A cross-cultural love story gone terribly wrong has turned into a legal battle that begins in a Yolo County courtroom Friday.
For more than six months, Nan-Hui Jo, a Korean immigrant, has been held in the Yolo County jail on charges that she abducted her 6-year-old daughter Hwi as a baby in 2009. She faces deportation if convicted.
Jo hasn’t seen her daughter since her arrest last fall. A trial in December on the child abduction charge ended in a hung jury. The Yolo County District Attorney’s Office immediately ordered a retrial, which opens Friday.
Hwi now lives with her dad, Iraq war veteran Jesse Charlton, who spent five years hunting for his daughter after Jo took the girl to South Korea. Jo testified in the earlier trial that she left because she didn’t feel safe around Charlton, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Domestic violence organizations, student groups and Korean churches have rallied behind Jo, urging Yolo County District Attorney Jeff Reisig to reunite the woman with her daughter. The Bay Area-based Korean American Coalition to End Domestic Violence claims Jo was the victim of physical and emotional abuse and said it’s “extremely troubling” that Charlton now has custody while Jo is prevented from seeing Hwi.
Despite these arguments, a Sacramento family court judge awarded Charlton full custody, which means Jo won’t necessarily get to see her daughter even if she’s found not guilty, legal experts said.
Charlton has never been arrested for domestic violence. But in the earlier trial in Yolo County, he testified that he once grabbed Jo by the throat and threw her up against the wall after she tossed the baby to him, the back of its head hitting him in the face. Police were called, but Charlton said he was just told to “leave for a while.”
“That’s the only time time I ever laid a violent hand on Ms. Jo,” he testified.
In July, Jo was arrested for child abduction in Honolulu, where she had traveled to find a school for her American-born daughter.
Charlton, 31, is a substitute teacher from West Sacramento whose passions include skateboarding and photography. Jo, 43, writes children’s books and aspires to be a filmmaker. They met in the fall of 2007, in a photography class at Sacramento City College.
“She was attractive and really good at telling a story,” Charlton told The Sacramento Bee in an interview this week.
The couple – each searching for a connection after years of emotional turmoil – embarked on a passionate, volatile romance that in 2008 produced a daughter named Vitz Da, meaning “light of all things” in Korean. When Jo took Vitz Da to Korea, she changed the girl’s name to Hwi. Jo testified in the previous trial that she told Hwi she never had a father because she is a “special” child.
Charlton and Jo testified that they both adored their baby, but they argued bitterly over money and over Charlton’s habit of viewing pornography.
‘I miss my mom’
Jo’s public defender, Dean Johansson, refused to grant an interview with his client this week. One of Jo’s immigration attorneys, Mark Choi, said she’s heartbroken that she missed her daughter’s sixth birthday while in jail.
“She’s very sad she’s had no opportunity to explain to her daughter why she’s lost her mother all of a sudden and hasn’t been able to see her,” Choi said. “It’s inhumane.”
Charlton said his court-mandated family counselor advised against letting Hwi see her mother while her legal case was pending. He said Hwi has adapted well. “She’s had to start everything from scratch here, but she’s already fully fluent in English and doing well in math,” he said.
He said his own mother struggled with substance abuse, and his father got full custody and moved the kids away from their Fresno home. This history leaves him torn about the decision to keep Hwi from her mother.
“Sometimes I’m sitting around with my kid, and she says, ‘I miss my mom,’ and the same thing happened to me when I was a kid. It was super confusing, super scary.”
When Hwi asks about her mom, he said, “I tell her, ‘Mom loves you and thinks about you and would be with you if she could. Mom’s made a mistake and she’s trying to deal with it.’”
Jo also came from a broken home, and her first marriage in Korea ended in divorce, Choi said. Jo testified in her first trial that she came to the University of Southern California on a student visa to study film in 2002, but left after a semester. For the next two years, she studied film and photography at Los Angeles Community College.
In November 2005, Jo said, she married a U.S. citizen and moved to Connecticut. But when he became jealous and physically abusive, she obtained a temporary restraining order against him and moved to Sacramento to enroll in Sacramento City College, according to her court testimony.
“He punched her, she had a bruised rib, he was arrested and convicted and got a one-year sentence,” Choi said. The divorce was finalized in 2011, and Jo is in the process of applying for a U Visa for crime victims who cooperate with law enforcement that could allow her to stay in the U.S.
‘It was pretty raw’
Charlton, too, traveled a rocky road. In the earlier trial, he testified that he left high school in Davis after the 10th grade, passing his equivalency exam in 2001. “I was running around at night, and I got into an altercation with a police officer,” he testified. He enlisted in the Army in August 2001, became a machine-gunner and did two six-month tours in Mosul, Iraq.
“I was hit by two car bombs and one regular roadside bomb ... I was real lucky to be alive,” he told The Bee.
In Jo’s first trial, Charlton testified that he was discharged in 2005. He had no skills and was saddled with traumatic brain injuries and PTSD that caused memory loss, depression and erratic behavior. The Veterans Affairs Department found him to be 70 percent disabled.
When he met Jo, he was couch surfing and living in his Ford Falcon. He admitted in court that when Jo told him she was pregnant, he told her he didn’t want the baby, but denied asking her to get an abortion.
Jo testified that although she considered her pregnancy “a miracle” since she’d lost a baby at nine months 15 years earlier, “I was very afraid. I was scared. In this country I have no family members, and I was not prepared.”
She said she worked at two local Korean restaurants and had a student loan, but had received a letter from the U.S. government telling her her visa had expired, her American husband no longer supported her green card petition and she would have to leave the country immediately.
“I didn’t have a working permit, I didn’t have a driver’s license, and Jesse didn’t care,” she testified. “I couldn’t survive here.”
Jo gave Charlton a ring, according to Korean custom, but he said they couldn’t get married because her divorce wasn’t final. He admitted Jo called the police a second time after he broke his hand hitting the wall and punched the car’s steering wheel. “Usually, Jesse is a fairly peaceful person, but Jesse explained to me sometimes his personality or characteristics just completely change. ... You can see it from his eyes,” she testified.
Jo also said she was worried about her baby daughter watching when Charlton viewed porn on her laptop while Jo was at school.
After Jo left and took their daughter to Korea, Charlton told the court he sent her more than 100 emails. “I expressed my emotional state, and it was pretty raw,” he said.
‘I want to be a dad’
He said he also shared news of his academic progress and budding career as a freelance photographer, in an effort to convince Jo that he wasn’t a failure and could be a good father. He also told his daughter how much he loved her, though he knew she might never see the emails. He admitted sending an email saying he was considering “spending thousands of dollars on a scary bounty hunter” if Jo continued to completely cut him off.
Jo said she only responded to one of his emails, concerning money. When Jo took her daughter to Hawaii last fall, she never made an effort to reconnect with Charlton. “He did not want me,” she testified in her first trial.
But Charlton had filed a report of child abduction, and when Jo applied for a visa waiver to visit Hawaii for 90 days, the U.S. Embassy in Seoul notified law enforcement that she was coming. She was arrested and sent to Yolo County to face trial.
Charlton acknowledged he was struggling with demons from the war when he and Jo became parents, but said they were both immature and that love and anger were balled up into one. “I don’t even know why we argued. We just argued a lot and it wasn’t good.”
Jo wasn’t granted bail because the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service asked the county to hold her until her immigration case for overstaying her visa was resolved.
“If she wins this (abduction) case, she has a great chance of getting a green card and staying in the U.S. with her daughter, who’s a U.S. citizen,” Choi said, adding that McGeorge Law School professor John Myers is representing Jo pro bono in her ongoing child custody case.
“If she loses this case, they will hold her in a federal detention center, and then she will have a deportation hearing in front of an immigration judge,” said Choi, adding that Jo’s U visa application was filed by Sacramento immigration attorney Juliet Turner.
The Yolo County District Attorney’s Office has charged Jo with one count of felony child abduction. If she’s convicted, the judge could reduce it to a misdemeanor. Either way, Jo would likely to be sentenced to time served, though she still faces a deportation trial, her attorneys said.
Charlton’s gone on to graduate from California State University, Sacramento, and get his teaching credential. He drops Hwi off at first grade, then heads to Yolo Continuation High School, where he has a long-term substitute teaching contract. “I finish a half-hour before she gets out of school, then I pick her up and we go to the skateboard park and hang out, then watch TV and do homework,” Charlton said. “I’m pretty much a stay-at-home dad.
“I want to be a dad more than anything in the world,” Charlton added. “I wasn’t very good in the Army, I’m an OK photographer and skateboarder. I’m better at being a dad than anything else.”
Call The Bee’s Stephen Magagnini, (916) 321-1072. Pete Basofin contributed.