EDITORS NOTE: Melanie Castillo-Cullather, director of the Asian Culture Center, is quoted in the online version of this story. Castillo-Cullather is not in the print version.
It wasn’t something anyone thought could happen in Bloomington.
But on July 4, 1999, former IU student Benjamin Nathaniel Smith opened fire on a small group of people walking into the Korean United Methodist Church, killing IU Ph.D. candidate Won-Joon Yoon.
“The physical brutality is not the norm here,” said Pam Freeman, associate dean of students. “It was shock, great sorrow and disbelief because there is a tendency, especially in a community, to think that we’re too small of a place. ... This isn’t the kind of thing that happens here.”
Yoon’s death capped off Smith’s string of racially motivated shootings in the Midwest that holiday weekend.
Smith’s shooting spree began July 2, 1999, in West Rogers Park, Ill., where he wounded six Orthodox Jews on their way home from services. From there, he drove to Skokie, Ill., where he shot and killed former Northwestern University basketball coach Ricky Byrdsong, who was black, as he walked with his two children. Smith wounded three others in Illinois before driving to Bloomington.
After opening firing at Yoon, Smith fled to Illinois, where he carjacked a van in Ina, Ill., and was pursued by police in Salem, Ill. Smith shot himself and died later at a hospital.
Yoon packed his bags and left Seoul, South Korea, to move to the United States for his education. Leaving behind his parents and three sisters, Yoon pursued his passion for airplanes.
Yoon received his bachelor’s degree in aviation management and master’s degree in economics from Southern Illinois University. His passion and drive got him into an exclusive doctoral program in IU’s department of economics.
But before he could start, Yoon was killed – only a month and a half after moving to Bloomington.
Eight days after Yoon’s death, about 3,000 people packed into the Musical Arts Center to honor Yoon. Speakers at the service included Yoon’s family and then-U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno – showing how far the impact of Yoon’s death reached.
“With his death, gone are the dreams, hopes and happiness my family has had with my son, Won-Joon,” Shin Ho Yoon, the victim’s father, said. “He was gunned down by one insane, full of racial hatred, young American man.”
Smith’s racist behavior was known to the IU community.
Dean of Students Dick McKaig said Smith was caught putting fliers from the White Nationalist Party on cars outside the business school and school library in May 1998. The fliers targeted blacks, Jews, gays, Asians, interracial couples and liberalism. McKaig said he had met with Smith to let him know that IU had regulations about distributing fliers on campus.
Smith then began distributing fliers throughout Bloomington.
Freeman said she remembered Smith during a rally in November 1998 in Bloomington. The rally, “A Rally Against Hate,” was in response to the fliers Smith had been distributing. Freeman said Smith was the only one at the protest who was counter-protesting.
“I remember thinking to myself first of all that he looked very lonely in the middle of that large crowd of people, and that he was so much different from everyone else there,” she said. “I just remember feeling very perplexed and wondered if someone should come up to talk to him. It wasn’t inviting to go up and talk to him.”
10 years later
Freeman said while going through the motions, she didn’t know if there was anything else the University could have done differently.
“It turns out quite a few people had tried to talk to him in his time,” Freeman said about Smith. “He believed what he believed. I think, if anything, it just strengthened our resolve to not become complacent.”
McKaig echoed that sentiment, saying he doesn’t think anything could have necessarily prevented what happened, especially if Smith had felt unwelcome at IU.
“It was, in many respects, very hard to believe,” McKaig said. “It was very un-Bloomington like.”
But McKaig and Freeman recognize the importance of the event and the impact it had on the future of the University.
McKaig said the event sparked an emergence of campus groups to address issues of hate in the community. Even though there had been programs already underway on campus, he said, they took on a new meaning after the incident.
In fall 1999, the University changed its admissions policy by including a question on the application about a student’s possible criminal history. At the same time, then-IU President Myles Brand enacted a zero-tolerance policy to hate crimes committed on campus.
Chancellor Ken Gros Louis said after the Virginia Tech shooting, IU installed a notify system to alert students of a possible threat. But he said, even still, that doesn’t prevent random shootings from happening.
Freeman said at the time of Yoon’s death, she thought the University was already taking great measures to ensure these types of incidents wouldn’t happen. Freeman, who is also the director of Student Ethics and Anti-Harassment programs at IU, said the number of incidents since 1999 have decreased, but whether the decrease was a result of the racial incidents team is unknown.
Melanie Castillo-Cullather, director of the Asian Culture Center, said even though Yoon’s murder was a “horrific incident,” it should not define what IU is.
“The University and the community’s response showed the values of compassion and unity that really define IU,” she said in an e-mail.
Castillo-Cullather said the immediate reaction the Asian Culture Center took was to offer support to students to reassure them about their safety. She said after the incident, students felt encouraged to talk about their experiences with discrimination, even if it wasn’t a matter of life and death.
She said since then the University had adopted measures to encourage students to be civil when expressing differences of opinion.
“The University has also made clear that it will not sit back when it comes to people like Benjamin Smith,” she said.
About 30 people gathered Saturday at the Korean United Methodist Church to commemorate Yoon in a special 10-year anniversary service.
Patrick O’Meara, vice president of international affairs, said he recently met with Yoon’s parents in Korea. Yoon’s parents wanted to make the trip to Indiana, he said, but because of their old age, they decided not to.
“They are very anxious to hear how the legacy of their son is being remembered,” O’Meara said.
After the service ended, the church handed out flowers for guests to place on a memorial stone for Yoon outside of the building.
“I’m pleased that there is recognition,” Freeman said. “I think it’s important that we not forget history and that we just continue to be strong in our resolve to help people understand that we all are entitled to live in safety and peace and we don’t all have to be alike to do that.”