Over the Edge
07/03/2006 at 01:00 AM EDT
Perkins Memorial Drive provides some of the most beautiful vistas in New York's Bear Mountain State Park, with views of the Hudson River and the nearby U.S. Military Academy at West Point. But when Chris Huslinger, the chief of the local Stony Point Fire Dept., arrived at the overlook on June 14, he saw only horror: Some 300 feet down the side of the cliff lay a Honda minivan, nearly crushed. Not long afterward, rescuers brought up Victor Han, 34, who began crying hysterically, trying to console his two children, Ariana, 5, and Etana, 3, who had been inside. Han's wife, Hejin, had been pulled free, bloodied and fatally injured, by her husband and some passing hikers. It all seemed like a terrible accident—except for one thing: The van had plunged over the side in the one place where there were no boulders to act as a barrier. "Everywhere else there are rocks all over the place," says Huslinger. "We got talking that things weren't the way they appeared."
Over the course of the next two days, police questioned Han, an architect. In a statement to investigators, he said that his wife had been "depressed" and that she had locked the door and had deliberately run the van off the cliff when he got out to take a photograph. (The two girls—both of whom were strapped in in the backseat—miraculously suffered only minor scrapes.) "I ran to the car and screamed, 'Stop the car. Stop the car,'" he said. "I tried grabbing at the car but could not grab at anything. I see the car go down rolling and I hear screams. It stops and I see a puff of smoke." Authorities quickly concluded there was much more to the story. Two days later prosecutors charged Han with aiding his wife's suicide, a felony, on the grounds that he "left his vehicle knowing that his wife was suicidal and that she had earlier threatened to harm herself and their two children," according to a police statement.
The incident stunned the Korean-American church community in Queens, N.Y., where Victor was a highly respected Bible-school teacher, especially when it emerged that he had been having an affair with a woman, Tiana Yin, who worked as an assistant at his office. In his deposition to cops, Victor acknowledged that at the time of the incident he knew his wife was "upset" and that he sensed that she might have a desire to kill herself—without explaining why she was distraught. But he insisted he did not believe she would carry out her threats because, as he put it, "I felt she would not kill herself in front of anyone."
Family and friends of the couple rallied to Victor's defense. Indeed, Victor's sister Ki Han says that Hejin's mother and father had invited her brother to have dinner once he made bail. "We are all here to support Victor," says Ki. "We all believe all the charges are erroneous." Anthony Barbagallo, a builder who worked with Victor, recalls running into him on the morning in question and having a routine conversation about business. "If I was going to kill my wife I wouldn't be like, 'Oh, yeah, I'll see you tomorrow,'" says Barbagallo. What's more, Victor also seemed devoted to his kids, whom he sometimes brought with him to Bible class. "There is no way on earth he would allow his wife to go kill herself with the children," says Atef Helmy, a neighbor and close friend of the Hans'. Still, Yin, Victor's mistress, told police there had been times when she wanted him to stay with her longer but that he would insist on heading home, explaining that Hejin had threatened to harm the kids.
Should Han have taken such threats more seriously? "A lot of spouses say, 'Oh, if you're going to leave, I'm going to kill myself,'" says Helmy. "It's just a way to get your attention." Indeed, Yin added that for all their marital troubles, Victor and Hejin, who had known each other since high school, remained deeply bonded to each other. "In the bottom of my heart," she told police, "I always know Victor will choose his wife over me." The couple's church friends refused to believe that Hejin had even committed suicide, much less that Victor could have been complicit. "Everybody is very shocked," says church elder Young Young. "They are a very nice family, a happy family." That cheery image has now given way to numbed grieving all around. Fire chief Huslinger recalls seeing Victor Han leaning with his two girls against a police car at the scene, struggling to get his own emotions under control and at the same time comfort the children, who seemed dazed. "He was trying to be dad," says Huslinger, "but he was also distraught over what just happened to his wife."