Woman, Interrupted

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.”

Indeed. Most of Lynda’s independent work was on feminist law. Yet when she went to Roh’s house for a barbecue, she raced into the kitchen to help his wife prepare the food – while the other Korean women milled around outside. “On the one hand, Lynda could play the part of the traditional Korean wife,” says Neffinger. “On the other hand, she could be the most strong-willed, powerful, energetic woman you’d ever want to meet – or not want to meet, depending on your point of view.”

Professor Roh approaches the lectern. One afternoon, he says, he was holding a seminar and the discussion somehow drifted away from the law and onto the subject of his tattered black overcoat. The students were teasing him about it; Lynda, instead of joining in, leaned over, reached right inside her professor’s jacket, and examined the label. “You people,” she declared, “have no idea what style is.”

While Lynda was gearing up for finals, having marathon dinners with friends, and combing the racks for work-appropriate suits, Edmund was struggling to adjust to life after college and disengaging from those who could have helped him do it. He probably appeared to be thriving: living in the Atrium Palace Condominiums, a luxury high-rise in Fort Lee with views of the Manhattan skyline; tooling around in a new BMW (a graduation present – he’d worn out his Lexus); sailing through the Macy’s executive-training program.

But Edmund was also dating women who would have mortified his parents, had they known, and he was spending his free time in ways destined to estrange him from his peers. He had become a regular at area “room salons,” the rose-hued, Mylar-ceilinged establishments that serve fancy fruit platters, galactically priced drinks, and the company of doting young women. He and a new friend, a Cornell graduate named Jaeyoung Shin, would often go to Jang Mi in Koreatown or the Safari Club in Fort Lee, where an evening for two seldom comes to less than $400 and the customers are seldom younger than 40. His other friends – the more sedate ones, the ones he’d known longer, the ones on smaller budgets – would refuse to go.

And to the alarm of those same friends, Edmund had begun to fall for the “hostesses” of these establishments, whose professional duties included pouring drinks, cooing, and making themselves available for the occasional wandering hand. A petite, fine-boned Rutgers student named Diane Kim particularly captured Edmund’s fancy, and the two dated for several months, in spite of the yawning class differences between them. As the relationship was coming to an end, Diane, according to Edmund’s friends, threatened to commit suicide by jumping off the seventh-floor balcony of Edmund’s apartment – a balcony located on the inside of the building, Marriott-style – so that all the world could see as she tumbled into the fountain and potted palms below. She did it in high theatrical fashion, too, hurling her purse, her shoes, and her cell phone over the rail before the police arrived.

Not long after, Edmund began to date Claudia Seong, a 31-year-old single mother and close friend of Jaeyoung Shin’s. The choice may have been as dubious as getting involved with a hostess from a room salon. “No parent would approve of their son dating a woman who was eight years older with a 6-year-old daughter,” Edmund’s father, Eun Bong Ko, told the Korea Times. Yongil Shin, the reporter who interviewed him, elaborates. “You must understand,” he says, “that in the minds of many Koreans, this relationship is abnormal.”

This wasn’t a casual relationship, either. Edmund moved into Claudia’s apartment, where the living room was a bright colored shipwreck of children’s toys and contained no furniture, save for a jumbo-screen television. Yet Edmund’s friends still say they have no sense of his girlfriend’s history. “It was too awkward to ask her about it,” says Jay Im, Edmund’s friend. “It would have been disrespectful.” The police don’t know much about her past either. And neither does the Korean press.

What is known about Claudia is this: She grew up in Korea in a wealthy family. She is small, prefers pageboy haircuts, and has wide, protuberant eyes. Last year, she completed a two-year program at Parsons School of Design, where she specialized in children’s wear and puzzled her peers by rarely speaking. (A teacher there described the child, who often accompanied Claudia to class, as silent, polite, and “glum.”)

One aspect of Claudia’s character has emerged in searing detail: She is passionately, perhaps even pathologically, jealous. While dating Edmund, Claudia never allowed any other woman into her home except her sister and Edmund’s, says Irving Anolik, Edmund’s lawyer. Jaeyoung told the authorities she once made an ex-boyfriend ceremonially dispose of all gifts his previous girlfriends had given him – a cell phone, a beeper, some jewelry – while she watched. A female friend of Edmund’s remembers seeing him nervously eyeing the elevator as they chatted at a third-floor café; he was waiting for Claudia to arrive. “I guess he was paranoid,” she recalls. “He was so scared of her.”

On November 21, 1997, Edmund, Claudia, and Claudia’s sister, Young Joo, were arrested for the attempted murder of Diane Kim. Edmund’s friends couldn’t believe it. “We all knew he’d changed – that he’d become more reclusive,” says Thomas Lee, a childhood friend who kept up with Edmund briefly after college. “But no one actually believed he was capable of doing that. We were all looking for other explanations.”

Edgewater authorities aren’t. They allege the trio carried out a gruesome, carefully orchestrated scheme: Edmund tried calling Diane every fifteen minutes or so from a pay phone. He reached her around two in the morning and insisted they meet. Within minutes, Edmund, Claudia, and Young Joo pulled up in a car outside Diane’s home. They drove her to a barricaded street in Edgewater. Then Edmund and Young Joo pinned her down while Claudia, knife in hand, slashed her repeatedly, slicing open her left cheek, her nose, her legs, her chest, her scalp. Then she stumbled the half-mile back to her apartment, where the doorman called an ambulance. Her skull was exposed.

Edmund and the Seong sisters were shortly let out on bail, at $25,000 each. Their families put up the money. Edmund, speaking through his lawyer, says the charges – later reduced to second-degree assault – are false, and he will plead not guilty at his arraignment May 26. “Ms. Kim had a meeting with Mr. Ko to end their relationship,” Anolik says. “Ms. Seong and her sister drove him to that meeting because his car was being serviced. There was a bit of an argument, Ms. Kim got out of the car, and she was on a public road. Whatever injuries were inflicted were not inflicted by them.”

Yet when asked about Lynda’s murder, Anolik says simply, and a touch mysteriously, “Cherchez la femme.” Then he adds: “From what we’ve observed, she’s quite capable of having done it. A leopard is much smaller than a lion, and yet a leopard can inflict plenty of damage.”

She can also roar. Just after after Lynda’s murder, Claudia, according to the police, told the authorities that Edmund confessed to the murder. On March 27, a grand jury indicted Edmund for second-degree murder; Claudia has not been charged. On June 2, Anolik and two New York prosecutors will meet with the judge appointed to this case for the first time.

Anolik will have a lot of physical evidence to explain. On March 20, the night the police found Lynda’s body, they found a white plastic bag sitting in the center of Lynda’s room. Inside was a bloody sweatshirt and a pair of sweatpants. Inside the sweatpants were two strands of hair – one long and fine, the other short and coarse. The blood and head hair came from Lynda. The pubic hair came from Edmund. Some gifts that Edmund had given Lynda, including a teddy bear and some Beanie Babies, were missing.

Kenji Iida is standing at the mike, recalling the early, chaotic days when he and Lynda took the reins of the Asian Pacific American Law Students Association. Lynda, he says, was determined to get as many students involved in the campus organization as possible. “You recruit all the women,” she told him, “and I’ll recruit all of the men.” Kenji smiles. “Lynda upheld her end of the bargain.”

Lynda was born in Seoul on February 6, 1972. She spent her early childhood hopscotching among various schools in Korea and California before her father finally settled the family in Short Hills, New Jersey. Even in high school, Lynda was confident and attractive; she wore bright-red lipstick, and her yearbook appointed her class flirt.

In college, she was known for her charisma; she defrosted even the coldest people with her charm. She lent her roommates clothes as if they were ballpoint pens and let them snack on whatever food she had in her fridge, which was usually Korean dumplings she’d brought from home. Rana Shanawani, then only an acquaintance from Millburn High School, remembers running into Lynda her sophomore year and mentioning that she was having trouble with housing for the fall. Lynda responded by insisting she come live with her.

Lynda also had her detractors – as extroverts, particularly women, often do. She struck some people as manipulative or fickle, say friends, perhaps because she had such a hypnotic effect on men. “There were always a lot of guys around,” says Kathleen Szegda, another Cornell roommate. “Those who fell for her fell for her hard.”

Occasionally, her confidence made the shy and more traditional ones nervous. An old law-school friend remembers how Lynda once phoned to laughingly relay how she’d spent an evening with some Korean friends, drinking at a bar and flirting with a boy across the table. By the end of the night, she had plopped herself in his lap and demanded, in front of everyone, to know when he was going to ask her out. He balked. So she called him the next day and offered an apology. He accepted – six months later. They ran into each other on the street, and he asked her out.

Nearly everyone describes Lynda as an intensely loyal friend, and she kept up with people – former boyfriends, roommates, friends from high school. Her loyalty ran so deep one could almost say it reached the point of foolhardiness: She once let a close friend into her Columbia apartment after he spent hours outside her door, drunkenly begging her to let him in. (Campus security, in fact, had at first chased him away.) He claimed he loved her so much he was going to commit suicide.

Lynda started dating Edmund her last semester at Cornell. He was handsome and reserved; he showered her with expensive gifts. When Lynda first started law school, Edmund, still an undergraduate, would drive down from Cornell to see her almost every weekend. When they began splitting up, toward the end of her first year at Columbia, he would sometimes show up at her apartment midweek, unannounced, hoping to give it another go. Their friends agree that when it was all over, Lynda probably occupied a more privileged place in Edmund’s memory than he did in hers. Lynda was his first girlfriend. Her college roommates say they can barely recall his face.

Yung Lee, Lynda’s best friend and a lawyer at Debevoise & Plimpton, is standing at the lectern now. Lynda had astonishing confidence, she says. The kind of confidence a reserved, less assertive best friend could learn from. “When you were little,” she remembers Lynda once asking her, “did you ever think you’d grow up to be great?” Young Lee says she shrugged. “I did,” said Lynda. “I thought I was going to be great.”

Childhood friends remember Edmund as a funny, occasionally fresh, and occasionally loud kid, but one who was almost never poorly behaved. On the contrary: “He was clean-cut and smart,” recalls Tom Lee. “And his parents were very strict. He couldn’t listen to rock music. He wasn’t allowed to go to R-rated movies. He wasn’t allowed to watch cable.”

Edmund grew up in a well-appointed home, spacious by Wyckoff standards, that was stocked with mountains of video games. If he had a simmering temper back then, no one remembers it. “He could be pretty sarcastic,” recalls Jay Im, “but he never hit anybody or anything like that.”

Like a lot of other overprotected kids, Edmund changed while he was at college. He started smoking, and he was drinking, sometimes recklessly. Twice, according to several classmates, he got into car accidents with his Lexus, and at least one of those times, he had been drinking. Jay Im would know; he had no other way home that night, and he was in the car. “But you could tell that his heart was pure, and that people could walk all over him,” says Jay, an observation echoed often by Edmund’s friends. “He was still the most generous, giving guy.”

Edmund also still seemed mindful of his filial obligations. He shuttled back and forth to Seoul during school vacations; he majored in economics to better understand the Esquire Company, his family’s business. After growing up in an all-American suburb, Edmund had also finally discovered a substantial community of Koreans at Cornell. His senior year, he and his friends joined “the Zu,” a kind of Asian-American alternative to a frat house.

Edmund started to date Lynda the spring of his sophomore year. She was three years older than he, a fact his friends say displeased his parents, but he persisted, exulting in the raw force of her personality; he was much more reserved in public than she was, and he lived a much more insular life. “Speaking to Lynda made you feel really comfortable,” says Jay. “She could bolster you like no one else could. I think Edmund was attracted to that.”

After Edmund graduated, he moved to Fort Lee, which has a large Korean population. At first, he spent his free time kicking around in billiard halls and Koreatown. But gradually, he lost touch with many of his old friends, choosing instead the company of women he met in room salons, and later, Claudia Seong. Before he disappeared entirely, many of them noticed he became surly and belligerent when drunk, prone to cursing fits; one even remembers him provoking Jaeyoung outside a club, and that the altercation ended in a fistfight, with Edmund on the ground.

Then came the November slashing of Diane Kim. When Lynda first heard that Edmund had been arrested, she asked a friend of his – coincidentally, a paralegal at Cravath – to ask around and see whether it was true. The woman couldn’t confirm it, but eventually, Lynda did. She was stunned. She knew Edmund was foundering, because she had heard from him periodically over the summer, according to friends. Sometimes, he would ask her to take him back. But she didn’t think he’d drifted so far off course he’d be implicated in a crime. “When she found out,” says a friend, “she was really worried about him. But she took the attitude of a parole officer. She said he’d really screwed up this time.”

Meanwhile, Edmund’s family bailed him out of jail and flew back to the United States to try to quash his relationship with Claudia. “I felt she wasn’t a good influence on him,” his father told the Korea Times. “But I wasn’t successful in splitting them up. Edmund said he trusted her more than anyone in this world besides his parents and family.”

Yet something was eating away at Edmund – literally. He lost a lot of weight after that first arrest – by some estimates as much as 40 pounds – and disappeared from public view. He was also fired from his job at Macy’s. Then, about a month before Lynda was murdered, some of Edmund’s female friends got strange phone calls from Jaeyoung. He delivered peculiar instructions: They were to ignore Edmund if they saw him walking down the street. “It was bizarre,” says Ashley Kim, a 26-year-old Cornell graduate who received one such call. “When I asked why,” says another, “Jaeyoung just said, ‘Oh, it’s too long of a story to get into.’ “

Another young woman Jaeyoung contacted was struck by the urgency of his request. “He made it sound like a really big favor,” she says. “He told me he felt like he really owed this to Edmund, because he had made him do so many things he didn’t want to do.” She didn’t understand why she’d be doing a service to Edmund by ignoring him, or what it was Jaeyoung regretted – though she speculated it may have been insisting Edmund join him on excursions to the room salons. Jaeyoung later told the police he had phoned these women at Claudia’s request.

Lynda received one of Jaeyoung’s phone calls, too. About a week later, say the police, on the evening of March 18, her call waiting beeped while she was on the phone. “That’s Edmund,” Lynda told her friend. “He’s coming over. He’s had a fight with his girlfriend and he has nowhere to stay.”

Her friends are still talking, though the chapel is chilly and everyone’s clothes are damp: That she wore high-heel boots. That she preferred Armani. That she liked to watercolor. That she liked to water-ski. That she could make almost anyone laugh. That she would link arms with her companions as they strolled, side by side, down the street.

Woman, Interrupted