'His American dream is broken' Slain grocer had worked to build a new life

November 12, 1997|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

Byong Wan Pak's little food market with the bright yellow front was supposed to be the start of something better.

He worked seven days a week, 15 hours a day and skipped his honeymoon -- hoping for the payoff promised by hard work. But he was shot by a robber Nov. 1 and died a week later.

The 45-year-old South Korean immigrant who came here 16 years ago died Saturday, and police yesterday returned to his Friendly Food Market on Old York Road in Pen Lucy in North Baltimore hoping that publicity will lead them to his killer.

"His American dream is broken," said Pak's nephew, James Pak, 34. "He wanted to come here and pursue his goals."

Yesterday, police frustrated by a lack of clues said two people have called 911 operators in the past week and given them information about the people involved.

"We want these people to call back," said Detective Robert L. Patton of the homicide unit. "It was very precise information. But it's not enough right now."

In December, Patton publicly pleaded for help to solve the slaying of two college students outside Volcano's nightclub, witnessed by 200 people. In less then a month, he arrested a 24-year-old man, whose trial is to begin today.

Pak has become the latest casualty among Korean shopkeepers this year. In January, four violent robberies left two Korean-American store owners dead and a third critically wounded in eight days.

Police initially believed that the same two masked men committed all of the crimes, which unsettled the tight-knit community that complained of feeling helpless, and raised questions whether Korean-Americans were being targeted.

Other cases

Police in April arrested two suspects in the Jan. 27 shooting of Chi Sup Kim, 44, who was slain in front of his wife in the robbery of A-1 Supermarket in the 3600 block of W. Caton Ave. The suspects were 14 and 19 years old.

No arrests have been made in the other cases -- including the Jan. 21 slaying of Halethorpe liquor store owner Yang Koo Yoon -- and Korean-Americans speaking out yesterday in front of Pak's store said they do not believe his shooting can be classified as a hate crime.

"The family believes that this incident was not racially motivated," James Pak said. "We believe this was a random crime. My aunt and uncle ran a business here, and they have not had one incident that was racial. The community has been supportive of us."

Pak grew up in South Korea and moved to the United States to join other families after a brief stint in his home country's air force. He worked in other city food markets for more than a decade before opening in Pen Lucy three years ago.

Two children

Pak and his wife, Myung, have two sons, ages 8 and 11. They live in Perry Hall. His grocery became known as the "yellow store" because its bright color shined over a dingy, rundown Old York Road, shadowed by a liquor store, a deli and a barber shop.

"He worked seven days a week and 15 hours a day just to make ends meet," James Pak said. "This business is not something that has brought him a great deal of wealth."

The store remained closed yesterday. Family members have not decided whether to reopen. Yellow police tape is strung across the padlocked front door, and a hand-written sign advertises the funeral, scheduled for today at Henry Jenkins Funeral Home at 4905 York Road.

Pak began his fateful Nov. 1 as he did every other -- at the store by 6 a.m. to load empty milk crates onto the back of his pickup truck, to be filled with produce for daily sales.

Sketchy details

He was accosted by two men as he arrived in the pre-dawn hours. Details remain sketchy, but police said he was shot several times during a robbery attempt. Investigators are not sure if he was shot inside or outside the store.

Severely wounded, he managed to get to his phone, where he first called police, then his wife. He could tell the first-arriving officer only that two men were involved. Then he passed out, never to regain consciousness. He died a week to the day he was shot after undergoing eight operations at Maryland Shock Trauma Center.

Patton said Pak never kept more than $100 in the cash register, which required an access code to open. He said evidence indicates that someone tried to pry open the drawer but was unsuccessful.

Crime surge

For the struggling Pen Lucy neighborhood, the shooting concludes a monthlong crime surge, said Robert Nowlin, a longtime community activist known to agitate drug dealers to the point that in 1992 they shot up his home.

Nowlin has scheduled a candlelight vigil for 7 p.m. tomorrow in front of Pak's store. "Spontaneous gunfire seems to be the normal activity of each day and night," he wrote in a flier.

Police are offering a $5,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of a suspect. Anyone with information is urged to call the homicide unit at 410-396-2100 or Metro Crime Stoppers at 410-276-8888.

Community members discussed Pak's killing yesterday, many blaming drug addicts looking for quick money. "Mr. Pak was a genuine jewel in this area," said James White, 73, a 20-year resident working on renovating a building across from the grocery store for a police substation.

Kindly man

White recalled Pak and his wife handing out candy to children, remembered Pak allowing down-on-their-luck shoppers credit for food they couldn't afford, and recalled Pak serenading customers with Mozart on his violin while standing behind the counter.

"When you see the kind of fellow he was," White said, "it is hard to believe that someone would want to bring harm to someone like that."

Pub Date: 11/12/97

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