12/08/1997 at 01:00 AM EST
AS SIBLING RIVALRIES GO, INSISTED SUNNY HAN, HERS with her identical twin, Jeen, was nothing unusual. Sure the two girls "hit, scratched and pinched each other" over the years, Sunny conceded, but deep down they always remained best friends. "We went shopping, we watched movies all the time," said Sunny, 23. "I tell her everything." Which didn't quite explain why Sunny was telling a tale of familial devotion in a Santa Ana, Calif., courtroom, where Jeen and two teenage accomplices were on trial for plotting to kill her. On the stand, Sunny was inclined to downplay the whole thing. "Come on, we are sisters," she said. "We fight, but we don't kill each other."
But not for want of trying, the jury ultimately decided. On Nov. 20, Jeen, also known as Gina, was convicted with codefendants Archie Bryant, 17, and John Sayarath, 16, of attacking Sunny and her roommate at their apartment in Irvine, Calif., a year ago, in what was apparently planned as a revenge murder stemming from a falling out between the two sisters that went well beyond scratching and pinching. Before the trial, the case was billed by police as a morality tale: "evil twin" vs. "good twin." But in the end it seemed to come down to something a bit more ambiguous.
The tension between the Han sisters may have gone all the way back to their infancy in South Korea. As the older (by five minutes), Sunny enjoyed the status of favored child in Korean culture, which attaches great importance to family birth order, even in the case of twins. The girls came to the U.S. 11 years ago with their mother, leaving behind their father, Yun Heo, an engineer. Their home life was unstable, largely as a result of their mother's drinking and gambling. At 17 the girls ended up living with a cousin in rural Campo, Calif., 45 miles east of San Diego. In two years of school there, they distinguished themselves as outstanding students and at graduation were co-valedictorians with three other classmates. By all accounts, the girls got along well—were inseparable, in fact—but the seeds of Gina's resentment may already have been present. At school, Sunny was more popular—"She's more outgoing, laughs easier and meets strangers easier," according to Charlene Mitchell, who was food service director at Mountain Empire High School—while Gina was more withdrawn and less confident.
After high school, their lives began to diverge. Gina took a job dealing blackjack at an Indian reservation casino in Lakeside, Calif., which turned out to be a mixed blessing. Though she earned good money, she also began gambling herself. By early last year she was deeply in debt. Meanwhile, Sunny seemed to be prospering. Enrolled as a student at the University of La Verne, 25 miles east of L.A., she drove a BMW and wore expensive clothes.
Where, exactly, she got the money for all that remains a bit of a mystery, though there was unflattering speculation about it. Responding to the rumors and innuendo, Sunny went on The Leeza Show this year to declare, "I am not a topless dancer at a bar, I'm not a prostitute, and I'm not a drug dealer." Yet not all her income was legitimate. In 1993, Sunny stole a friend's credit card and went on a $1,300 shopping spree, buying lingerie, jeans, sunglasses and shoes. She reportedly told police in La Verne she didn't think the victim would mind because her family is "very rich."
Sunny was far less blasé last year when victimized in a similar scam. In May 1996, following a series of arguments with her sister, she confronted Gina, accusing her of stealing her credit cards and her car. (In all, it turned out, Gina had stolen $40,000 from family and friends to cover her gambling losses.) The showdown quickly turned violent. "I don't know if I hit her with the phone or punched her in the face," Sunny later testified. In any event, Sunny pressed charges against her sister, who was also arrested for burglary and grand theft. Copping a plea to the various counts, Gina was sentenced to jail time but could participate in a work furlough program, which allowed her to hold a job during the day.
In late October of last year, free on a pass, Gina fled and, according to prosecutors, set out to kill Sunny. On Nov. 6, Gina waited in a car, while Bryant and Sayarath went up to Sunny's apartment. Posing as a magazine salesman, Bryant knocked on the door. When Sunny's roommate, Helen Kim, refused to let him in, Bryant, brandishing a gun, pushed his way in and tied her up. Hearing the commotion, Sunny, in the next room, called 911 just before she was grabbed, bound and blindfolded, and forced to squat in the bathtub with Kim. When police arrived they arrested Bryant, but Gina and Sayarath got away in the confusion. At first, Sunny had no idea her sister might be involved. But when Gina and Sayarath were arrested not long after trying to buy a car using Sunny's credit card, the realization hit her hard. "She didn't have a clue," Lt. Tom Hume of the Irvine police told the Los Angeles Times. "When she was told by police, she was visibly shaken."
But according to her defense attorney, Roger Alexander, Gina never meant to harm anyone. At the trial, Alexander maintained that she had simply enlisted Bryant and Sayarath, whom she had met only the day before, to protect her while she went to retrieve some belongings from Sunny's place. But prosecutors produced evidence that several hours before the attack, Gina and her two accomplices had purchased twine, gloves and duct tape at a supermarket in Irvine. They also produced two acquaintances of Gina's, Robyn Weatherby, 19, and Arkisha Moore, 18, who testified that Han had asked them if they knew anyone who could kill her sister. "I want this bitch dead," Moore said Gina told her.
The prosecution's case did hit one bump when, on the second day of her testimony, Sunny appeared looking dazed and disoriented. She told the court she had taken more than two dozen over-the-counter sleeping pills and was immediately rushed to a hospital. She first said she had gotten into a fight with her mother and had broken up with her boyfriend. But she later explained that she had been distraught about being a witness against Gina, who she believes may be innocent. "I didn't want to go back to court," Sunny said. "I thought maybe if I don't testify...it will be better for my sister." With the verdicts—guilty on multiple counts, including conspiracy to commit murder—Gina was left facing the possibility of life in prison, which left Sunny feeling deeply remorseful. "When you think about whose fault it is [for Gina's conviction], it's probably my fault," she told The Orange County Register.
But Sunny's anguish over her sister's fate may amount to less than she would like it to seem. She has acknowledged already making $10,000 from TV's Hard Copy. Asked about reports that she might be considering a lucrative movie deal, she did not appear to be suffering a crisis of conscience. "If somebody says they are going to give $100,000 or $200,000 just for me to talk," she said innocently, "I mean, I don't see what's wrong with doing that."
JEANNE GORDON in Los Angeles