A Tale of Two Lees

June 15, 2018 • Feature, In-depth

For a slaying he didn’t commit, Chol Soo Lee went to prison. While imprisoned, he killed a fellow inmate, claiming self-defense. He would spend nearly 10 years total in prison, five of those years on death row.

A group of young pan-Asian American community activists, convinced that Chol Soo Lee had been wrongfully tried and convicted for the gang-related slaying of Yip Yee Tak in Chinatown, found that no reporters at either of San Francisco’s daily newspapers were interested in pursuing the case. They later learned of a Korean American investigative reporter who lived nearly 100 miles away in Sacramento who was interested. His name was Kyung Won Lee.

One of those community activists was Ranko Yamada. According to a note written by Chol Soo Lee and sent to K. W. Lee, Yamada had been trying to help Chol Soo since his 1973 arrest, which she had read about in the newspapers. According to Yamada, the June 8 dinner was the first time she and K. W. Lee had seen each other in person in 40 years.

Yamada had actually known Chol Soo Lee prior to his arrest, but he was using the name “Charles” at the time. When she read the news reports, she thought Charles and Chol Soo might have been the same person, which she later corroborated. She remembered a friendly young man; something about the news reports that said he had committed the Chinatown murder just didn’t seem right.

Back then, it seemed that no one else cared about his plight, and K. W. would later write that it was Yamada who began the Save Chol Soo Lee committee and that the effort by Chinese Americans, Japanese Americans and Korean Americans to free Chol Soo was one of the first acts of pan-Asian American cooperation.

On his own, K. W. Lee began researching Chol Soo Lee’s case, even visiting him in prison for an interview. Part of that research would entail driving to San Francisco, where he would meet many of those in the nascent drive to free Chol Soo.

Inspired by their commitment and intrigued by the seemingly obvious problems with Chol Soo Lee’s arrest and conviction, K. W. Lee launched a series of investigative articles — eventually totaling nearly 100 — questioning everything about the Chol Soo Lee case, from why a Korean who spoke no Chinese and limited English was arrested in the first place to egregious mistakes made by a police department and judicial system under political pressure to quickly arrest and imprison someone — anyone — for a crime that could affect perceptions of whether it was safe for tourists to visit the City by the Bay.

“Until he came out with that series of articles, there was quite a bit of suspicion and many questions about supporting someone who was being charged with murder,” Yamada told the Pacific Citizen. “If not for those articles, that support would not have been generated.”

K.W.’s articles and the community activism were instrumental in getting Chol Soo Lee (no relation to K. W. Lee) a retrial and acquittal nearly 10 years after the Chinatown slaying. But he remained in prison for murdering fellow inmate Morrison Needham. Lee’s attorneys plea-bargained the conviction to second-degree murder, and he was freed after being credited for time served.

Freedom did not, however, free Chol Soo Lee from battling the trauma of having done hard time in behind bars. Even as he counseled young people to stay on the straight and narrow, he struggled with drug abuse and other problems and would again land in prison for 18 months on drug-related charges.

In 1989, the Chol Soo Lee saga was the inspiration for the movie “True Believer,” starring James Woods, Robert Downey Jr. and Yuji Okumoto. Absent from the movie was anything about Asian American activists or an investigative reporter who brought the issue to light.

K.W. Lee was presented with the Asian American Journalists Assn.’s Excellence in Print Journalism award in 1987 at the first AAJA National Convention. He was also inducted into the Journalism History Gallery at Washington, D.C.’s Newseum in 1997.

Chol Soo Lee died in 2014 at age 62.

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