Charged in 1996 with driving drunk and killing a woman, Chicago businessman Kyung Ho Song posted a low bond, liquidated assets worth more than $1 million and slipped out of the country to his native South Korea. For years he lived openly there in a glass-and-concrete suburban high-rise.
But on Wednesday FBI agents escorted Song on a long-delayed return flight to O'Hare International Airport. Wearing a gray T-shirt and baseball cap, and sporting a wispy white goatee, the 75-year-old was handed over to Bartlett police and the Cook County sheriff's fugitive warrant unit.
He now awaits trial on the 18-year-old charges of reckless homicide and aggravated driving under the influence of alcohol. This time, the court denied bond.
"Finally there is going to be justice. We never thought it was going to happen," said Brenda Molina, the daughter of Sonia Naranjo, who was killed in a collision involving Song. "Hopefully my ma can rest in peace."
Song's long-dormant case was reactivated after the Tribune investigated it as part of the newspaper's 2011 "Fugitives From Justice" series. A year later the Tribune separately tracked Song to a suburb of Seoul; as part of a collaboration for the Tribune investigation, a reporter from the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists interviewed Song in South Korea.
Song spoke little of Naranjo and her family. Instead he described how his life had unraveled since he became a fugitive. "I am such an unlucky guy," Song said.
He fled to another location in South Korea after those interviews, but Korean and U.S. authorities tracked him down. Arrested in December 2013, he was held in custody in South Korea until that country's Ministry of Justice processed his extradition back to Chicago.
Song's easy flight and years of freedom underscored the pervasive law enforcement lapses that allow suspects charged with murder, rape and other serious felonies to evade trial simply by fleeing U.S. borders.
He is the fifth international fugitive highlighted in the Tribune series who was subsequently captured. Two of the five have been extradited to Cook County — one was convicted of murder last year and the other awaits trial on homicide charges. The remaining two await extradition from India and Poland. Several other cases have been reactivated, according to law enforcement sources and victims' families.
Authorities had accused Song of being intoxicated in October 1996 when he rear-ended several people pushing a disabled station wagon to an emergency exit on Lake Street near Route 59 in Bartlett. The collision killed Naranjo, a 43-year-old Ecuadorean immigrant, and seriously injured another person.
Remembered as a high-spirited woman who liked to play bingo and dance, Naranjo worked as manager of housekeepers at a suburban hotel while raising four children alone. She was heading to a casino with three friends when their station wagon broke down just after midnight on a well-lit stretch of Lake Street.
Song's white Oldsmobile plowed into them from behind as they tried to push their car to safety, according to police records. Police found Naranjo crumpled against Song's front bumper, and she was dead on arrival at an Elgin hospital, while one of her friends was severely injured, records and interviews show.
Song had no significant injuries, just a slight discoloration and swelling on one lip. But he had bloodshot eyes, and his blood alcohol level was almost double the legal limit, according to police and court records.
Song was not a U.S. citizen but had lived in America for 15 years while owning a strip mall, shoe stores and a large Schaumburg home.
Like other border-crossing fugitives traced by the Tribune, he was able to exploit a fault line in Cook County's jampacked criminal justice system: Law enforcement and court officials often conduct cursory investigations of felony defendants when setting bail and assessing their flight risk, even when the accused is charged with a serious crime and is a citizen of another country.
Song presented himself to the court as a modest, $12,000-a-year shoe store manager, and he was released after putting down only a $2,500 bail bond deposit.
Within days of being charged, Song began working with his wife to liquidate assets, including the Schaumburg home, the strip mall and other property in Chicago. A day after he failed to show up for a 1998 court hearing, Song flew to South Korea.
Federal officials determined his whereabouts in 2002, court records show. But although police, county prosecutors, federal agents and Justice Department officials all had a stake in pursuing Song, none seemed to take stewardship of the case and press for extradition.
"We appreciate everything that you did for us," Molina said of the newspaper's effort. "We thought everybody had forgotten about the case."
Molina and two of her siblings — all of whom were in their early 20s when their mother was killed — attended Song's court appearance Wednesday in Rolling Meadows. Afterward they drove to a restaurant on Chicago's Northwest Side to process the day's emotions and remember their mother. "It was a very touching feeling, a closure that we needed," Molina said.
Said her brother Mario Mendez: "It's a relief, like a monkey off our back, to have closure. It's like a miracle."
Bartlett police Sgt. Geoff Pretkelis also expressed relief.
"This was for the victim's family. I know they waited a long time for this," Pretkelis said. "We're glad that we were able to hopefully bring some resolution to the grieving process."
Tribune reporter Duaa Eldeib contributed.