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Woman, Interrupted

Lynda Hong knew Edmund Ko, her old flame from Cornell, was troubled, drifting off track. Was he capable of murder?


Here are some of the things people are saying at the memorial service for Hyeseung Lynda Hong: That she was intelligent. That she had verve. That she could be blunt. That she tried jogging once, declared "never again," and waited on a park bench for her friends to return. That she force-fed her roommates kimchi. That she forgot to register for spring classes. That she took despairing phone calls at two in the morning.

As her closest friends speak, Lynda's classmates and acquaintances are still streaming into the chapel at Columbia University. It's a chilly, windy-wet day, and as they shudder and sniffle and awkwardly stuff their wet umbrellas under their pews, they look sick and confused: Lynda, a 26-year-old third-year law student, was murdered.

The remembrances continue: That she could ballroom-dance. That she wowed her future associates at Cravath, Swaine & Moore. That she was beautiful.

This last observation is perhaps the only one a stranger can confirm. Just a few feet from the lectern, a giant picture of Lynda rests on an easel in mute tribute. Her face is so radiant it's as if she had swallowed the flash.

Exactly two weeks earlier, on March 18, Lynda had been dining at Kang Suh, a two-tiered, 24-hour restaurant on the border of Koreatown. Her dinner companion on this particular evening -- she was a devoted regular -- was Christopher Lee, a short, courtly first-year associate at Simpson Thacher & Bartlett and her sometime boyfriend. The two decided to end the evening early, but before Lynda left, Chris made her promise, as always, to call when she got home.

She never called. Chris tried phoning her a couple of times later that night and gave up, according to someone familiar with the case. He tried her several more times the next day, because they'd had tentative plans. By the following evening, after more fruitless attempts to reach her, Chris decided to head up to her apartment on West 113th Street. He planted himself outside her building, waited, and slipped in when a neighbor stepped out. He climbed the half-flight of stairs to apartment 1R. The light glowed beneath her door. He rang, he knocked, he shouted. Nothing.

Chris sensed something was wrong, possibly very wrong, but he had no idea what to do. Wait? Call the superintendent? Finally, he made a decision: He pulled a Blockbuster card from his wallet, wedged it between the door and its frame, and popped open the lock. Lynda was in black jeans and a red knit top, lying face down with her arms askew. Her throat had been cut, and there was blood everywhere -- on the bookcase, on the telephone, in a dark silhouette around her slender frame.

The next day, Edmund Ko, a 23-year-old Cornell graduate, Exeter alumnus, and heir to a $330 million apparel-and-leather-goods company in Korea, was picked up for questioning at his girlfriend's house in Cliffside Park, New Jersey. When the police told him that Lynda, the first woman he'd ever kissed, had been viciously slain, his face remained as still and unreadable as a rock. He was arrested by evening. He would later plead not guilty in court.

The story of Lynda's murder unfolded in the papers for about four consecutive days, flared up once on the front page of the Daily News, then faded. The people closest to the case -- Lynda's parents, her sister Amy, Edmund's parents, his sister Jennifer -- wouldn't respond to reporters' calls, at least not those from the American press, including New York.

Gian Neffinger, an ex-boyfriend from law school, approaches the lectern and tells a story: It was the first day of class, and the professor dared his hundred-plus students to define civil procedure. A few zealous ones flipped through their textbooks, called out responses, and were shot down. Then Lynda spoke. "There is no such thing as civil procedure?" Laughter; the tension cleared. Even the professor cracked a smile.

When tragedy strikes within any subculture, there is never one organized, unified response. But most local Koreans -- particularly those of the older, pioneering generation -- regard with some wariness the class of young, wealthy international students swelling in their midst. And Edmund, who seemed to be a part of that class, didn't gain much sympathy when the story broke. "At first," says Jonghun Kim, a New York-based reporter for the Korea Central Daily News, "people had no trouble believing Edmund had done the killing, because there's a lot of bad sentiment against rich foreign students in the Korean community here."

These fortunates, whose parents made their money in Seoul during the booming eighties, often live in lushly furnished, family-subsidized apartments. They never had to struggle to get into Korea's competitive universities because their parents could afford to send them to colleges here instead. Koreatown, the electric stretch of restaurants, karaoke bars, and tony nightclubs on 32nd Street west of Madison, is their playground.

The irony is that Edmund, technically, is not an international student, or yoohaksaeng, but a gyopo, born and raised in America. He was born in Evanston, Illinois, while his father was studying at Kellogg business school. He grew up in Wyckoff, New Jersey, wearing Polo shirts and playing tennis. "Yet because of this whole scandal," sighs Jay Im, a childhood and college friend of Edmund's, "he's viewed as this rich international brat."

He is, however, an international student in the following sense: His parents moved back to Korea while Edmund was in high school. Because he spent his adolescence on a 12,000-mile-long string, Edmund looks, to many Koreans here, like the worst example of what can happen when a parent deposits a child abroad. Says Yongil Shin, a reporter for the Korea Times: "People see Edmund as a child who lost his way."

Lynda Hong was what her peers would call a 1.5-generation Korean. It's an apt, catchy term for those born abroad and raised in the States, though it can also refer to people who grew up here with strong ties overseas, like Edmund. Although everyone in this half-step generation learns how to negotiate the space between the two cultures, Lynda made it seem effortless. She spoke both English and Korean without accent and wrote beautifully in both languages. She dated Koreans and non-Koreans alike. At Cornell, she lived with a Syrian, an Italian, and a Canadian, yet she was also a minor celebrity among the campus's Asian-Americans. Her first-year law-school suite at Columbia could have passed as a model U.N. (its inhabitants included an Indian, an Ethiopian, a Turk, and a Scot), yet she often spent her evenings dining in Koreatown and singing with friends in karaoke bars.

"Lynda could be as American as anybody and as Korean as anybody," muses Professor Jeong-Ho Roh, Lynda's adviser and the associate director of Columbia Law School's Center for Korean Legal Studies. "And that's a very, very difficult cultural barrier to cross."

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