Six years ago, when she was 18, Iris Shim struck up a friendship with Andrew Suh, a fellow Korean-American who'd once attended her family's church, the Korean Martyrs' Catholic Church of Chicago on North Kedvale. "He was very, very into his family," she says. "He wanted to be the good son. He helped his parents out." When Shim reached out to him Suh was serving a 100-year sentence for murdering his sister's boyfriend in 1993.
Two years later, after Suh went to prison, he began writing letters to Korean newspapers and churches, including Korean Martyrs', warning young people to respect their parents and stay out of trouble. By then, Shim says, the notion that Korean-Americans were part of a model minority had lost credibility. "When I was a little kid the stereotype was that Asians are good at math. When I got to high school"--she went to New Trier--"the stereotype was that half the Asians are good at math and half the Asians are a bunch of punks. They were walking around with baggy clothes. They thought they were from the inner city."
Shim, who was only 11 at the time of the murder, says Suh's letters touched many in her church, and a network of supporters developed, writing him back and driving the 80 or so miles to the Pontiac Correctional Center to visit him. But other Korean-Americans felt he'd shamed the community and had got exactly what he deserved.
Shim, then president of her church youth group, wrote to Suh, then started making the trip to Pontiac and talking to him on the phone. She says he began to feel like an older brother, giving her advice on choosing a college and a career and later, after she graduated from the University of Illinois at Chicago, taking her side when her mother protested her decision to move to California to work in the film industry. "She actually wrote to him asking him to change my mind, because she knew that we were so close," says Shim. "He was like, 'My loyalties are to you. Your mom's great, but I'm gonna support whatever you do.'"
In California, Shim found work as a production assistant on a few features, even serving as director Tobe Hooper's personal assistant on Mortuary. Last year she was looking for work when Suh asked if she knew anyone who might be interested in doing a documentary on his case. "I went there for narrative films," she says. "But after thinking about it I thought, hey, storytelling is storytelling, and this is a very intriguing story. I've already got his trust, got access to his story, and I already know a lot of it."
In 1993 the 19-year-old Suh hid in the garage of the Bucktown house his sister, Catherine, shared with her boyfriend, Robert O'Dubaine. Catherine, who'd stashed a gun in the garage for Suh, called O'Dubaine and told him her car had broken down. Suh ambushed him when he left to go help her.
The case was classic tabloid material: The two siblings were orphaned children of Korean immigrants: their father had died of cancer when Andrew was 11, and two years later their mother had been brutally stabbed to death in her Evanston dry-cleaning shop. In some ways Suh was an all-American wonder boy. For one thing, he always excelled in school--he'd been the student body president at Loyola Academy in Wilmette, and when he killed O'Dubaine he was a scholarship student at Providence College. Catherine, who was 17 when her mother was murdered, had been a suspect, but O'Dubaine provided her alibi, and the case has never been solved. She and O'Dubaine used the $800,000 inheritance from her mother's estate to buy a nightclub, start a home-renovating business, and support an extravagant lifestyle. They also took care of Andrew.
When Catherine was arrested and charged with O'Dubaine's murder, Andrew bailed her out. When he was brought in shortly afterward for questioning and made incriminating statements, she left him in jail for close to a month, claiming she didn't have any money. Meanwhile she moved into Lake Point Tower and continued to spend lavishly. Catherine and Andrew were supposed to be tried together, but a few days before the trial she went on the lam. The media nicknamed her the "Black Widow," and she earned a spot on America's Most Wanted. A made-for-TV movie based on the case, Bad to the Bone, aired in 1997.
The bench trial went ahead without her, the prosecutors arguing that the motive had been to collect on O'Dubaine's $250,000 life insurance policy. In 1995 Andrew was given a sentence of 100 years, though it was later reduced to 80. Catherine, who'd changed her name and was living with a surfer in Honolulu, eventually turned herself in and got life without parole.
Last year, after deciding she wanted to make a documentary about the case, Shim moved back to her parents' house in Glenview and started a direct-mail fund-raising campaign with her mother's help, targeting mainly members of her old church. "My mom is kind of a hustler," she says. "So she would take 15 letters in her purse and go to church and hand them out and talk to her friends. It was like a 95 percent return of donations."
Shim raised $11,000, then bought a camera and editing equipment and flew a friend out from LA to be her director of photography. They spent three weeks shooting exteriors and doing interviews with Suh's friends, his appeal lawyers, and Suh himself. Shim is now trying to raise more funds to complete the film, The House of Suh, and is working on a long trailer to use when applying for grants. A short trailer can be seen at her Web site, thehouseofsuh.com, and the long one will screen in February at a fund-raiser with live bands at Martyrs'.
On camera Suh is articulate, intense, even mesmerizing as he explains how he came to kill for his sister. He says that after his mother's murder his sister and O'Dubaine became his de facto parents but that eventually the couple's relationship deteriorated. He says Catherine persuaded him that O'Dubaine had killed their mother: "My sister kept hounding me. 'Here--do this for mom.'"
Suh's childhood friends provide insights, as does his appeals attorney, Carol Hogan, a corporate lawyer who loathes the idea of criminal law but took his case pro bono because she believes his sentencing was unfair--his term of 80 years is over twice the usual for murder in Illinois. In his latest appeal Suh alleges that Judge John Morrissey, who presided over the trial, had a personal relationship with the O'Dubaine family that influenced his sentencing. Suh is eligible for parole in 2035, but he's hoping to get a further reduction in his sentence.
Shim tried to interview Catherine at Dwight Correctional Center but says guards told her she hasn't received a visitor in years. She hasn't even had any contact with her brother. By contrast, Suh continues to win supporters and recently married his grade-school sweetheart. "The thing about Andrew is you see him in his prison blues behind the glass partition, and he's so charming and so charismatic and so intelligent and bubbly for being where he is," says Shim. "It's so shocking, and there's always something about him that intrigues people when they meet him, because they just don't expect that."
Yet she says that taking on the role of documentarian has forced her to reflect hard on her friend's past. "What I love and hate about the Korean community is that they will protect their own," she says. "What I don't like about that is sometimes they don't really consider the extenuating circumstances. This documentary has kind of made me come to terms with 'Oh my God, he did kill somebody,' and I kind of didn't really think about that before I started the documentary. But actually having to address it on a personal level has been difficult for me."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane (Shim).