The Han Twins
An identical twin lives in the shadow of her sister. Then conflict boils over into a murder plot.
Dispatch relayed the 911 call just as officers at the Irvine Police Department were starting a new shift. At 3:20 p.m., a young female caller, hysterical with fear, had reported that two gun-wielding assailants were inside her apartment. The assailants had used duct tape and plastic twine to restrain her roommate but hadn’t discovered her yet. She didn’t know if the men intended to rob, assault, or kill them.
Sitting in the heart of perpetually sunny Orange County, the city of Irvine stays true to its master-planned roots with an abundant sprinkling of office parks, universities, supermarkets and nail salons. Just northeast of picturesque Newport Beach, it’s a safe, beige-colored town full of college-aged kids, young families, and first- and second-generation Asian immigrants. The place was close-knit. That year, Irvine had only recorded a single murder, and violent crime was rare.
At the police station, the officers could hardly believe what they were hearing when the call came in. The San Marco Apartment homes were only a half-mile from their station, so it took just a few minutes for the officers to respond. The assailants had fled, and a rookie cop remembers his shock on finding the female victims, both Korean American, sitting on the ground outside their stucco-walled apartment home. Duct tape still hung from their hair, arms, and legs, and the officer recalls the gray pieces quivering like windblown leaves. “They were visibly shaking,” he recalls. “They were so scared. I had to calm them down.”
The officers, enraged on behalf of the young women, determined to figure out who was responsible, having no idea that in looking in the face of one victim, they were also staring at the face of the criminal.
Two weeks earlier…
When Jeen Han escaped from jail, revenge was on her mind.
Her escape wasn’t dramatic like in the movies — no tunneling with a mess hall spoon, no disguises. Jeen, 22, was serving a six-month stint, and as part of her sentence was allowed a work furlough. During one five-hour pass she simply called a friend and hitched a ride to an apartment in a crime-ridden neighborhood in El Cajon, California, where two kind-hearted local women ran an unofficial halfway house for local misfits.
On her second day on the run, Jeen made a call to her sister, Sunny, under the pretext of collecting some stuff she’d left at Sunny’s place prior to her arrest. The call didn’t go well.
“How did you find my number?” Sunny demanded to know. “I threw out all your stuff and I don’t care about you anymore. Don’t ever call me again!”
In lockup, fellow inmates had grown accustomed to Jeen’s obsession with her sister. If her course of action after her escape had been in any doubt, the familiar sting of rejection now pushed the fugitive firmly over the edge, her burning rage and jealousy officially reaching a breaking point. Jeen and Sunny had once stood side-by-side on stage, mirror images accepting the titles of co-valedictorians. Now Jeen, who had a ruthless knack for self-preservation and had come to the conclusion that Sunny was the reason for her own dismal spiral into adulthood, was beginning to hatch a plan to improve her lot: She would kill her identical twin.
The only question left: Who would she get to pull the trigger?
To all the world they appeared inseparable, and so the dramatic tale of the Han Twins, as it played out in the courtroom and in local media coverage, was as much a shock to those who knew them as anyone else. The narrative that emerged was as simplistic as it was appealing: An evil twin, Jeen, had grown so jealous of her minutes-older and higher-achieving sister, Sunny, that she set in motion a barely believable sequence of events. The truth is far more interesting.
Teachers couldn’t tell them apart when Jeen and Sunny were teenagers at Mountain Empire High School, located on the border between California and Mexico in the middle of a hot dusty desert. To help others differentiate them, Jeen wore bangs and her hair short while Sunny wore her hair long. Jeen tended to be more serious, while Sunny often came off as happy-go-lucky.
As young children, the twins had lived in South Korea with their mother, a woman named Boo Jun Kim. Kim had struggled during her own childhood, which saw its share of trauma. As a baby in Incheon, South Korea, she had witnessed heavily armed North Korean troops occupy the city. Kim also experienced disruption on an intensely personal scale when her father abandoned the family and ran off with a younger woman, leaving Kim’s mother to raise six children on her own. As Kim’s own marriage fell apart, patterns of family instability seemed to repeat for her young daughters.
When Kim relocated her twins from South Korea to Southern California, she floated from job to job, boyfriend to boyfriend, while struggling with a spiraling gambling addiction. Among Korean immigrants to the United States, admitting mental health issues to this day is often stigmatized, seen implicitly as a sign of weakness or being out of control in a culture that prizes strength and self-discipline. Government-sponsored studies in the United States have shown Asian-Americans as the ethnic group least likely to seek such help.
Ignoring her problems rather than confronting them, Kim only sunk deeper. There also seemed to be a re-enactment of Kim’s own father’s abandonment in her reckless pursuit of a flashier life. Working as a bar hostess for income, Kim spent days at a time at casinos, which resulted in the girls being placed in and out of group homes. The girls would later report that when the family was together, the household became abusive.
“Growing up, [Sunny] was all I had,” Jeen recently shared. Sunny was spared from Kim’s anger because she “knew how to comfort my mom.” Older by mere minutes, Sunny was favored.
But the sisters had each other, mutual lifelines that seemed to bind them together in a way that guarded against chaos. They were eventually sent to live with their aunt and uncle in Campo, California, where they spurred each other to academic success at Mountain Empire. In spite of outward appearances, however, the sisters often quarreled in private. Competitive tensions often spilled over into violent clashes. If their mother’s years-long struggles had set off a chain of emotional and psychosocial dominoes, they crashed right into the sisters’ relationship. When they were 15, one fight had ended with Sunny stabbing Jeen in the left thigh, as if exerting her dominance once and for all over her sister, whom she had beaten into the world by minutes. Once again, mental health struggles were subsumed, buried under outward appearances of normalcy. Jean Buchman, a family friend, saw similar problems with balance in both twins. “They didn’t know the difference between wants and needs, because half the time, they didn’t have what they needed,” Buchman told a reporter later. “So, their wants got out of control.”
Nevertheless, the twins were named co-valedictorians and the world seemed to be opening up for them, two long shot success stories whose intelligence and work ethic was bound to propel them to prosperous futures, the American Dream. But it didn’t work out for Jeen like it seemed to for Sunny, who got a full scholarship to the University of La Verne after high school. Jeen could have gone to college, but she didn’t feel ready to make the commitment to a four-year college, so instead, the baby-faced 20-year-old enlisted in the Air Force and began basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas.
It was a horrible choice. One month into her Air Force training, it became clear to Jeen that the strict environment was too much for her. Without a sense of freedom or a support network in Texas she began to panic. Compared to her sister’s success in college, she felt like a massive failure. Worse, she couldn’t leave the Air Force for two years. She was trapped, and in her desperation, she came up with a simple deception, one of many that would soon follow. These were the Clinton years, the era of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” a law that doesn’t strictly prohibit gay, lesbian, and bisexual military members from serving as long as they don’t reveal their sexual orientation. Jeen would tell her commanding officers that she was gay to get out on a general discharge.
The lie met with blowback from the Air Force. Frightened, Jeen turned to one of the only stable adult figures she had known in high school, Charlene Mitchell, who had been the food service director at the twins’ high school and their neighbor in the small rural town. “They’re going to put me in jail!” Jeen cried. Mitchell calmed her down and talked to Jeen’s commander over the phone, and the Air Force subsequently let her go without any consequences. Speaking about the sisters, Mitchell would later tell the Los Angeles Times, “They seemed to lack plain practical sense… they didn’t seem to know how to cope with things.”
Meanwhile, at college at the University of La Verne, Sunny drove between classes in an expensive leased BMW and was constantly dressed in high-end designer clothing and makeup, reinforcing Jeen’s perception of their vastly different trajectories. Sunny had a boyfriend and plenty of friends, and the popular Korean American seemed to be finding her stride.
Two hours south, out of the Air Force and struggling to find her footing, Jeen took a job as a blackjack dealer at the Barona Resort and Casino in Lakeside to support herself. The casino allowed off duty employees to play at the tables where they worked, and while waiting for her co-workers to clock out one night she decided to place a bet. After playing her first hands of blackjack, Jeen’s tip earnings vanished. She rushed to an ATM and withdrew $300, the maximum amount. That, too, quickly disappeared. Her temper flared. In the blink of an eye she’d lost a huge chunk of her earnings. Her co-workers, who’d arrived by then, brushed off the incident and reminded her about their plans to go out for drinks, but Jeen was so upset by the losses that she waited until the bank opened its doors the following morning and withdrew her entire savings, around $4,000. She lost it all.
It was the start of a precipitous fall. By 1996, Jeen, inheritor of the same addiction that afflicted her mother, began betraying her family and friends. In all, she stole about $40,000 in the form of fraudulent checks and credit cards. Unable to cope with the mountain of money she owed, she attempted suicide with an overdose of sleeping pills washed down with liquor. It wasn’t fatal, however, and when one of her victims, the uncle who had taken her and her sister in through high school, realized his niece had stolen $10,000 from him, he contacted the police.
The police tracked her down at a friend’s house and arrested her. She was sentenced to ten days in jail and three years’ probation and ordered to pay restitution to her victims.
When she got out, with nowhere else to turn, Jeen reached out to her sister. Sunny told her she could come live in her apartment in a quiet neighborhood in northern Orange County. The twins would once again be together.
In spite of what her sister may have thought, and contrary to outward appearances, Sunny’s life after high school had been far from rosy. As a young college student without wealthy parents, Sunny had trouble keeping up with the other students. Rich kids from all over Los Angeles came to La Verne to attend college, and Sunny felt pressure to look and act the way they did. Presentation was everything, she had decided. Sunny had a tendency to hide behind secrets more effectively than Jeen. But soon enough her friends began to suspect she was moonlighting as an exotic dancer in the city of Pomona, an area with one of the nation’s highest crime rates. Scrambling to keep up with her rich friends, the ex-honor roll student’s grades began to slip, and she lost her scholarship, blaming the fallout on the breakup with her boyfriend. Sunny later resumed her studies at a community college thirty miles south, but she wasn’t able to crawl back to her former academic glory. Eventually, she dropped out of community college and told friends she was working as a receptionist to support herself.
So there was a degree of excitement when Sunny allowed Jeen to move in with her. For both young women it signaled a fresh start, a rekindling of their high school glory, which looked far more attractive through the prism of memory.
The euphoria was short-lived. They argued all the time. Sunny would kick Jeen out a dozen times for not doing the dishes or not making her food right. In May of 1996, the police were called to Sunny’s apartment in Placentia. There had been a violent scuffle between the sisters. Jeen expected to be arrested again but was shocked when they took Sunny in instead. It turned out she had an outstanding warrant. In what must have seemed like a shock of recognition, Jeen learned that three years earlier her sister had stolen a friend’s credit card and went on a $1,300 shopping spree. Receipts showed purchases for high end lingerie, designer jeans, shoes, and sunglasses. Sunny was eventually fined and placed on probation. When questioned, she told authorities, “I didn’t think my friend would mind, she was rich.”
The reversal of fortunes threw everything into a tailspin. Sunny called Jeen from jail and scolded her: “As soon as I get home, I’m going to kick you out!” she screamed. Jeen was scared. She had nowhere else to go, and their identical appearances became the eye of the gathering storm. With Sunny locked up, Jeen took her sister’s wallet, ID, credit card, and the keys to her BMW. A friend of Jeen’s, Diane Carradine, later remarked that she “wanted her sister’s BMW and didn’t care how she got it.” It was more than a theft. In that moment, however fleeting, Jeen had become the other twin behind the wheel of that car, the one for whom life had seemed to cooperate, however misguided that perception was. It was a moment of wish fulfillment.
Jeen withdrew cash from Sunny’s bank account and used her telephone card to place calls. She drove the BMW to her ex’s house in San Diego and stayed with him for a couple of days. She stole checks from her boyfriend, who called the police. Sunny, now released from her stint in jail, pressed charges against her sister for fraud. The judge ended up sentencing Jeen to jail and the fateful work furlough, giving her five hours a day to leave the facility.
Patterns had settled into a vicious cycle. When one twin desired something, that desire in itself seemed to justify any means to the end; when consequences kicked in, blame always seemed easy enough to pin on the other sister.
It was during the work furlough that Jeen fled and landed at an El Cajon crashpad run by two sisters named Nicky and Rita. Jeen was hellbent, heart and soul, on revenge against Sunny.
A local kid named Archie Bryant also spent time at Nicky and Rita’s. Archie, like a lot of kids who hung out there, sought a safe space. Earnest and sweet-natured, the 16-year-old grew up in San Diego in the maelstrom of the 1980s crack epidemic, where his biological dad coached him to lie during social services inspections and later his stepdad stole the money he earned selling candy in the neighborhood. As a child, Archie remembered waking up with intense headaches from having accidentally inhaled crack overnight in the motel where they were temporarily living.
In spite of that, he kept himself in school and excelled at athletics, even if he had to occasionally live by his fists in the streets. His best friend was a 15-year-old Laotian American named Jonathan “Yoshi” Sayarath, and the two looked out for each other, as much brothers as friends.
It was at Nicky and Rita’s that Archie first noticed a blue Mustang new to the neighborhood. Archie asked whom it belonged to, and soon he was introduced to Jeen, the beautiful Korean American woman, six years his senior, who was crashing at the house after her latest run-in with the law.
Archie wasn’t attracted to Jeen romantically. “She talked with a Valley Girl accent and seemed a little crazy,” he told me. But there was a charm to her, and he couldn’t resist the air of danger that surrounded her. The two began to pal around, and at one point, Archie showed her a little wound on his foot from where he’d accidentally shot himself. A light bulb went off for Jeen: Archie had access to guns. She asked him if he would find her one for self-defense. Archie took the request to a female cousin who lived in a rough neighborhood and owned a 2-shot Derringer, a little pocket pistol that looks like a prop. It would cost Jeen $60, ten of which he pocketed as a finder’s fee.
Not long after, Archie and Yoshi were running late to school. They asked Jeen if she could give them a ride, and she saw her chance. She suggested they take an hour-long drive to Irvine with her instead, explaining she needed to swing by her sister’s place to pick up a few of her things. “I didn’t care about missing school,” Archie told me. “I had no parents to answer to.” He’d never left San Diego before, except for a field trip in eighth grade to Disneyland. Intrigued but reticent, it wasn’t until Jeen offered them $100 that they agreed.
Archie excitedly hopped in the front of the blue Mustang while Yoshi sat in the back. They had no idea they had just been drawn into a murder scheme.
With Archie in the passenger seat and Yoshi in back, Jeen spoke casually about Asian gangsters assaulting her in Irvine, where she had recently lived with her sister. She warned the teens that gang members could be hanging around her sister’s place which could prove an obstacle to retrieving her things. Archie began to feel protective of his friend, and she pounced on that instinct. “Have you ever knocked someone out?” she asked.
Once in Irvine, they went to a Ralph’s grocery store and bought duct tape, twine, gloves and a single potato. If the purchases seemed strange to the boys, Jeen fell back on the threat of Asian gangs. They trusted her. The trio next headed to San Joaquin Marsh, a quiet nature respite spanning 300 acres. Archie affixed the potato to the gun purchased from his cousin. As target practice, Archie fired a single shot out the window of the Mustang, the potato muffling the sound.
When asked later why he fired the gun with the potato attached, Archie replied, “Name one teenage boy who wouldn’t use that opportunity to fire a gun. There was no deep-seated conspiracy; I was just a kid being a kid taking advantage of the moment.”
From the Marsh they drove to the San Marco Apartment Homes, where Sunny lived. The new arrivals pulled up at the carport. An unfenced yard and the San Diego creek ran behind the entire complex. The assailants watched as one of Sunny’s three Korean American roommates left through the front door. Jeen next went to the leasing office and pretended to be her sister needing an extra key, but the attempt failed. They would have to find another way inside.
Jeen reiterated to her teenage companions that they would only get $100 if they went inside to get her things. She also reminded them of the Asian gangsters that could be waiting for her. “It’s better if you take the gun,” she told the teenagers. But Archie felt uncomfortable. It seemed bizarre to even need a gun in the first place.
Jeen raised the stakes: “Okay, then what if you just kill her? Have you ever killed anyone?”
“What? No.” Archie was confused, an easy errand to pick up an older woman’s belongings having suddenly turned into a murder-for-hire.
“Would you kill my sister?”
Archie vehemently refused.
Jeen rolled her eyes, whipping her neck around to face Yoshi. “Okay, then what about you?”
Yoshi shook his head.
Jeen snapped in anger, furiously hitting the steering wheel over and over with the palms of her hands. From the side view mirror, the teenage friends exchanged a worrying glance. It was a look, Archie later explained, that said this bitch is crazy. Then he had a chilling thought: If she were willing to kill her own sister, why wouldn’t she also kill me?
In a snap decision, Archie took out the gun out of the glove box. Jeen, by now used to getting her own way through manipulation, took this as a sign that he was willing to fulfil her murder request. She started clapping and cheering with psychotic happiness.
But Archie had other things in mind. Not only did he want to keep himself and his best friend safe, he also wanted to protect the target of the driver’s hateful revenge, her identical twin. Paradoxically this would involve scaring Sunny. If they followed Jeen’s instructions but stopped short of hurting anyone, maybe Jeen would leave them all alone. Archie turned his head back toward the mercurial Jeen. “You get your stuff. I get my money. Nobody gets hurt!”
The three then drove to another store, this time to purchase magazines. “I picked Vogue and Cosmo, because I thought that’s what women liked to read,” Archie recalls. They went back inside the Mustang, parked back into the carport outside Sunny’s bottom floor unit.
Jeen later discussed the plan she had: “I told the two boys to falsely pose as a magazine salesperson and go to my sister’s door to see if [she] was home alone.” She sat in the car while the boys went to the front door. “I asked the boys to barge inside of her apartment, threaten her with the gun, tie her up with the plastic twine I purchased. And I asked them to put duct tape over my sister’s mouth, so she won’t be able to scream for help.”
Archie knocked on the door asking Helen Kim, 19, a roommate of Sunny’s, if she wanted to purchase some magazines. Helen said no and closed the door. Archie ran back to the parked Mustang.
“She seems like she’s home alone,” he told Jeen, thinking Helen had been Jeen’s sister.
“Does she look like me?”
“I’m not sure,” he replied.
“Go back and check again,” Jeen demanded.
Archie went back, but no one came to the door this time. The boys were hungry, so Jeen took them to get a burger. At three o’clock, they returned to the apartment. Helen, who was in the middle of a Nintendo game, heard another knock at the door. She leaned out of the doorway again, but this time noticed Yoshi leaning against a wall outside behind Archie. She declined the magazines again, but before she could shut the door, the two teenagers forced their way inside.
Archie pointed the gun against Helen’s left temple, ordering her to shut up and sit down on the ground. Thinking this must be the twin sister and that no one else was home, he told the sobbing victim, “if you shut the fuck up, you’ll be alright.” As he had been instructed, Yoshi tied her hands up with the plastic twine and then placed a strip of duct tape over her mouth. By now, Bryant heard a commotion from elsewhere in the apartment.
Sunny was hopping out of the shower when she heard a racket from the other room. She dialed 911 on her cell phone, telling dispatch to hurry. Then she heard one of them yell at Helen, “Where’s your roommate?”
Archie instructed Yoshi to watch Helen while he inspected the other rooms. As he entered the bathroom, he saw the cellphone in Sunny’s hand. Placing the gun against her head, he asked her if she’d called the police. Sunny lied and said no. He placed the gun down and began bounding and gagging her as well. He asked Yoshi to hand over more tape as he started wrapping her entire head. She pleaded with him to leave her nose unwrapped so she could breathe. By this point, Helen managed to get her hands loose from the twine and dashed for the door. “I should shoot you for that!” Archie warned Helen. Yoshi tied her up again.
They were acting like hardened criminals, but they were scared witless. “Everything I did that night, I learned from TV and the movies,” Archie recently told me. The terrified women were moved to the bathtub and sat head-to-head, rocking themselves back and forth. In the other room, Archie started rummaging through their belongings in search of Jeen’s things.
Jeen waited outside in the carport on pins and needles. Yoshi ran out to tell Jeen it was safe to come in, but then red and blue flashing lights flooded the area. Jeen watched the frantic scene unfold from her car. “I saw one of the officers walking towards my car while I was sitting in the driver’s seat in the parking lot. Immediately, I got nervous … I thought the police were there for me.”
Yoshi quietly walked back to the car and sat inside while the police officer was approaching. Now panicking, Jeen managed to fake a concerned response. “Is there something wrong, officer?”
He asked who she was.
Jeen identified herself as Sunny.
Back inside, Archie was unaware the police were right outside. The 16-year-old pocketed a few objects, including a pager and $60 in cash. When he heard police approaching, he began untying the women in the bathtub and instructed them to say it had all been a big joke.
He ran toward the front door, but it was too late. With guns drawn, police officers told him to freeze. When the former track star saw a cop’s gun pointed at him, he quickly turned, slammed the front door, and started running towards the back. He remembered yelling, “Shoot me now because I’m going to run!” As he scrambled, Archie tossed the small .22 caliber gun in the laundry hamper, hiding it underneath the women’s clothing. Before he could make it out, a detective on the scene tackled him.
Later on, when police searched the premises, they found the weapon with the safety off. This convinced some on the force that they had stopped a murder. “If we hadn’t shown up so quickly, there would be two dead bodies,” David Tran, then a 26-year-old rookie, tells me. It was a startling thought for a community considered extremely safe. Officer Tran comforted the two young women, whom he observed were shaking uncontrollably.
Jeen, meanwhile, told Yoshi to wait inside the Mustang. She got out of her car and headed straight for the crime scene. “Instead of leaving the scene,” she later recalled, “I followed the same officer around the building.” By the time she reached the apartment, police officers pointed guns at a closed door. The victims had told the police there was more than one assailant. It wasn’t until the officers told her to leave the scene that she went back to the car. As she and Yoshi drove from the complex, she gazed upwards at the rearview mirror.
“I saw my sister coming out of the apartment,” Jeen recalled, “trying to take the tape off of her hair. I had a lot of mixed emotions going through me at the time, a lot of conflicting emotions.” But any guilt she felt began to rapidly diminish as the pair now barreled south towards the Mexican border.
Back at the San Marco Apartment Home, a police officer who moments earlier had witnessed a person uncannily matching the victim’s description walking back to the blue Mustang realized something was very wrong. While the investigation was unfolding, police in El Cajon notified their counterparts in Irvine that a confidential informant had overheard a recently escaped Korean American woman detail to another inmate how she wanted to kill her twin sister. Archie, who was being interrogated, confirmed to the police that Jeen had broached the subject of murdering her sister.
Less than an hour after the police arrested Archie, Jeen used Sunny’s driver’s license as identification to withdraw $5,000 from a bank in Laguna Beach. Hours later, Jeen pawned off some belongings in exchange for gold. She also completed a credit application at a San Juan Capistrano Nissan dealer to lease or buy a 300ZX sportscar. She showed the salesman her sister’s identification, but the paperwork for the transaction would not be completed that night.
Jeen left with Yoshi to return the blue Mustang to the rental agency she’d procured it from after her release. Officers from the San Diego Police Department were waiting for her. They arrested Jeen, who insisted they had the wrong person and that she was, in fact, her sister. A quick search of the car uncovered a bullet casing matching the caliber used in the Derringer. It had dropped onto the floor mat when Archie had taken the shot from the window with the potato silencer.
“They were unsophisticated criminals,” now Detective David Tran recalls.
Officers broke it to Sunny, still shell-shocked from the assault, that her sister was involved. They would hardly have been able to fathom the impact it would have to hear her identical twin had tried to have her killed. In many cultures, identical twins are seen as wonders of nature, two halves of the same identity. That twins have a deep connection is taken for granted, so close one might even feel the other’s pain from far away. The idea of violence between them seems somehow heretical, an existential transgression.
Sunny was stunned. “That’s impossible, Jeen’s in custody in San Diego County,” she maintained, not realizing Jeen had escaped.
In addition to the bullet casing in Jeen’s car, police found trash bags, Pine Sol, twine, and a pair of gloves in the trunk. Her intentions could hardly have been clearer. Jeen was eventually tried for conspiracy to commit murder, two counts of burglary, possession of a firearm, and two counts of false imprisonment. On May 8, 1998, she was sentenced to 26 years in state prison. Archie and Yoshi were tried as co-conspirators.
The Korean American community banded together to support Jeen during her trial. When the sentence was handed down, community leaders publicly declared that the sentencing was overly harsh, and hundreds of letters of support begged for leniency. Koo Oh of the Korean American Federation of Orange County insisted that “fighting with siblings is part of Korean culture.”
While waiting to be transferred to state prison at the Orange County jail, Jeen began hiding a stash of Tylenol pills that she collected from the jail commissary. Three days after the verdict was announced, Jeen was rushed to the Western Medical Center in Anaheim to have her stomach pumped and survived the overdose. To some, the crimes for which the bright young woman was convicted were hard to believe. Christy Richardson, who met Jeen at the interim county jail, remembers thinking at the time Jeen was innocent. “She’s smart and wouldn’t have messed up,” she said. For a while, Jeen, employing the same penchant for deceit she used to get out of the military, played on this perception, insisting she had no idea what Archie and Yoshi were doing in her sister’s apartment. Over the years, however, she acknowledged responsibility.
“At one point, absolutely, I wanted to kill my sister,” Jeen eventually said. “I hated her.” From Jeen’s vantage point, Sunny’s abandonment became part of the pattern Jeen had felt since childhood with her mother’s long absences from their lives. “The more I thought about my sister turning into mom on me… I felt badly betrayed by [Sunny]. And with my growing rage, I wanted my sister dead.”
During a short-lived media circus in the 90s, Sunny was presented in the press as a near-angelic victim of her jealous, psychotic twin sister’s crime. In this way, at least, people could nod with understanding at a classic clash of good and evil. After Jeen was sent to the Central California Women’s Facility, Sunny started doing TV appearances, feeding into the mythos of their case.
One of the most surprising twists in examining the Han twins, whose trajectories intertwined so deeply, is the discovery that they had spent the first years of their lives unaware of one another. They were separated at birth after their parents became estranged. Jeen lived with their father, Yun Heo, while Sunny lived with their mother, Boo Jun Kim. They were only reunited, only learned of each other, at age three. Studies out of California State University have shown that even separating twins only for a few hours a day during school at young ages can be traumatizing. It’s easy to imagine the shock — the waves of joy and confusion — for a little girl coming face to face with a mirror image of herself, a clone whose innermost thoughts were as much a mystery as anyone else’s.
This sheds new light on all that comes after it. Twinning reaction, as described by psychologists, is the intense fusion of identities in twins, a complicated process that would be all the more complex after early separation and abrupt reunion. When stress and conflict surround identical twins, one twin feeling anger toward her sibling could end up hurting herself; the urges of violence directed toward oneself and those directed toward the sibling commingle. The phenomenon is a darker version of the lore that when one twin is in pain, the other one feels it.
Even in the thick of the fallout from the attempted murder, the twins’ bond did not disappear. Before the trial, Sunny tried to recant her part in the allegations that Jeen had tried to murder her, despite stacks of evidence. On the second day of Jeen’s initial court hearings, when Sunny was due to take the witness stand and testify against her sister, she took thirty-five sleeping pills. She washed it down with a beer, which she knew she was allergic to. Paramedics rushed the 23-year-old to a nearby hospital and revived her. Sunny’s own spiral continued, meanwhile, including a later arrest for prostitution.
While incarcerated, Jeen worked toward an associate degree from Feather River College, eventually graduating with a degree in social and behavioral sciences. “I’m interested in anything to do with behavior and social pattern, because I recognize my old behaviors and how it ties into my personality at the time, the person I was before I committed my crime,” she recently said.
“I felt a lot of guilt and shame for my sister’s life, because I know she’s been struggling,” Jeen says. “Not being able to be there for her and the trauma of my actions my sister had to endure. I know it was hard for her. I was feeling very, very, very guilty and shameful for what I’ve done to my sister.” In her self-reflection, Jeen was forced to admit her actions instead of redirecting blame. In a way, Jeen finally became her own person, though one still very much serving her own ends when it came to a chance at parole.
In 2017, the parole board read out a letter from Sunny supporting Jeen’s release. She thought that Jeen had grown up and served enough time. Additionally, she wanted Jeen to be with their mother, Kim, who was suffering from diabetes and supposedly still suffering from a gambling addiction.
Archie Bryant declined to take a deal “based on principle” and served fourteen years for first-degree burglary and two counts of false imprisonment in state prison before being released on parole ten years ago. He’s now married and working as a warehouse manager in San Diego. His friend Yoshi signed a confession and only served four years.
With Jeen receiving parole in 2017, the script has been flipped. Kim now only keeps in touch with Jeen, not Sunny. Kim recently bragged that Jeen, the new golden child, received an engineering degree and was working in the San Francisco Bay area.
In the conventions of true crime, an investigator ends up in an ongoing struggle to understand a criminal act, accentuating what is unfathomable in a fellow human being. In this case, victim and perpetrator alike still grapple with trying to understand the other’s actions, even though they are exact genetic copies, a profound comment on the mystery and singularity, as well as the inaccessibility, of our lived experience. In February 2020, 45-year-old Sunny was once again arrested by Buena Park police officers, this time outside a donut shop along the notorious one-mile stretch of Beach Boulevard. The sisters’ relationship, ultimately, takes on a vampiric quality — when one is strong, the other decays, or disappears; as though the two physical doubles are incapable of coexisting.
Sunny is not impossible to track down, but Kim hasn’t seemed to look for her. When asked about Sunny’s whereabouts, the mother of two pauses for a long time.
She finally responds, “I think Sunny’s dead.”
Jana Meisenholder is a Taiwanese-Australian journalist and writer living in Los Angeles.
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