Soldier gets 3 years for drunken-driving fatality
By JEREMY KIRK AND CHOE SONG-WON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 7, 2004
SUWON, South Korea — A U.S. Army sergeant was sentenced to three years in South Korean prison Thursday for a fatal drunken-driving accident that killed a 22-year-old South Korean woman in November.
Prosecutors had sought a five-year sentence, but Suwon District Court Judge Kim Chul-hyun cited Sgt. Jerry Onken’s apologies and good record as a soldier as factors in his decision.
“I would just like to say again I am truly sorry for the crimes I have committed,” Onken, 33, said after the sentence.
The victim’s father, who loudly criticized Onken from the gallery at the last hearing, was silent and left the court without commenting.
Onken’s attorney, Park Seon-ki, said he would appeal for a more lenient sentence. He has seven days to file the appeal with the Suwon court.
In a written statement, Lt. Gen. Charles C. Campbell, the 8th Army commander, said the Army respects the decision by South Korean authorities and “deepest sympathies are again extended” to the victims.
“Throughout the investigation and subsequent prosecution of this case,” Campbell was quoted as saying, South Korean authorities and the U.S. military “have cooperated fully to ensure that the interests of justice and Sgt. Onken’s rights and his health and welfare were maintained and protected.”
Kim said he accepted the prosecution’s estimation that Onken’s blood-alcohol level was .103 at the time of the Nov. 28 accident.
Onken, 1st Battalion, 43rd Air Defense Artillery Regiment, fled the scene; a blood test wasn’t taken until six hours after the crash, testimony showed. That showed a .06 percent level, higher than South Korea’s legal limit of .05 percent.
Onken had said he returned to Suwon Air Base and drank two beers and smoked a cigarette after the accident because he was nervous.
Onken ran a red light while driving around 49 mph near the Suwon intersection of Highway 1, striking a compact car with five people inside. A female passenger in the back seat, Ki Kyoung-sun, was thrown from the car and died from a head injury.
Another passenger sustained serious injuries; three others were treated and released.
Onken said he and two other soldiers riding with him did not treat the injured because they were scared. Lt. Col. Steve Boylan, an 8th Army spokesman, said no final determination has been made on any actions to be taken against the other two soldiers.
Onken admitted to drinking on the evening of the crash, saying he had three beers and two whiskey cocktails between 4:30 and 6:30 p.m. He said he was sightseeing until the 12:10 a.m. crash.
Kim said Ki’s family should be able to receive compensation for her death. Attorney Park said his appeal for leniency will be based in part on the ability for Ki’s family to get money from the U.S. military.
The U.S. military paid Ki’s family about $9,400 for funeral expenses. The family is seeking an additional $406,000.
Ki’s family filed a claim against the U.S. government for compensation, Park said, and a South Korean compensation committee will make a recommendation to the U.S. military.
Onken’s pay was stopped after he was taken into custody, Boylan said.
Onken was the first soldier to be held in a South Korean jail before and during trial under a provision of the U.S.-South Korean status of forces agreement. The agreement, which lays out rules for how the U.S. military will operate in South Korea, was modified in 2001. It now allows South Korea to have pretrial custody of soldiers suspected in serious crimes.
Onken was turned over to South Korean custody Dec. 30, shortly after he was indicted. He has been held at the Seoul Detention Center, a sprawling jail south of the city in Uiwang.
The Army could prosecute Onken after he serves his sentence but not for the same charges brought by South Korean authorities, Boylan said.
The soldier’s chain of command will determine what to do with him, the spokesman said.