A Birthday Gone Bad
On April 15, 2006 a group of USFK Soldiers Private First Class. Nicholas Acosta, Private Jesse D. Findley, Specialist Nick W. Davis and Specialist Shawn R. Kiely along with Davis’ wife and one of her friends went out to the A1 Club in the Dongducheon ville to celebrate a birthday. After spending some time at the club the group decided to leave which is when something happened that would have profound consequences for the Soldiers in the group:
Upon leaving, a South Korean man downstairs gave Acosta, Findley and Kiely “a weird look” and began speaking in Korean to Kiely, Acosta said.
“I told Kiely, ‘Just go, go,’” Acosta said. “I tried to calm the Korean down, but there was a lack of communication. Then he came between me and the wall, and hit Kiely.”
The Korean man, 19-year-old Lee Yong-whan, told police the fight started when he and a soldier bumped shoulders. [Stars & Stripes]
So basically people who had been drinking and could not properly communicate bumped shoulders and the confrontation ultimately turned into a brawl. Some how during the fight the Korean group with Lee got access to a metal pipe to beat the Soldiers with.
The group of Americans tried to get away from the group of Koreans by exiting the club and jumping into a taxi cab. Unfortunately the taxi cab’s window was down and SPC Kiely was still getting punched through the window. The Soldiers screamed at the taxi driver to start moving, but the Koreans demanded that the taxi driver get out. The driver exited the taxi and the attack on the Americans continued. This is when PFC Acosta decided to jump into the driver’s seat and steal the taxi:
“I didn’t want to steal the taxi,” Acosta said. “Davis was a mess and Kiely was still getting hit. The only thing we could do was take the vehicle and get out of it.”
Acosta drove for about a mile before being stopped by Korean National Police, he said. [Stars & Stripes]
Stealing the taxi worked to escape the brawl, but it ended up turning an already bad situation into an even worse one. The Korean police stopped the group by firing warning shots into the air telling them to exit the taxi. The Soldiers exited the taxis and took out their military ID cards, but the police according to the group began to beat them with batons. The police deny this accusation. Acosta and the other Soldiers decided not to file a complaint against the Dongducheon police because they did not want to complicate the legal process any more than they needed to.
The ROK Legal Process
Since Acosta stole the taxi he was charged with the most serious crimes of assault, illegal use of a vehicle, property damage, drunken driving and driving without a license. Korean prosecutors were seeking an 18-month jail sentence for Acosta. The other Soldiers involved in the fight all received fines from the city of Uijeongbu. During the legal proceedings a common issue for Soldiers in ROK court surfaced again when PFC Acosta complained that he could not understand his court appointed translator:
The soldiers repeatedly asked the translators to clarify questions, and defense attorney Jin Hyo-keun had to translate some of the proceedings for his clients. Also, Judge Jung Jin-ho ordered the junior of the two translators to take over the duties over the senior translator’s objections.
When the soldiers left the courtroom before noon, both complained to their attorney, saying they didn’t understand what was happening in court. (………)
During Wednesday’s testimony, a Stars and Stripes translator heard the judge ask both soldiers, separately, whether they “admitted” to various aspects of their cases. The court translators, however, asked the soldiers only whether they were “aware” of those aspects. The soldiers answered “yes” to nearly every question. [Stars & Stripes]
Acosta’s defense lawyer lodged a complaint which led the court to replace the translators for the sentencing hearing. He did not want to demand a re-trial because he felt that the $9,000 restitution Acosta agreed to pay to the Koreans that beat him would lead to a suspended sentence. Acosta’s defense lawyer would be proven correct when he received a suspended sentence from the Korean court:
Judge Jung Jin-ho sentenced the soldier, Pfc. Nicholas Acosta, to eight months in prison for assault, property damage, drunken driving and driving without a license in connection with the incident. Jung suspended Acosta’s sentence for two years on the condition the soldier stays out of trouble in South Korea.
Acosta blew a sigh of relief and smiled at fellow soldiers as he left the courtroom, but he refused to comment. Prosecutors had sought an 18-month jail sentence. [Stars & Stripes]
Acosta followed good legal advice by apologizing to the court, paying restitution and keeping quiet during the ROK legal process. This is the best way to try and receive a suspended sentence. On the Korean side of this incident the only person to face punishment was the instigator of the fight, Lee Yong-whan who admitted to starting the fight and was fined $2,000 which was later dropped to $1,500:
Jung dismissed an appeal by 19-year-old Lee Yong-whan, the South Korean accused of starting the April 15 fight. Lee complained that his 2 million won (about $2,000) fine is excessive.
The judge said he understood that Lee faces financial difficulties and knocked off 500,000 won (about $500) for the one day that Lee spent in police confinement.
But Jung warned Lee that since he started the fight, the remaining fine was just.
Lee told Stars and Stripes that while he feels “partly responsible” for the fight, the fine isn’t fair.
Seeing Acosta in his dress uniform — Lee was in the courthouse audience as he waited for his separate appearance — was difficult, Lee added.
“Yes, when seeing the soldier, I feel furious,” he said. [Stars & Stripes]
I am not sure what Lee feels so furious about when Acosta is the one that was beaten down with a metal pipe and forced to pay $9,000 in restitution which is enough money for Lee to pay off his own fine.
The biggest lesson people should learn from this 2006 incident is that you do not necessarily have the right to self defense in Korea, especially as a foreigner. PFC Acosta was assaulted and beaten with a metal pipe and he was the one facing serious jail time and forced to pay $9,000 in restitution to the people that beat him. Getting into a physical altercation in Korea should be the absolute last resort and whatever you do never pull out a weapon because that just makes things worse. It is always better to just apologize and if that doesn’t work, run away from a possible altercation. Just make sure not to steal a taxi cab in the process of escaping.
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