Sang Ji and Jung Choi are headed to trial for the alleged 2017 murder of Ji’s wife, Yoon (Clara) Ji, the result of a two-day preliminary hearing in San Benito County Superior Court. Both waived their rights to be arraigned within 15 days, in order to have their trial set within 60 calendar days from the date they’re eventually arraigned.
On March 5 and 6, District Attorney Candice Hooper questioned deputies and detectives of the San Benito County Sheriff’s Office, who presented forensic evidence and helped establish a timeline of the last days and murder of Yoon Ji. Superior Court Judge Lee Felice said there was enough circumstantial evidence to hold over local resident Ji and South Korean national Choi to be tried for murder.
After the prosecutor completed her questioning, Felice asked defense attorneys Gregory LaForge (representing Ji) and Harry Damkar (representing Choi) if they wanted to state arguments. LaForge requested Ji not be held over for trial because he said there was no demonstrative or scientific evidence implicating his client.
“There’s some evidence of a crime, and there’s some evidence my client committed a crime for the purpose of his freedom,” LaForge said. “I know it’s slight, but you’ve got to have something. You have him potentially talking to his children and saying ‘mom’s gone to Korea.’ Is that grounds…”
Felice interrupted, “It’s a statement which is not truthful, based on his statement to the officer [Yoon was having an affair]. It reflects a consciousness of guilt. All we’ve got to do is establish probable cause.”
LaForge answered, “I don’t see anything here to tie my client to murder.”
Damkar also opposed holding over Choi for trial.
“There’s no physical evidence whatsoever against my client, no murder weapon, object or means used to commit this crime,” Damkar said. “We concede a crime was committed, but there’s nothing to link my client to that crime other than the self-serving [confession] of the co-defendant.”
Felice reminded Damkar of an earlier ruling that Ji’s confession, as told by Capt. Eric Taylor of the sheriff’s department during a civil trial that found Ji guilty, did not apply to Choi. Damkar went on to say there was no evidence that put Choi in the vicinity of where the body was disposed and no forensic evidence linking her to the victim.
“There’s an abundance of circumstantial evidence,” Hooper responded, adding that the case is full of false statements from Ji. She went over evidence provided by witnesses, beginning with Ji’s various statements about why his wife disappeared.
“She went to visit her sick mom in Korea,” Hooper recounted. “She was stressed out, she needed a vacation. She was having an affair, or the other one was she carries a lot of money. All these paths trying to get the officers to not look at Mr. Ji.”
Hooper said the motive for the murder was that Ji and Choi were having an affair. Both denied the affair, she said, but a bag was found in a freezer in the garage that contained a condom with both of their DNA. There were also photos taken in April 2017 of Ji and Choi kissing in a car that they allegedly used to get some sort of reaction out of Ji’s wife.
“The last time Mrs. Ji was seen [was] Nov. 28, 2017,” Hooper said. “We have that proof from Rovella’s [Gym]. When Serena [Ji’s daughter, who reported her mother missing] comes Dec. 2 trying to figure out where her mom is, the co-defendants are getting ready to go to his Christmas party.”
Hooper recounted a previous witness statement that Ji had said he would not divorce his wife because he is Catholic. She also reminded the judge of a $150,000 wire transfer to Choi’s brother in South Korea to buy property that Yoon Ji did not know about. Hooper said Yoon Ji claimed that Choi choked her in April 2017, after unexpectedly showing up at the Ji home. When Yoon Ji called the sheriff’s office, deputies came to the house twice that day, minutes apart. Yoon Ji demanded they remove Choi, but deputies said they could not because her husband had invited Choi into their home. During the second law enforcement response, Ji told deputies he thought his wife was bipolar, as a way to explain her behavior.
Deputy William Hutchison testified that there is video footage from Safeway showing Choi using Yoon Ji’s credit card after she went missing. Hooper said there is also a video from inside a patrol car where Ji and Choi were placed as the home was searched. The video recorder in the car captured them speaking in Korean, which was later translated. According to Hooper, Ji told Choi not to overact because there is no evidence.
“They said I killed her in the backyard,” Deputy Brian Penney said, quoting Ji’s comments on the recording. “Don’t say anything until the attorneys come. Don’t say we’re having a sexual relationship. They know our relationship and that’s what they’re going after.”
Penney recounted Choi’s response: “We have nothing to do with this. Be quiet. Listen to me. Why would we kill her? We have no reason to. Remember not to speak too much.”
According to Captain Taylor, Ji offered to confess and show investigators where the body was located on San Juan Grade Road above San Juan Bautista if he could get a deal. After Hooper offered to take life without parole off the table, Sang Ji said Choi beat Yoon Ji to death with a baseball bat as he watched from the patio, holding his ears to keep out the noise of the bat striking his wife at least 16 times.
Admitting to nothing, Choi said in her statement to Taylor that if there was a murder, she knew nothing about it because she was asleep in another room.
Ji and Choi were first arrested on suspicion of Yoon Ji’s murder in December 2017, after a missing persons report was filed by one of the Ji daughters, who told the sheriff’s office that she did not believe her father’s explanation about what happened to her mother. Ultimately, Ji not only confessed, but led authorities to where Yoon Ji’s body was buried in a shallow grave. Much of Capt. Taylor’s testimony had been brought out during a civil trial.
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