Former Aurora resident Sunny Big Keem, convicted of conspiracy to commit murder and solicitation to commit murder in connection with the 1992 slaying of a California millionaire, is expected to be sentenced to life in prison next month in Los Angeles.
When the prison door slams shut behind him, it will be due in large part to the testimony of Keem's former employees Don Bell and Kevin Brown, whose own backgrounds became a focal point in the recently concluded five-and-a-half-week trial. Despite what Bell and Brown knew about Keem and the murder, their reputations for bravado and fabrication ("Seoul Brothers," July 22, 1992) threatened to torpedo the prosecution's entire case.
Bell and Brown were running buddies brought together by a mutual love of martial arts and intrigue. Both tended to exaggerate their military backgrounds. Bell was a cardiovascular technician before leaving the Army in 1989, but he liked to tell others that he'd been an undercover agent. That's why, he said, he started his own private-eye firm when he got out of the military. Brown, whose short career with the Marines was less than sterling, bragged falsely that he was trained as a sniper.
Their lives took a parallel turn in 1991 when they began working as security guards for the Myong Night Club in Aurora, which serves as a de facto social club for the many Korean immigrants who live in the area. The two men often spent their shifts shooting the breeze with Keem, whose sister owns the club.
Keem had a police record listing arrests for minor assaults and importing counterfeit money, and it was rumored in the Korean community that he made his money as a "bill collector." Bell and Brown say he told them he was yakuza, a member of the Japanese underworld. They had reason to believe it--not long after befriending the two, Keem pulled them into his shadowy world.
One of the first jobs they ever did for Keem, Brown and Bell later told police, was to rough up Futoshi Sotomatsu, the owner of a Japanese video rental store on South Federal Boulevard. They attacked the chore with vigor, beating Sotomatsu with a stool and leaving him with several fractured ribs.
The next job was a killer. In the spring of 1992, the two men say, they accompanied Keem to Los Angeles. They thought the job was simply to tail businessman Sung Eun Kim, who owned a successful store-fixture company. But Keem, they say, upped the ante when he asked them to kill Kim.
Bell and Brown fled back to Aurora, where they laid out their story--including the attack on Sotomatsu--to police. Within days, all three men were charged in connection with the Sotomatsu assault. But as for the L.A. business, Brown said, "they didn't really believe us until the guy got capped."
The police should have taken them more seriously. Six weeks after Bell and Brown returned to Colorado from California, Kim was dead. When Keem was arrested, says prosecutor Ellen Aragon of the Los Angeles District Attorney's office, he was carrying a photo of Kim.
California detectives theorize that Keem helped to arrange the murder with the help of Pong Kyun Paek, who managed a business in competition with one belonging to Kim. Paek and Keem were arrested in late 1992. Their trial did not begin until early March of this year.
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Prosecutor Aragon faced an uphill battle, given the nature of her key witnesses, Bell and Brown. "I think we got it across to the jury that it was like the boy who cried wolf," she says. "He cries and cries and cries for help, and finally he's right."
Keem's attorney, Mark Heaney, performed a "character assassination" on Bell and Brown, says Aragon. "They put a staggering amount of time and money into investigating their backgrounds. They were talking to everybody who knew Bell and Brown since high school." But, she says, despite the defense team's digging, Bell and Brown apparently helped convince the jury, at least as far as Keem is concerned. The jurors failed to reach a verdict on co-defendant Paek, and Aragon says her office will decide this month whether to retry him.
The conspiracy conviction generally carries a life term, says Aragon, and the solicitation charge carries a maximum of nine years in prison. "I'm sure we'll be recommending the maximum" for Keem, she says.
Keem's attorney could not be reached for comment, but a spokesman for his office says Keem likely will appeal the conviction.