Nan Hui Jo, convicted in Yolo County of abducting her infant daughter to Korea, has been released on bond after nearly a year behind bars and hopes to soon be reunited with her daughter, Hwi, now 6.
“I heard she’s doing really well in school. I really want to see and talk to her, hug, kiss and hold her,” Jo said an an interview with The Sacramento Bee from her new home in Sacramento. “I’m really excited and kind of nervous, too, but our relationship is really strong. She really trusts me and respects me 100 percent.”
Jo said she was released Friday after a San Francisco immigration judge granted her bond while she awaits the resolution of her immigration case.
Jo, 43, became an international cause after she was arrested in Hawaii last July 29 and jailed in Yolo County on child abduction charges for taking Hwi – whose birth name was Vitz Da – to South Korea in 2009, missing a Sacramento County Family Court hearing. The court then awarded custody to the girl’s biological father, Iraqi war veteran Jesse Charlton, now a substitute teacher in West Sacramento.
Charlton, 32, and Jo never married, but had a tempestuous romance after meeting in a photography class at Sacramento City College. Charlton admitted in court he once grabbed Jo by the throat and threw her up against the wall after she pushed the baby onto him, the back of her head hitting him in the face. After Jo took Hwi to Korea with her, Charlton went five years without hearing from his daughter or even knowing where she was.
Jo was tried on child abduction charges twice. The first trial ended last December in a hung jury, and this March, Jo was convicted. Yolo Superior Court Judge David Rosenberg sentenced Jo to time served, but upon her release she was picked up by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials and locked up again, this time in the Yuba County jail. There, she awaited her deportation hearing for overstaying her visa.
Jo has said fear of deportation was one of the main reasons she left the country with her daughter in 2009.
Her case has been followed intently by Koreans from Sacramento to Seoul and advocates for domestic violence victims throughout California. More than 200 organizations worldwide have signed a petition of support at http://standwithnanhui.org.
Though Charlton, 32, has never been arrested for domestic violence, he served two tours of duty as a machine-gunner in Mosul, Iraq, and testified he suffers from traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder that cause memory loss, depression and erratic behavior. The Department of Veterans Affairs found him to be 70 percent disabled.
Jo was released on $1,500 bond, the minimum amount, by a San Francisco immigration judge pending her immigration hearing, said Jo’s family court lawyer, McGeorge Law School professor John Myers. “It came out of the blue. She was in San Francisco seeing an immigration psychologist and the judge signed this order releasing her.”
Myers said he hopes Jo, who is scheduled to see her daughter next week – will get a chance at co-parenting with Charlton, who has told The Bee their daughter needs both her parents. Jo’s attorneys have said it could take years to resolve her immigration case.
Jo’s lead immigration attorney, Zach Nightingale, has argued that before Jo fled to Korea, the government ordered her to leave the country without informing her she was eligible to seek lawful immigration status in the U.S. under the Violence Against Women Act stemming from domestic abuse in an earlier marriage to a U.S. citizen.
Saira Hussain, staff attorney for the Asian Law Caucus, which is supporting Jo, said in a statement: “We are incredibly relieved that Nan Hui has finally been released and is one step closer to resolving this yearlong nightmare. We must recognize this case within the context of the growing criminalization of survivors of domestic violence and the undocumented community.
An exuberant Jo said the first thing she did upon her release was go with supporters to Bodega Bay to breathe fresh ocean air. “That was beautiful, and then I ate sushi. I wanted Korean barbecue, but it was closed,” Jo said. She plans to finish a children’s book she started about a Korean girl who is a diver collecting shellfish.
She thanked the thousands of people who have supported her and said, “I hope to see my daughter as much as I can.”