Kidnapping Trial: Did Mother Flee to Korea Out of Malice or Fear for Safety?

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photo by Lauren King, Vanguard Court Watch Intern
photo by Lauren King, Vanguard Court Watch Intern

The key question that jurors face in the trial of Nan-Hui Jo is whether in 2009, when she fled to Korea with her young daughter, she took her daughter with malice in defying a custody situation, or whether she did so to flee an abusive and irresponsible father in order to make a better life for herself and her daughter.

Deputy District Attorney Steve Mount argued that Ms. Jo knowingly and with malice circumvented California and American custody laws and unlawfully took the child of herself and Jesse Charlton to Korea, without letting the courts determine the issue of custody.

Deputy Public Defender Dean Johansson countered that this trial comes down to the mental state of the mother, did she act with malice? He argued that Mr. Charlton filed a late custody contention after he knew she planned to leave the country and that Ms. Jo simply proceeded to leave as planned, and failed to respond to emails after Mr. Charlton threatened to track her down with a bounty hunter.

The trial is high profile, as it received a full article in the Sacramento Bee on Friday. The Vanguard published a letter from supporters of Ms. Jo, who packed the courtroom on Friday, prompting Judge David Rosenberg to admonish the jury not to attempt to read the news on this story.

One juror was questioned after it was determined that the trial had been the subject of an email and conversation at his work. Despite his claims that he had no knowledge of the matter, Mr. Johansson asked that he be excused, but that was denied by Judge Rosenberg.

The case reached trial last December but the jury hung 6-6 on the only charge of kidnapping.

In his opening statement, DDA Mount noted that, according to the law, for a child born in California, both parents have 100 percent custody and only a judge can change that.

Jesse Charlton was 11 years younger than Nan-Hui Jo. Mr. Charlton was described by both sides as a “free spirit.” He moved from couch to couch with only his backpack, his skateboard and his camera.

He had joined the army and had done two tours of duty in Iraq. There, as the result of head injuries, he suffered from concussions, PTSD and traumatic brain injury (TBI).

In 2007, he was on 70 percent disability pay and, through the GI Bill, was taking courses at Sacramento City College when he met Ms. Jo. She had come from Korea in 2002 to attend USC Film School.

She had to drop out due to expense, and she ended up getting married for a second time and going back east, but that marriage fell apart. She moved back to California and took classes in photography, her main passion, at Sacramento City College, where the two would meet in late 2007.

Mr. Mount described that the relationship began as a friendship. They would travel around and take photos together, but by November 2007 they developed a romance.

Ms. Jo’s first marriage fell apart when her baby was stillborn. She was told after that that she could not get pregnant. However, in December 2007, she found out she was indeed pregnant again.

This was a miracle to Ms. Jo, but a shock to Mr. Charlton. They had a passionate but rocky relationship from the start and the pregnancy added further tension. She would go back to Korea in June 2008 and lost touch with Mr. Charlton, only to return a month later.

According to Mr. Mount, the money she had ran out and she sought child support from Mr. Charlton to “teach him a lesson about responsibility.”

By February 2009, DNA had verified that Mr. Charlton was the father and he began to pay child support. At this point, with the baby a few months old, a relationship re-started, at least with Ms. Jo attempting to get Mr. Charlton to bond with the child. A family began for the benefit of the child, and their romance resumed.

Fueling their fighting, however, was Jesse Charlton’s irresponsible behavior, his lack of gainful employment, and his tendency to view pornography on her computer as he watched the couple’s child.

Mr. Mount argued that, in July 2009, with her immigration status expiring, Ms. Jo asked him to marry him. He said no. She was still technically married and she became desperate, as this was the only way to stay in the country.

It was at this point that the arguments grew more intense. One incident Mr. Mount described was when Mr. Charlton got so angry he repeatedly punched the steering wheel of the car and left. Mr. Mount said that Mr. Charlton did not like to argue and his PTSD meant that when he argued he would simply leave.

He didn’t return after this argument and, instead, got drunk and got arrested.

In another incident, Mr. Mount said that Ms. Jo accused Mr. Charlton of cheating and threatened to go to Korea. Ms. Jo reportedly shoved the baby at him, causing them to collide heads. Mr. Charlton responded by throwing her against the wall by the throat. This was the end of their living together.

Things escalated from there. A court date was set for November of 2009. She moved out and went to southern California to stay with Mr. Charlton’s biological father. Mr. Mount said that, at this point, she got a lawyer who advised her that the only mistake she could make in the custody dispute was not to show up in court.

Instead, she booked a flight to Korea and left. She denied the rights to Mr. Charlton to have his day in court.

He would go to Yolo Child Abduction Unit, which attempted to contact Ms. Jo via email. Eventually, by January 2010, she stopped responding, despite pleas by Mr. Charlton to allow her to have contact with their daughter.

Because there was no agreement between the US and Korea on custody issues, there was no civil means to enforce a US custody decision in Korea.

However, the State Department attempted to contact Ms. Jo in Korea during the five years she was there to do a welfare check on the child, a US citizen, but she either refused or ignored the request.

Finally, in July 2014, she filed for a visa to come back to the US. The Sacramento Superior Court issued an order to seize and return the child.

They flew to Hawaii in July of 2014 and were immediately arrested, upon landing, by Customs and flown back to Yolo County.

The child was given to the father. They had to do extensive reunification efforts and the child, now six, had no idea what had happened. According to Mr. Mount, Ms. Jo had told the child, “You’re special, you don’t have a father.”

The defense countered that this is a case that boils down to intent and, specifically, what was the intent of the mother when she fled the country. The facts in this case are fairly well-established, the details are widely divergent and Mr. Johansson subtly questioned the DA’s account of those details.

The keys to the trial are the events in 2007 and 2008, Mr. Johansson posited. Mr. Johansson argued that the two widely diverged on their reaction to the pregnancy. Ms. Jo viewed this as a miracle child after being told she could never get pregnant again and Mr. Charlton was completely unaccepting of the pregnancy and tried to convince Ms. Jo to get an abortion and tried to have his family convince her to give the baby up for adoption.

Mr. Charlton was described as a free spirit with literally three possessions – skateboard, backpack and camera. As noted above, he was receiving 70 percent disability, and his condition caused memory problems, depression and difficulty with anger control.

During this time period, he was going from couch to couch and the two were not living together. She went to school and was working, and Mr. Johansson argued that Mr. Charlton at this time was at no time providing the proper environment for the baby.

He said that Mr. Charlton put Ms. Jo on the plane to Korea and she left. But a month later she returned to resume her schooling. The two made no effort to contact each other until she applied for government assistance, which kicked in the entire welfare system which starts by attempting to identify the father.

He attempted to deny he knew Ms. Jo to avoid responsibility, but the paternity test established him as the father. When they got back together, it was her house, her lease, she was the responsible party and, if anything, he was freeloading off her.

Mr. Johansson cited court testimony from the previous trial (without stating it had come from a previous trial), where Mr. Charlton admitted that he picked her up by the throat and slammed her against the wall. Moreover, he twice broke his hand slamming it and punching his steering wheel.

She was concerned that if he had hurt her, he would do it to the child also. She was also concerned that he was watching pornography, which Mr. Johansson claimed was not the run of the mill, ordinary porn, but violent porn, at times when he was watching the baby.

These incidents, along with her mounting immigration issues and Mr. Charlton’s refusal to help her by marriage, led to her packing up her stuff and putting her belongings in storage.

She took money so that she could leave. Mr. Charlton became angry because she had taken money out of their joint account and, at the last possible moment, he started a court action to attempt to prevent her from leaving.

Ms. Jo went to southern California to stay with the family of Mr. Charlton. Mr. Charlton was making threats. She had not been served, at this point, and when she went to get an attorney, she was advised to leave the family members so that she could not be formally served.

Amid all of this, she left for South Korea. Mr. Johansson pointed out that Mr. Mount made a point that Ms. Jo was ducking Charlton’s email messages, but Mr. Johansson argued that Mr. Mount failed to note how the emails begin. Mr. Charlton threatened Ms. Jo. He told her that his friend is a bounty hunter and that she would be hunted down.

Ms. Jo struggled in South Korea to make ends meet and raise her daughter by herself.

In the end, Mr. Johansson argued this comes down to mental state. The domestic violence forced her hand to leave in fear for her safety. She failed to really understand how the legal system works. And she returned to the US voluntarily, not realizing that she was marked and would be arrested.

The child has been taken away and the defendant has not been able to see her daughter in the seven or eight months since her arrest.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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23 thoughts on “Kidnapping Trial: Did Mother Flee to Korea Out of Malice or Fear for Safety?”

  1. Biddlin

    Poor child. Hopefully she is being closely monitored while in her father’s custody, lest he become provoked, harm her and/or just abandon her. This seems to be the rare case where the child would be better off in foster care.

    ;>)/

      1. ChoiceDads

        David,

        I was reading the Davis Vanguard’s coverage of this trial as being unbiased.   With the comment above there are two ways I can interpret the comment and one way would completely preclude me viewing the Davis Vanguard as being biased.

        My two possible interpretation of the comment are:

        1.  As a foster parent commenting on this case you believe that neither parent is fit and therefore the child should be in foster care.

        or

        2.  As a foster parent commenting on this case you believe that the father is not a fit parent and therefore the child should be in foster care.

        While the first of the two possibilities is concerning to me for it’s own reason at least is seems to indicate a bias against both mother and father, if the second possibility is the correct interpretation it seems that the publication you founded, edit and are the executive director of would not be a source of unbiased reporting.

        Could you clarify if your view is in line with either of my assumptions (which do make an ass-u-me) or if it was some other point you were making?

        Kind Regards,
        Choice Dads

        1. ChoiceDads

          I found your comment further down clarifying your position.   Thank You.

           

          “David Greenwald 

          February 22, 2015 at 8:10 am

          Just to be clear, I was responding to the misperception about foster parents in the other post rather than whether the child in this case should have been placed with a foster family. I tend to agree with with the rest of your comment.”

  2. Biddlin

    As  foster parents, you and Camilla are exceptional and blessings be upon you, for that. Too many, in my experience, in a largely under-monitored system, view the gift of a child as merely another cash entitlement .

    ;>)/

  3. Davis Progressive

    the evidence in this case will decide how the jury rules.  it seems a little silly for the da to try again on a 6-6 vote.  johansson is an excellent attorney and there is plenty of doubt from what i can see.  this once again illustrates the folly of the legal system’s unanimity requirement.  doesn’t a 6-6 vote by definition connote “reasonable doubt” as we understand the definition.

    1. sisterhood

      I agree, 6-6 seems like there is a reasonable doubt. I have mixed feelings. Not sure women (or men) should get to jump to the front of the immigration line just because they marry an American citizen or have his child.
      “…where Mr. Charlton admitted that he picked her up by the throat and slammed her against the wall. Moreover, he twice broke his hand slamming it and punching his steering wheel.”
      If he is found to be guilty of domestic abuse, he should not be allowed to continue to teach kids, until he successfully completes anger management therapy.

  4. Anon

    These incidents, along with her mounting immigration issues and Mr. Charlton’s refusal to help her by marriage, led to her packing up her stuff and putting her belongings in storage.”

    If she was so concerned about Charlton’s abuse, then why marry him other than to obtain a green card?  Can’t help feeling this was her modus operandi all along.  However, I only am gleaning from what I am reading, and not sitting in the courtroom listening to all the testimony.

    1. Ann Block

      Because that is what often happens to women who are victims of domestic violence, Anon.  They think and hope their abusers will change.  Some marry because they believe that stability will help the abuser to change.  Or perhaps she hoped her daughter would have an ongoing relationship with her father, and that being married would help Mr. Charlton grow up.  In any event, if she no longer had immigration status, she was supposed to leave according to federal law.  Do you think she should have left her baby in the U.S. alone with an admittedly irresponsible, brain damaged, violent, porn-addicted skateboarder?  Or should she have overstayed her visa and remained in the U.S. illegally, with Mr. Charlton perhaps threatening to have her deported?  That is something abusers also do, quite often.

      1. zaqzaq

        Isn’t the father a school teacher in West Sacramento?

        What I find interesting in the defendant’s opening statement is the below.

        “She had not been served, at this point, and when she went to get an attorney, she was advised to leave the family members so that she could not be formally served.”  

        This indicates that she is actively avoiding going to family court where a judge will determine the custody of the child presumably giving the father some custody rights.  Sounds like she received legal counsel before she took the child.  I wonder if that attorney advised her that leaving the country was the best way to deny the father access to the child?  I would assume that a responsible attorney would explain how to obtain a restraining order and how to litigate custody issues BEFORE leaving the country.  I would also imagine that there must be ways to obtain a visa in order to determine custody of the child.    By going to Korea she circumvents the authority of the Sacramento Court and denies the father access to his child.  Sounds like the defense just admitted malice.

      2. sisterhood

        Are there medical reports that specifically state he has an addiction to porn, or is that something you decided because you do not like porn? Playboy and Penthouse are perfectly legal. I have no issues with adult porn if the people in the photos and movies give their consent and they are not high. It’s a shame that so many folks have issues with porn, but have no issues with gun ownership. I’d rather the dad have adult porn and a skateboard in his home than guns. When the child gets older, perhaps the dad can teach him or her how to skateboard. How is getting exercise a bad thing?

        Is he irresponsible, in your opinion, because he does not have a steady job, (one reader claims he is a teacher) or because he isn’t concerned about material possesions, because he hit a woman, or because he did not pay child support?

        Curious why you loathe skateboarders?

  5. Ann Block

    One also wonders why the Yolo County D.A. is prosecuting this case — in fact prosecuting it TWICE after 6 jurors found a reasonable doubt…  Is keeping mom separated from daughter for 8 months good for the little girl?  D.A. is wasting taxpayers money on something that should be resolved in family court with a family court mediator and child advocate helping to determine what is in the best interests of the child.  Maybe the D.A. didn’t know all the facts when Mr. Charlton filed his “child abduction claim” — but that is no longer the case.  This second trial makes no sense other than a very political D.A. trying to save face.  The “grown-up” thing to do, Mr. Reisig, would be to facilitate these two parents’ ability to go to family court, present their respective cases regarding fitness to parent, and assist Ms. Jo in any way possible to obtain an immigration status that would allow her to stay and work here and allow Mr. Charlton to see/visit his daughter, with shared custody if and when he is truly fit to have it.

    1. David Greenwald Post author

      Especially since in the Bee article the lawyers felt the most likely outcome even in a guilty verdict would be time-served. But that would also mean that she would lose any chance at the immigration status staying in the country.

    2. zaqzaq

      Is there some reason why this case has not proceeded in family court in Sacramento?  She could be transported to Sacramento for appearances or appear by phone.  She has an attorney assisting her there.   If she is in the Yolo County Jail wouldn’t it be the sheriff who would facilitate getting Ms. Jo to and from family court?  I am not sure why any responsible judge in Sac would allow any unsupervised visitation between the mother and child for fear that she would once again flee to Korea.

      I always thought that the DA had no role in immigration issues.  If the case is dismissed, how would the DA assist Ms. Jo in remaining in this country?  With no criminal case there would be no role for the DA.

      1. Ann Block

        Then zaqzaq, why is your office (D.A.) in such close contact with ICE if you have “no role”?  And yes, absolutely, the D.A. could ask ICE to stay her deportation to allow custody proceedings to occur.  That is definitely a “role” the D.A. could play.   But instead the D.A. collaborates with ICE to refuse her any chance to show she is the more fit parent?  You of course don’t really believe transporting her to family court from jail and back will resolve anything, at least nothing in a truly just manner.  How could a family court judge possibly award custody to a mom who is presently in jail??  The child is supposed to go live with mom in jail?   Quite a disingenuous argument by the D.A.’s office here.  Its too bad the D.A. isn’t really wanting “justice” — which should be the D.A. mission, not just “winning” a case. Instead, the D.A., using taxpayers’ money, is doing his best to assist a vengeful violent dad separate a mother from her 6 year old, perhaps forever. Why doesn’t the D.A. care about the traumatic separation of a 6 year old from the mother who has raised her? Mr. Charlton has admitted to bad parenting (watching porn while watching his daughter), irresponsibility, domestic violence. There is no evidence of the same with respect to Ms. Jo. Why isn’t the child’s best interest more important here than the D.A. winning a “high profile” case?

  6. Biddlin

    Dragging her child across the globe in a flight from justice, without funds, friends or a plan seems sufficiently irresponsible to infer unfitness on the mother’s part. Neither parent demonstrates any degree of maturity, imo.

    ;>)/

    1. Ann Block

      Biddlin, your statement doesn’t really make sense.  She was told by the federal government to leave, she didn’t have the right to stay here.  And she was returning home, as well as fleeing an abusive situation with the daughter she had raised from babyhood.  How is that “dragging her child across the globe, etc. etc.”  She presumably has family in Korea, no doubt also friends there as well, was working there supporting her daughter before taking her to Hawaii to learn English.  What “irresponsibility” is demonstrated by any of these actions?  On the contrary, she was complying with the U.S. gov’t’s order, she was doing everything possible to protect her baby, including taking the baby home to Korea, and working there to support the child and raise her.

      1. Biddlin

        “She was told by the federal government to leave, she didn’t have the right to stay here.”

        But her daughter, a US citizen, did not have to leave. Apparently she was quite safe with her paternal grandfather.

        “She presumably has family in Korea, no doubt also friends there as well, …”

        Who, if they are other than you presumption,  apparently were of little or no assistance to her.

        “Ms. Jo struggled in South Korea to make ends meet and raise her daughter by herself”

        You know, after reading some more about this case, I still have reservations about either parent’s fitness to care for their daughter, but at least the father has made proactive lifestyle changes and seems to have the child’s best interests at heart.

        ;>)/

         

  7. jdawn83

    I’m sure you are a wonderful foster parent and I know other people who are amazing foster parents as well but I feel thats not the norm, I may be wrong though. Anyhow this women made a mistake fleeing the country and not allowing the biological father contact, she also has had to pay for that mistake. I feel this case has been taken way to far, borderline ridiculous, however I don’t know the whole story. Also I don’t know if I believe she was abused by the child’s father. Sounds like they had difficult time geting along and his TBI contributes to his behavior (becoming frustrated easy etc) but why assume she is a battered women? They are both at fault but it just seems this has all gone way to far.

    1. David Greenwald Post author

      Just to be clear, I was responding to the misperception about foster parents in the other post rather than whether the child in this case should have been placed with a foster family. I tend to agree with with the rest of your comment.

  8. Tia Will

    jdawn83

    Also I don’t know if I believe she was abused by the child’s father”

    Going only by the information presented here, how would one not know she was abused.

    Being grabbed by the neck and thrown against the wall would seem to me to be a clear case of physical abuse and does not appear to be being contested. How many cases of physical aggression does it take to be considered abusive ? Which one of you if you felt that you and your child might be physically harmed, would not do what you could to protect yourself and your child ? I feel the mistake was not in taking the child and leaving, but rather returning.

    What seems to be being lost here is the well being of the child which is being sacrificed to the “rights” of the parents. How could anyone believe that it is in the best interest of a child to be separated from the only parent that she has ever known and placed in the care of a stranger who avowedly did not want her in the first place, urged the pregnancy be terminated or the child adopted out and only belatedly decided that he wanted to play father after all.

    It would appear that at least in this case, the jury of public opinion is also hung.

    1. Ann Block

      “What seems to be being lost here is the well being of the child which is being sacrificed to the “rights” of the parents. How could anyone believe that it is in the best interest of a child to be separated from the only parent that she has ever known and placed in the care of a stranger who avowedly did not want her in the first place, urged the pregnancy be terminated or the child adopted out and only belatedly decided that he wanted to play father after all.”

      Well said, Tia, well said.

      “It would appear that at least in this case, the jury of public opinion is also hung.”

      Especially if you include the D.A.’s office as part of the “public” since they keep posting here, albeit anonymously…. One wonders if anyone else has a connection to the dad, based on the comments.   I know neither dad nor mom personally, but just find it outrageous and disturbing that my own county’s D.A. is using my money to prosecute the mom and has cared nothing about the child’s best interests.  Thanks for posting as youself, Tia.

       

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