Sergeant accused in fatal collision denies he was drunk
SUWON, South Korea — A U.S. Army sergeant apologized in South Korean court Thursday for a fatal hit-and-run accident, admitting he drank the evening before the crash but denying he was drunk at the time of the accident.
“I would just like to say I deeply apologize for all that has happened, and I grieve along with the victims,” said Sgt. Jerry Onken at the beginning of his trial.
Onken, 33, of the 1st Battalion, 43rd Air Defense Artillery at Suwon Air Base, is charged with drunken driving resulting in a fatality and hit and run. It’s the first case in which South Korean authorities have held a U.S. soldier in custody prior to sentencing under an agreement established with the United States in 2001.
Wearing his dress military uniform, the gray-haired Onken said he disagreed with a passenger in his car who told investigators he believed Onken was drunk at the time of the crash.
“He’s a young soldier who was intoxicated himself, and that was not the case,” Onken told Judge Kim Chul-hyun.
Onken admitted driving his Hyundai Sonata at about 49 mph through a traffic signal around 12:10 a.m. Nov. 28, colliding with a compact car carrying five people. He said he thought he could go through the signal but learned later from witnesses and victims he should not have proceeded.
A back-seat passenger in the other car, Ki Kyoung-sun, died from her injuries. The U.S. military paid the family about $9,400 for funeral expenses; the family is asking for about $406,000 more, according to Judge Kim.
Onken said he drank three beers and two cocktails between 4:30 and 6:30 p.m. with friends, adding, “I had drank some water also.”
Onken said he was sightseeing until the crash.
After the crash, Onken and his two companions fled.
“We got out of the car and we left the scene. We got a cab and went back to base because we were scared,” he said.
Judge Kim told Onken leaving the scene of an accident without helping is very serious.
“I understand,” Onken said. “I totally regret leaving.”
Onken agreed with the judge it was possible he was speeding back to base and ignored the traffic signal to make the 1 a.m. curfew for soldiers.
Onken said he drank two beers and smoked a cigarette on base at about 12:45 a.m. because he was scared and nervous about the accident.
He said he remembers telling South Korean police and Army investigators of the beers but didn’t discuss the additional liquor with prosecutors.
A blood sample taken from Onken about six hours after the crash showed a blood alcohol reading of .06 percent, above South Korea’s .05 percent legal driving limit, Korean police said.
Onken contested a prosecutor’s estimate that his blood alcohol content was likely around .103 percent at the time of the crash. Onken said he knew of the .06 percent test result.
Park Seon-ki, Onken’s attorney, said after Thursday’s hearing that he is asking prosecutors to do a more scientific calculation of his client’s blood alcohol level.
Park said it is “very reasonable” for someone to try to relax after such a shocking crash by drinking.
Onken had AIG car insurance but the company said it was expired at the time of the crash, Park said. Onken did not receive a notice the insurance had expired, Park said.
A 13-year Army veteran, Onken served in the 1991 Gulf War, Bosnia and Afghanistan. He arrived in April for his second tour in South Korea. The soldier said he has a son, 12, and a daughter, 6.
Onken could face from five years to life in prison if convicted, the judge said.
Only one of Ki’s family members was at the hearing. Thursday marked the 49th day of mourning, a significant day in Korean culture for the bereaved.
Onken is being held at the Seoul Detention Center in Uiwang, about a half hour from the Suwon courthouse.
At the next hearing Jan. 29, an unidentified character witness for Onken is scheduled, and Kim is to review evidence further.