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March 23, 2023

Judge orders murder suspects to pay $40 million in wrongful death suit

A San Benito County judge in civil court has ordered two suspects in the late-November murder of Hollister’s Yoon Hee Ji to pay tens of millions of dollars in damages to the two plaintiffs, and that relatively quick decision came as the criminal proceedings are just beginning.

The two daughters of the victim and her husband Sang Ji — one of two suspects in the murder case — filed a wrongful death lawsuit in late December. Catharina Ji and Serena Ji filed the lawsuit in San Benito County Superior Court against their father Sang Ji, 49, of Hollister and Jung Choi, 45, of South Korea.

Judge Harry Tobias ruled against the defaulting defendants in the civil case and ordered them to jointly pay the $40 million sum with $20 million going to each of the two daughters, though the plaintiffs’ attorney James Hann from the Hann Law Firm said he doubts they’ll ever see those amounts. Hann in speaking to San Benito Live noted how damage amounts in such judgments are “independent of ability to pay.”

Hann explained how the two suspects had 30 days to respond after being served Jan. 9 and didn’t do so. That gave Tobias the leverage to issue his order, while court filings in the civil matter revealed a range of emerging details in the murder case.

Some of those revelations include:

  • The plaintiffs allege that a third person was involved in the premeditated murder of Yoon Ji. Court filings from the Ji sisters make the allegation that Choi’s brother in South Korea, Bongkee Choi, helped the two suspects plan the killing. Bongkee Choi has not been served with the plaintiffs’ civil complaint because he is currently in South Korea, according to the lawsuit.
  • The plaintiffs allege that the two defendants in two instances removed a total of more than $176,000 from a safe in the Ji home on Monte Cristo Court in Hollister — they claim it was an attempt to avoid losing a portion of the money in a prospective divorce.
  • The filings maintain that both the murder victim and her husband had considered divorce before the killing. The suit alleges Sang intended to divorce the decedent but instead decided to conspire with the two others in order to “defraud and murder her to prevent having to provide community assets.”
  • The lawsuit plaintiffs claim the two suspects had told the family they were cousins in an attempt to hide their relationship.
  • The death certificate concludes Yoon Ji died of blunt-force trauma to the head due to repeated blows. More specifically, her official cause of death was “multiple craniocerebral injuries.”

For the San Benito County Sheriff’s Office, which is overseeing the investigation, the mysterious case started Dec. 2, when one of the two daughters – Serena Ji – contacted authorities from Los Angeles where she lives to report her mother as missing after not hearing from her since Nov. 27. On the day before, the daughter had received “an odd message from her father, Sang Ji, stating her mother went to South Korea unexpectedly,” according to a prior sheriff’s office statement.

“She contacted family in South Korea who said the mother was not there, and had not contacted them to go there. The female and her sister were concerned so she drove to Hollister from Los Angeles to confront the father,” according to the sheriff’s office after the arrest in December. The two suspects are awaiting their next court appearance March 23 and remain at the San Benito County Jail on more than $2 million in bail each.

Afterward, Serena Ji filed the missing person’s report on her mother. The sheriff’s office issued a search warrant and served it on Dec. 6. Sang JI and Jung Choi were arrested and booked in the San Benito County Jail on suspicion of murder and conspiracy to commit murder.

On Dec. 20, authorities discovered Yoon Ji’s body buried in a ravine, with he remains stuffed in a suitcase, in the 2300 block of Salinas Grade Road near San Juan Bautista.

Serena Ji and Catharina Ji filed the wrongful death lawsuit Dec. 27. That lawsuit also pursues such claims as intentional infliction of emotional distress, fraud, theft, conspiracy and punitive damages.

The suit pursues action on behalf of the decedent’s estate, of which they are beneficiaries. As surviving natural daughters, they are entitled to property under laws of inter-state succession, according to the suit.

Because neither Sang Ji nor Jung Choi responded to the lawsuit more than 30 days after its filing, a “default” was entered against them on Feb. 9, with the judge’s order on the $20 million awards coming down Feb. 15.

Some other details in the lawsuit filings included the following:

  • Plaintiffs argue Sang Ji removed $30,000 from a safe in the home on March 23 and then $146,535 on May 1.
  • The murder victim inquired about the missing assets on May 2, but her husband told her to not worry about it.
  • Plaintiffs allege the suspects took possessions – along with the safe money – which included photographs, jewelry, tape recordings, electronics, personal papers and other items.
  • Specifically, the suit pursued damages for a wrongful death, funeral expenses, interest, punitive damages, lawsuit costs, return of personal property, attorney’s fees, restitution, and loss of love and companionship.
  • At the Feb. 15 hearing before Judge Harry Tobias, Hann appeared for plaintiffs and no one appeared for the defendants.

The lawsuit included emotion-laced declarations from the two plaintiffs as well.

Catharina, the youngest daughter, called her mother her best friend.

“We were extremely close, and my relationship with her is one that I will never be able to have with another person.”

Ji went on in the filings:

“My mother and I called every night on the phone and would just talk about the things that happened during the day. She would tell me about work that day or what she ate, and I would tell her about school and the tasks I did that day. It was always very simple things, but these phone calls were very meaningful to me. She was the only person I ever talked to about my life. I knew that she would always be there to listen to me.”

Catharina Ji noted how she was attending college and her mother provided financial security.

“She always made sure I never had to ask for money for tuition or rent.”

Catharina Ji wrote how she and her sister were “not very close” and she stopped talking to her father in May.

“My mother was the only individual in my life that I knew would always take care of me and she knew that I would always take care of her too. We were a team together,” she wrote.

She noted how last fall, she bought plane tickets for her mother to visit in San diego in early January.

“It pains me that I never got to say goodbye to my mother,” Ji wrote.

She called her mother “beautiful, kind and smart.”

“She did nothing wrong in her life and only did good for others. She had no reason to die. There is no reason why I shouldn’t be able to call my mother today.”

Serena Ji, the oldest daughter, called her mother the “strongest person in my life.” The daughter referenced the business owned by the Ji family before the murder – Hollister Laundromat on Tres Pinos Road.

“I knew she made many sacrifices in her life so my sister and I could be happy. Everything she did was for us. When she decided to open a business with my dad, it was so they could have extra income to pay for our education,” Serena Ji wrote. “She worked diligently every single day, never taking a single day off except for my college graduation. She woke up at 5:00 a.m. to open the laundromat and make breakfast for my dad and wouldn’t get home until almost 11 p.m. to close and clean it at the end of the day.”

Serena Ji said more recently before the death, she had been talking to her mother almost every day.

“Even when she was having problems with my dad, she didn’t call me until she could no longer stand it because she didn’t want to worry me,” Ji wrote. “She didn’t want to divorce because she believed she could mend the relationship for our sake and the family.”

The filings note how Sang Lim Ji and Yoon Hee Ji were married Sept. 24, 1994. Yoon Hee Ji wanted to divorce in 2017 and prepared a petition for dissolution of the marriage, but the petition was never filed.

The lawsuit goes on to claim that Sang Ji and Jung Choi started an extramarital affair; that Choi and Ji lied to the decedent and plaintiffs about their relationship and maintained they were cousins; and that to avoid paying half of the marital assets in divorce, Choi and Ji committed premeditated murder and fraud.


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