We had American dream,” she says. “We dreamt about a better life. But the better life didn’t happen.”

Still, a small dream remains.

If Han Tak could be free, she would like to bring her husband a meal. Something simple — some rice, some kimchi, some barbecued meat. A meal that tastes like home.

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Please think of the Lee family this season during the holidays. I can hardly fathom how great their sorrow is, but I know that the life that the Lees had before the tragedy is hardly different from hundreds of Asian Americans now. I pray that God would break through our relationships in our families and help us understand one another so that the tragedies that exist incipiently in our homes would not be capitalized upon by a terrible accident like this.

Heal us, O God. May the churches of our generation and our people be a salve to your loved ones. I pray for Han Tak Lee and his family, I pray for you to comfort them. My heart aches for this family…there is no shalom tonight in my own home. I know your ways are higher than my ways, and your thoughts than my thoughts, but God I pray for your peace over the Lee family. You know what it was like to be wrongly accused. You know what this pain is, and you bore it so that we could be healed. May justice be served, may your glory be revealed, and may your people be comforted O God of peace and mercy. In Jesus’ name…

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