The security guard can’t find me on the list. “Sorry,” she points to the side of her kiosk, “You need to stand over there and call your friend to come get you.” I start texting Eric. “Excuse me, sir!” She waggles her raptor claw at me, “Over THERE.”
I’m not even in the law firm yet. I’m 50 floors below in the bowels of one of those mammoth corporate skyscrapers. The ones with the fourteen elevators and $40-an-hour parking and security guards who can’t find you on the list. Eric’s been stationed here for a few years as a business litigator for one of the most respected legal outfits in the city. But I still remember him as my law school study buddy, the guy I’d compare notes with after class, the dude who tried to fight an entire team on the campus basketball court. Now he’s my attorney and he charges over $700 an hour.
At some point, security decides I’m not a deranged terrorist and they let me up to Eric’s offices. The entire floor is encased in glass and oak (or is that walnut?), the sort of utopian architecture in a futuristic Tom Cruise film. Eric jogs down the hallway. “Sorry, they’re so stupid downstairs.” He still looks exactly the same. Eric doesn’t share the typical Korean features. His bone structure is sharp and handsome, his hair neatly parted, he speaks with his hands. He stands tall and stern. This was always the running joke in our group, how serious he was all the time. How intense he could get. How he could never take his shirt off because the other students would see his gang and prison tattoos scrawled crudely around his torso.
In the ’70s and ’80s, an influx of Asian immigrants flooded U.S. borders, due to the McCarran–Walter Act of 1952 and the Immigration and Nationality Act Amendments of 1965. Suddenly, Asians were once again allowed back into the States after being restricted in the earlier part of the century. My parents were two of those immigrants who sought a better life for their children in America. And so were Eric Park’s.
“My dad was a tae-kwon-do instructor and my mom was a homemaker. But when we first moved here my dad didn’t have enough money to start a tae-kwon-do school so he worked as a painter. A house painter.” Born in Pittsburgh, with a short stint in Texas, Eric grew up in Fullerton, a sleepy Southern California suburb, known more for its orange groves and distinguished schools than violent criminals. How – in the ’90s’ climate of inner-city gangs and race riots – did he find trouble in the city nicknamed “The Education Community?”
“There were other kids whose parents worked all day and were never home. Even though their parents might be well off, as a teenager you have no structure and no parental guidance at home. You’ll mess around. You’re curious.”
Long held to the “model minority” role by societal standards, Asian-Americans have always been expected to reside quietly outside the scope of cultural dominance, tucked away behind a college book or surgeon’s mask or a liquor store counter. But marginalized to those parameters, there’s bound to be rejoinder, and it often manifests in explosive and unpredictable fashion. “I didn’t even know what it was, we just did it because we were trying to burglarize a house – we got an inside tip that they kept a lot of money inside. We’d always scope out the house and crank-call it to see, but someone was always home. So we were like, ‘Screw it, we’ll have to do it while they’re there.’ And then… yeah. ”
Although the term “home invasion” was first defined in the early 1900s, it wasn’t until the mid-’90s that home invasion robberies started to trend. In fact, when the court sentenced Eric, they just strung together a laundry list of offenses. There wasn’t just one designation for the act, as “home invasion robbery” exists post-Eric. He was 15 years old and his friends had organized a makeshift gang. Like most restless teenage boys, they lusted after disorder, starting small with petty theft before graduating to burglaries. And then they invented the modern home invasion robbery:
“We got rope, duct tape, and ski masks. We got a gun and knives, went to the house and knocked on the door. It was a black guy; allegedly a Crip that was hanging out at the house. And there were a couple kids in the house. So it was me knocking on the door and my friends waiting on the side so right when he answers, we could just rush in.
I think someone from the top window saw my friends hiding with ski masks on. So we knocked on the door and then all I see is someone pushing the black guy out and closing the door behind him. He’s like, ‘Oh, shit. What’s going on?’ It turns out the guy went to school with us. And then he recognized one of my friends from the voice and build and was like, ‘Peter, is that you?’
We’re like, ‘Dude, shut the fuck up, we’re going to kill you. Knock on the door and tell them that you want to come in.’ So he’s knocking, knocking, knocking, and they won’t let him in. So we hopped the fence and – you know how the side garage door is usually pretty flimsy? We just broke that down. Then we bashed the door into the house down too.
As soon as we got in, the babysitter was there and she started coming up to us because there were a bunch of kids in the house. She came up to us saying, ‘This isn’t right, this isn’t right!’ One of my friends put a knife to her throat and was like, ‘Shut the fuck up, bitch!‘
Over the next couple months, Eric, his brother Dean, and his two friends went on a tear around Orange County, drilling home invasion robberies into halcyon neighborhood abodes. This part freaks me out, because of how juvenile the boys were: Eric, at the oldest, a high school sophomore. How does this happen, amidst acne, homework, and winter formals? “You always start small and then you don’t get the same rush so you’re looking for bigger and bigger things. After we did this house it was about two months before we got caught. But during that time, my friends and I were talking about robbing Wells Fargo Bank. Our rush level was getting exponentially higher. We were like, ‘We got away with this and it seemed easy, why don’t we just rob a bank?'” Young, Asian, and didn’t give a fuck.
Although invincible, the youth err on the side of careless, so it wasn’t long before law enforcement intercepted Eric’s fumble. It happened on a warm California afternoon. In the middle of class, Eric was called down to the principal’s office in regards to his gang-related attire – nothing out of the ordinary. It was only when he converged with Peter and Dean in the hallway that they figured something was up. They were right. Cops sprung from all corners, tackling the boys outside Administration. One of Eric’s final memories of freedom was his classmates’ faces pressed up against the windows as he was led away in handcuffs in broad daylight.
Turns out that one of his friends from that first robbery had snitched to avoid a harsher sentence, but that’s all in the past now. Eric stood in the courtroom, impervious to it all anyways: the neighborhood petitions calling his parents to move out of Fullerton, the enormity of his crime, the extent of his life’s devastation. “When you’re that young, you have no concept of how serious and grave this situation is, especially at that time. Home invasions were becoming really popular. Judges and prosecutors were very against it because they were like, ‘Now we can’t be safe in our own homes because of this new crime.’ So the judge was like, ‘Look, we’re going to have to make an example out of you guys.’ Then he gave us 15 years.”
Today, the sentences are much harsher, depending on which state you live in. In California, home-invasion robberies can nail you for life. So, considering Eric only ended up serving two of those 15 years in Youth Authority (“Since they didn’t try you as an adult they have to let you out by 25. I got sentenced at 16, then it gets reduced to nine years. Out of nine years, you can get out doing 50% of your time and then additional time off for good behavior. So your first eligibility for parole is two years…”), it’s almost as if he got away with murder – I mean, home-invasion robbery.
We’ve walked a block down to grab a bite to eat. Although the Indian Summer heat still climbs in the afternoon, the lunch crowds are disspiating, and we find our way to one of Eric’s regular haunts. We both order the pork belly sandwich, share a basket of garlic fries, and talk about jail.
“The first four months I was in solitary confinement because you’re deemed a high risk when you have 15 years hanging over your head. They’re like, ‘Oh, he has nothing to lose. He’s gonna stab people,’ or whatever. So 23 hours a day in your room by yourself.” He continues, “After the four months, you’re with the regular population in these huge dorm rooms that have, like, 50 inmates, 50 bunk beds, all full of people that are in for multiple murders and rape. One guy was in for having sex with a dead body. But you’re not scared of it. You’re like, ‘Okay, this is fine.'”
I ask Eric how he coped. It can’t be easy for a Korean-American suburban teenager to rub elbows with necrophiliacs. “That was tough. Because you’re 15, some Asian guy, skinny as fuck. When you stay YA, the age is up to 25. So there are people in there that are 24 years old that have been there since they were 14 and are much bigger than you and they’re from the ghetto so you look like a girl to them. You have to deal with that stuff sometimes.” His next answer surprises me, but it makes a lot of sense. “In a twisted way, that’s the cool thing about being human. You either break or you make it. You can become psycho and depressed and suicidal or you can be like, ‘I’m going to make it and I’m going to adapt.’ So I was like, ‘Dude, I’ll just adapt.’ You become one of them; an animal.” He laughs and quickly points out, “But I did sleep with a sharpened pencil under my pillow…”
The sandwich sits like a sandbag at the bottom of my stomach now. The fries are ghost, the basket lined with granules of salt and heavy regret. We take a detour in our conversation to catch up on friends and family. By all appearances, Eric’s life is the American dream realized. He’s married to a beautiful girl and expecting in the new year, works hard for his keep, drives a nice car, talks sports with his rich, white coworkers. It’s a distant planet from where he was, just a few years ago.
In the months leading up to Finals, the law school library was our second home. Shielded from sunlight and any semblance of a life, we’d mummify ourselves in sweats, fast involuntarily, and leave campus only by force every night at 2am. One following morning, maybe 5 or 6 hours after we’d said our haggard goodbyes, Eric’s Toyota pulled back into the parking lot, newly decorated with a constellation of bullet-holes. His demeanor characteristically unwavering, he shrugged it off. The night before, he’d pulled up to the stoplight in front of school and was immediately sided by a carload of gangbangers. He threw his head down as their ammunition punched along the passenger side of his car like a Chinese firecracker. “I think they were after my brother,” he muttered, before slinging his JanSport over his shoulder and darting off to Civil Procedure. I never asked Eric for a ride after that.
You’d think that with Eric’s new lease on life, he’d turn things around. But in the years following his homecoming, the night turned darker. “I came out really angry, so angry that it’s blinding. You come out thinking you’re a badass. I was like, ‘Remember all those older veterans from my gang that used to pick on me? And the other guys that used to punk me? I’m going to kick all their asses now!'” He fell right back in with his homeboys, slanging tweak, evading the law, skipping town, and landed in and out of jail. But the lifestyle started to wear on Eric.
“I started studying because we were always getting locked up. Or it was always, ‘We can’t go to this city because we have enemies there. We have to bring guns.’ I was just sick and tired of that. I told them I was gonna go to college. But I’d still hang out with them. I had one foot in and one foot out.
We got in a fight with some Wah Ching guys at a coffee shop. I didn’t jump in. Instead I said, ‘Stop, or I’m going to call the cops!’ [Laughs]. Everyone dispersed and my friends were like, ‘Dude, you didn’t jump in and you made us look bad.’ After that, they stopped hanging out with me – and I stopped hanging out with them. I was like, ‘I don’t want to fight anymore. I don’t want to be scared and always have to bring a gun everywhere.'”
Eric transferred from junior college to UCLA and it was there that the next chapter of his life unfolded. He made new friends. “Mature” friends who “had their head on straight and that totally opened [his] eyes to not being ignorant.” They’d tease him about his dress and for the first time, he questioned whether jerseys and baggy Dickies were the appropriate attire for an aspiring professional. He shined in university and segued into law school, where I met him. Our grades were competitive in the first year but then he soared past (I blame The Hundreds), making International Law Review and cementing a spot in the Top 15% of our class. Eric was always a smart kid, but it was this deep, ardent drive that hauled him to excellence. He’s the type to have succeeded in any space, whether it was the legal system, or academia, or violent crime. I mean, you’ve gotta acknowledge the creative genius and unflagging determination it required to execute such a masterfully horrific act. That’s not something an everyday delinquent could conceive of, or see through.
There was, however, one question that stayed burning in my mind. I’d collected fragments of this story over the decade, but there was a missing piece. I still never understood what ignited the flame. What made Eric Park so angry?
We’re back in his office now. We have an entire conference room to ourselves. There’s a row of ice-cold soda cans handily arranged on the table, the condensation gathering at their feet. The windows are drawn and Los Angeles opens its arms wide. There’s a ghetto bird pacing nervously over South Central, but it’s so far off that it looks like a gnat from where we stand. And soon, it’s vaporized into the sun.
Eric leans back into his office chair. The oily leather squeals, his swank, polished shoes prop up on the wheels. “In the fourth grade, my mom abandoned me and my brother.” He says this without hesitation, without remorse. It’s a painful subject, one that he hasn’t broached with many people, and so it begins robotic and chilled. As if he’s talking about someone else’s heartache.
“She fell for one of my dad’s coworkers and she left me and my brother. I remember that we were asked to go upstairs – that she was preparing dinner – and she never called us down. So we were hungry, we came downstairs to look for her. There was no food. She had left with that guy.”
The irony roars. Just as Eric had violated people’s homes, his was infiltrated the same. If an outsider can steal and take from your sanctuary, is anyone else’s house off-limits?
“My dad rushed home that night and said, ‘Where’s your mom?’ He went upstairs to the room and saw that all of her shit was gone. And then he put two and two together – that guy’s also missing – and then went looking for them for a week and he brought her back.”
The next time it happened, Eric’s mom went missing for a month. It was Christmastime, and he and his brother came home to a locked front door. While the boys stayed at their aunt’s, their dad tracked the two down at LAX, boarding a flight to Korea. He laid the dude out in the terminal and returned home with his wife.
What happened next is hard to listen to, and even harder to understand. “My dad’s entire family – grandma, aunts, uncles, cousins – was like, ‘You’re picking your wife over your family. So we’re going to excommunicate you; not talk to you anymore.’ They came to my house before my mom and dad got there, went through every room as we watched, and ripped and burned every family picture we had.”
He stops. It’s getting late into the afternoon and we both gotta get back to work, but his eyebrows are knitted and he’s looking past me. I’ve never seen a photo of Eric as a 9-year-old, but I can imagine it now. For a moment, his face changes. The edges soften, his eyes get rounder, he slumps a bit in his chair. He’s back in fourth grade, squabbling with his little brother, running upstairs to wash up before dinner’s set. The boys chase after another down the stairs and into the dining room. Only this time, their mom is there, serving hot dishes of rice and salted fish and pickled vegetables. The brothers jockey over seats, but are instantly distracted by the warm aroma of supper. Soon, there is silence, only the din of metal spoons against metal bowls escaping the room. So they eat together, that night and every night after.