SEOUL — It was a chilly Saturday night in early March when the first round of shots came, just loud enough to draw attention but too fleeting to cause panic among the late-night revelers in Itaewon, perhaps the city’s most infamous party district.
Kim Gi-wan, 26, had just said goodbye to his friends and was walking down the street when he heard them in quick succession. People nearby looked around in surprise, but nobody screamed. No one dove for cover or even stopped walking.
The idea of an intentional shooting in a country where gun ownership is virtually nonexistent was so unthinkable that most people just shrugged off the noise, including Kim.
“I thought maybe there was a military exercise going on,” said the salesman, who works at an Itaewon hip-hop clothing store that advertises “big sizes” for foreigners. Even though the sprawling U.S. Army Garrison Yongsan was just a short walk away, he had never heard shots from the base, so he assumed South Korean troops were training nearby.
A second round of fire followed further down the street, out of Kim’s hearing. Police quickly got an emergency call from a panicked man who claimed foreigners were shooting at him.
What followed was a commander’s nightmare — a string of worsening errors that made front-page news for days. It epitomized the microscope that all U.S. servicemembers, many still in their teens or early 20s and away from home for the first time, live under in South Korea.
As it turned out, there were no real bullets, just plastic pellets shot into a crowd from a car carrying three soldiers; one said it was all “for fun.” A military official called it “horseplay that led to greater consequences.”
But in a country where any misconduct by American troops is big news, things went downhill fast with a series of bad decisions.
When it was over, one soldier underwent chest surgery to remove a bullet fired by a South Korean police officer. And South Koreans were left to chew on the latest in a decades-long string of offenses by U.S. troops that many feel show disdain for their country and their powerlessness to prosecute such cases.
GUNNING FOR TROUBLE
For many troops stationed at Yongsan, Itaewon is South Korea. A mix of restaurants and mom-and-pop stores that sprung up decades ago to cater to U.S. forces, today the area is both scuzzy and sophisticated, a mix of trendy restaurants and dive bars punctuated with $5-a-cup coffee shops and an alley of brothels known as Hooker Hill.
Until recent years, the area was a de facto no-go zone for Koreans who viewed it as exotic and dangerous because of the presence of U.S. soldiers and other foreigners.
Many Seoulites have never even set foot there, though that has been changing over the years, and the area now is considered safe other than an occasional bar fight. On any given weekend night, a mix of fashionably dressed Koreans, crop-haired servicemembers and young expat English teachers crowd the streets of what is still known as the foreigner’s district.
But on this March night, the 11:53 p.m. emergency call sent a group of police running toward the Hamilton Hotel, a local landmark popular in summer for its rooftop pool parties and a frequent meeting spot to start a night of bar hopping.
What exactly happened over the next 17 minutes remains in dispute, even six months later.
Police realized the shots were coming from a dark Kia Optima that was trying to pull away from the notoriously jammed intersection in front of the hotel. A video, recorded from inside a taxi, shows more than a half-dozen men, some apparently police or security guards working at nearby bars, pushing against the car in a vain effort to keep it from fleeing.
A single police officer jumped into a taxi and ordered the driver to follow the Kia. Thus began a 7.5-mile chase across the capital at speeds up to 105 miles per hour.
Christian Lopez-Morales, a 25-year-old staff sergeant who had been stationed in Korea for three years and was the grandson of a Korean War veteran, was at the wheel of the car. Wendy Fuentes, a 22-year-old specialist, had arrived in Korea just a month earlier. A private first class sat in the back.
Fuentes would tell later tell court officials that as the car moved slowly through traffic, she had fired a semi-automatic BB gun out the passenger window, aiming at a South Korean man as he sat and smoked on a sidewalk.
Then, she said, Lopez-Morales took the gun. As the car approached the Hamilton Hotel intersection, he fired at pedestrians in a crosswalk, then sped away after two police officers approached and ordered him to stop, breaking the driver’s side window and smashing the windshield with a baton.
Lopez-Morales’ version of events, told in court last month, differed.
He claimed that after Fuentes fired, he asked her to hand the gun over, then emptied the chamber and pulled the trigger to finish clearing it while aiming at the ground.
He said he “absolutely” planned to stop. Then, as people rushed the car — including one person who jumped on the hood — he got nervous, did a U-turn and drove away toward the base, where he planned to stop but missed a turn and kept going.
The soldiers knew they were being followed, but not by whom. Fuentes assumed the man she had shot was in the taxi. Lopez-Morales would later tell authorities he had trouble seeing and driving because glass from his shattered window flew into his eye, though there was no sign that he ever sought treatment for it.
The chase ended on a dead-end street far from the base, with Lopez-Morales apparently cornered in an alley.
Police officer Im Seong-mook jumped out of the taxi and rushed toward the car, which suddenly reversed and rushed towards Im, prompting him to fire a warning shot. It was the first case of a South Korean policeman firing his weapon this year.
“He was trying to hit me on purpose,” Im told the court.
The car quickly backed up several times, striking Im in the knee and at one point pinning him against a wall. He fired three live rounds, trying to stop the car, but it sped off into the night.
Soon after, the car stopped at a hotel and let out Fuentes. The staff sergeant and the private walked into Yongsan around 1 a.m., where the NCO’s wife met them.
They took the private, who had been hit by one of Im’s shots, to military police and reported Arabs had chased and shot at them. Never identified because he wasn’t charged in the case, he underwent surgery at the base hospital to remove a bullet lodged between his shoulder and lungs.
SORTING THINGS OUT
Military and Korean police quickly began piecing together the night’s chain of events and connected the two soldiers to Hamilton Hotel incident.
Police found a small white plastic pellet on the ground in front of the hotel, the same kind fired by toy guns on sale in novelty shops throughout Itaewon.
Thirty identical pellets were recovered inside the Optima, which was found abandoned near Yongsan.
Police began questioning the troops, interviewing the wounded soldier in his hospital room. They collected blood and hair samples and the bullet removed from the private’s chest.
The case sparked a media frenzy. Dozens of reporters virtually camped at the Yongsan Police Station. The head detective locked himself inside his office between briefings. When a soldier’s wife was brought in for questioning, she was reportedly knocked to the ground by the media mob, though police denied the incident occurred.
One newspaper complained of the “criminal tendencies” among USFK troops, and claimed the military had been forced to lower recruitment standards because of numbers needed for Iraq and Afghanistan.
As with virtually any offense involving U.S. troops, there were calls to reform the Status of Forces Agreement between the two countries that is widely perceived as giving servicemembers a free pass to commit crimes without prosecution. A string of brawls and minor scuffles with police in the following weeks left many Koreans wondering why USFK can’t do more to keep them in check.
The question is what more the command can do. USFK imposed an overnight curfew in 2011 in response to two high-profile rapes. Restricting the 28,500 troops to their bases around the clock is impossible since many live off-base.
Then-2nd Infantry Division commander Maj. Gen. Edward Cardon posted a Facebook message to troops not long after the BB gun shooting, following a decision to temporarily ban alcohol consumption by his troops and restrict them to post unless traveling to and from home.
“Recent events in the division have called our Division’s discipline and readiness into question, and threaten to destroy the trust and respect we have earned here in Korea over the last 60 years,” Cardon wrote. “These restrictions are not about punishing soldiers. I’ve implemented these measures to ensure our Division’s readiness, and key to this mission is maintaining the trust and respect of the Korean people.”
Lopez-Morales and Fuentes were quickly and quietly court-martialed. Lopez-Morales, who has been in South Korean custody since March, was given a dishonorable discharge which will not be final until an Army appeals court reviews his case, busted in rank to E-1 and sentenced to eight months in military confinement. Fuentes was dropped in rank to E-2. Both were tried in South Korean court.
Both soldiers have apologized. But in addition to their military punishments, Fuentes was fined about $4,600 Friday, and Lopez-Morales was sentenced to three years in prison as the prosecutor had requested while calling his version of events “excuses.”
“Because you are a soldier, you violated the trust of the Korean citizens and you should be punished severely,” the prosecutor said during an August hearing.
Lopez-Morales told the court that he had served in Afghanistan, where friends died and he learned to be nervous around gunfire. He has since been treated for post-traumatic stress disorder. He also said he loved living in Korea with his 4-year-old son.
“It feels safe,” he said.