Tuesday, September 24, 2013

No more lion: US swimmers' 'prank' becomes 'diplomatic incident'

The 1988 Seoul Olympics

Part 1:  The Seoul Olympics, 25 years later
Part 2:  The 1988 Olympics and Korean fears of AIDS
Part 3: Americans and bad first impressions
Part 4: Reptilian Style: The 'live-or-die general war' against Hollywood
Part 5: An attack in a boxing ring
Part 6: Media responses to the boxing ring incident
Part 7:  No more lion: US swimmers' 'prank' becomes 'diplomatic incident'
Part 8:  KAIST catches Big Ben
Part 9:  Hankyoreh interviews Korean witness to theft by swimmers
Part 10: Stop me if you've heard this one: Four GIs head to Itaewon in a taxi...
Part 11: Taxi-kicking US runner taken to Itaewon police box
Part 12: NBC uses the power of t-shirts to insult Korea... again
Part 13: Cultivating outrage toward America
Part 14: Politicians engage in damage control
Part 15: Heaven on Earth
Part 16: Hustler magazine tramples the purity of the Korean race 
Part 17: Stolen gold

Part 7: No more lion: US swimmers' 'prank' becomes 'diplomatic incident'

On Saturday, September 24, 1988, the Kyunghyang Sinmun published the following (mostly translated) article:
Burglary by American swimming coach.
With two athletes in Itaewon… “A gold medal gone astray”

At 3:01 am on September 24 three drunken members of the American Olympic swimming team took advantage of the carelessness of employees of JJ Mahoneys bar at the Hyatt Hotel and stole and made off with a lion-shaped plaster figure hanging in a display case.

26 year old Lee Jun-hyeok, an employee of JJ Mahoneys who was looking for the statue, caught them drinking at the draft beer bar 'Jazz Hof' in Itaewon, about 600 meters away from the hotel, and turned them over to police.

At the police station they stubbornly denied it, saying "It wasn’t theft" and "We'll charge you instead" and caused a disturbance, saying of the recovered stolen statue, "It looked so fantastic, it was done just as a joke." As well, five Americans from the US embassy and US military who had gathered at the Yongsan police station upon hearing the news of their arrest prevented reporters from approaching them and reporting on it, and demanded that they be "unconditionally released for their next swimming competition."
The Korea Times reported on the incident the next day:


The 'concrete block' crack was part of what Koreans quickly asserted was the US media ignoring a serious crime, unlike when American news reports focused so much on the 'unfortunate' boxing 'ruckus' two days before the American swimmers were arrested. We'll return to that in the next post.

For those who are curious about what the 'statue' looked like, and the venue, below are photos taken last year:


Below is the entranceway into JJ Mahoneys from the outdoor parking lot:



On the walls are two types of 'plaster figures':



The mask above is the one which was taken, as we see below in this wonderful photo taken at the police station published by the Hankyoreh on September 25:


The next day the Hankyoreh published the following cartoon:


Cute. (It all rhymes in Korean.) You may be able to detect a hint of moral superiority.

What wasn't cute was the prolonged ordeal that the swimmers found themselves in. As the LA Times puts it,
Under normal circumstances, when the three young men walked out of the police station late last Saturday morning, that would have been the end of it. The Hyatt chose not to press charges. No one claimed to have been physically assaulted by the Americans. And a charge of drunk and disorderly here is almost always handled by the police and not even referred to the prosecutor[.]

But these are not ordinary circumstances. The Korean press focused an outraged reaction on the swimmers, always mentioning that NBC showed the boxing fracas time and time again while skipping lightly over the crime committed by the U.S. swimmers.
On Tuesday, September 27, the three Americans were taken to Yongsan Police Station for an hours-long interrogation, as this Korea Herald article from the following day reports:


The Korean media photographed and filmed the visit, and they appeared on TV often.



(Korea Herald caption for the photo above: "Troy Dalbey (second from left) and Douglas Gjertsen (second from right) present themselves at Yongsan Police Station yesterday morning to undergo questioning on charges of stealing a marble lion mask from a Seoul Hotel Saturday.")

On September 29 the Herald reported that their fate would be decided that day.


The next day the Herald reported on the final decision:
Prosecution drops theft charges against US swimmers, coach

The prosecution will not prosecute two US gold medal swimmers for stealing a marble carving from a Seoul hotel, the Korea Herald has learned.

Prosecutor Yoo Sung-su of the Seoul District Prosecutor’s Office said the formal announcement will be made today.

Swimmers Troy Dalbey, 19, Douglas Gjertsen, 20, and their coach Ernest Grynde, 26, were releaed by police Tuesday after a six hour interrogation amid growing public and media criticism of some unruly US athletes.

Grynde was freed without any charge. Prosecutors said they chose not to press charges against the swimmers because their offense is considered minor and they have publicly apologized.

Yoo said the Americans will be allowed to go home.

"The decision was made after hours of discussions by prosecutors and government officials, not by myself, because the case has snowballed into a diplomatic incident between Korea and the United States from what they called a ‘prank,’” he said.
Dalbey and 'Grynde' left Korea that day (September 30); here's the Korea Herald's article from the next day:


I'm not sure when Gjertsen left.

While that seems to end the tale, what is interesting is Gjertsen's version of what happened the night the mask was taken, and how they came to be in police custody.

On October 3, the day after the Olympics ended, the Atlanta Journal - Gjertsen's hometown paper - interviewed him in an article titled "Gjertsen's Night on Town Becomes Weeklong Ordeal; Swimmer Tells How Prank Branded Him 'Ugly American.'"

Two things are noteworthy about this interview. First, the three people involved in the incident were not allowed to talk to the press in Korea; and second, Gjertsen was the one person caught up in the incident who wasn't involved in the theft of the mask, which makes it less likely his testimony would be self-serving.

The LA Times introduced Gjertsen and Dalbey:
Gjertsen, a student at the University of Texas, had earlier won a gold medal as a part of the U.S. men's 800-meter relay team. Dalbey, who attended BYU and now lives in San Jose, had won a gold on that 800-meter relay team and had added a second gold medal Friday night in the 400-meter relay.
And here is the story Gjertsen told the Atlanta Journal:
Gjertsen and Dalbey had both finished competing. Gjertsen had won an unexpected second gold medal because he had been asked to swim in the 400-meter relay preliminaries [as an alternate].

"I was so excited after winning the relay, I couldn't have been feeling better," he said.

"With Troy's friend, Ernest Glenn Mangum, who lives in Tokyo [see the discussion of his identity in the LA Times article], we said, `Why don't we go down to Itaewon (the shopping district) tonight and do some of the things they've been telling us not to do - like eat.' We had been eating this crud food at the village. I had rice for 15 days straight for lunch and dinner, with some kind of various topping."

Mangum had met a Korean girl named Kim on the subway who offered to show them around. "You're in a foreign country, all you know how to say is thank you and hello," said Gjertsen. "To have someone with you felt a lot better.

They ate at a hibachi grill, then went to a couple of bars but didn't like the atmosphere. Kim suggested the Hyatt, which had a place called J.J. Mahoney's, a more American bar, though "a far cry from what I'd ever been used to," Gjertsen said. They stayed an hour, then Gjertsen was tired and ready to go.

"It had been quite a couple of days and I was just about out of juice," he said.
Gjertsen and Kim left, and went through an open-air walkway with the cement masks on the wall.

They got a cab and told Dalbey and Mangum to meet them at Itaewon.

"Lo and behold, they show up with this thing," Gjertsen said. "They just had it wrapped in a jeans jacket. It was 2 feet by 2 feet, but oblong. and weighed 50 or 60 pounds. They had to take turns carrying it.

"It looked like a hunk of concrete to me. They said, `Look what we got.' I thought it was funny at the beginning. `Guys, that's kind of neat.' But when they took it, there was no intention of harm coming to it."

They went to a restaurant, and set it down next to them.
This would have been the 'Jazz Hof' in Itaewon. Gjertsen left first, just as Hyatt personnel arrived (who didn't notice and walked past him, since he hadn't been involved).
When they saw the security men approach, Dalbey and Mangum hid the carving in the restaurant and denied they knew where it was. When the security men threatened to call police, they finally told where it was and figured the incident was over.
As the LA Times describes it,
Once Lee Joon Hyuk of the Hyatt staff arrived to claim it, and the Koreans on the scene realized that American Olympians had stolen a valuable item and were going to just walk away smiling, things got ugly.
The Atlanta Journal is the only paper I've read that actually reported what happened next. After leaving the bar and walking around, they decided to take a cab together. Gjertsen continues the story:
"Then the MPs walk up and say, `If you guys take this cab, you're taking your life into your hands.' So we got out. They thought we were GIs.

"Evidently some Korean or some Hyatt person said `Look, these are the people who stole this, blah, blah, blah,' and a crowd gathered and we got cornered. Within 20 seconds, we had 40 Koreans who were just screaming mad. They started pushing the MPs, hitting the MPs, the MPs started pushing them back, and some of the mob got to me, and they tore off my sweater and my shirt and my ID tag."

At first, they grabbed Gjertsen's sweater and pulled it over his head and had him by the arms. "They were hitting me in the face, and kicking me in the stomach and legs and hit me in the back," said Gjertsen. "I don't know how many times I got hit, but I got hit in the eye once and had a small shiner. I had scratch marks all over my back.
The introduction to the article lists some of the things he went through, including being 'Beaten by a screaming mob - while a pair of military policemen who had almost arrested him fought the mob with billy clubs - "I was scared for my life."'
"We finally got out of that situation, I got my clothes back on, the MPs walked us down to the police box, and we were kept there till about 6:30 for our own safety.

They couldn't go back to the athletes' village. "This was already way too big," Gjertsen said.

"I was scared for my life. I thought we might get bombed or get shot. I was thinking, my God, I'm going to die. I've never been that scared in my life, ever."

At about 7 a.m., they were taken to the police station and met with some USOC [US Olympic Committee] officials, who had been alerted. They got out at lunchtime after being told not to make a statement to police by a USOC attorney.
The Atlanta Journal also interviewed Gjertsen's mother, who was in Seoul, who wanted to get a separate lawyer for her son, but "The USOC insisted on trying the three of them together. They told me I was being divisive, that it was important they get the three of them out - I agree with that - but I did not want his good name associated with that." Even as it was becoming worldwide news, a USOC official told her that "This is going to blow over, there'll be no coverage of this in the press." Gjertsen would go on to call the USOC "a bunch of talk-heavy, do-nothing executives, all of them." (In fact, he credited the U.S. embassy with arranging his exit.) The USOC forbade them from talking to the press, which led to distortions:
On NBC, host "Bryant Gumbel said we had a brawl and were fighting with the Korean police, when in reality the Korean police were behind us 100 percent the whole time, and they are one of the reasons we got out as fast as we did."

He was on Korean TV constantly, "five times in one hour." He would see his face with a circle around it, or he would be shown giving his statement.
I don't know about the police, but the LA Times wrote that 'the prosecutor keeps referring to the "victim" and then explains that what the victim had suffered was "humiliation."'

The Atlanta Journal article talks about USOC's attempts at damage control.
They were sequestered except when they had to make a statement.[...]

"A man from the embassy said the USOC had no jurisdiction to hold him in a room incommunicado," said Mrs. Gjertsen, who didn't get to see her son for six days. "As an American, I thought the USOC would take care of my son." [...]
The USOC decided to kick the swimmers off the team and send them home. First they had to meet with police again, and did this from 11:15 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., the need for an interpreter doubling the time spent.

Mangum, Gjertsen and Dalbey

No one brought them food that evening. "That was very sad," said Gjertsen. "They really didn't give a hoot about us." [...]
Gjertsen said a USOC lawyer asked him to apologize in public and he agreed because "Troy would have lost his temper."
"I apologized to our gracious hosts in Seoul," he said sarcastically.
In spite of all of this, and
Although Gjertsen maintained his innocence, and the police investigation proved that he did not take the marble lion's mask, worth $830, from a Hyatt hotel, the USOC and U.S. Swimming, the national governing body, never issued a statement exonerating him of the theft.
Gjertsen still had to face sanctions from U.S. Swimming for breaking curfew and drinking, but after his ordeal, said, "I'm happy to face that."

As the LA Times put it,
No American official is about to be quoted on the subject, but there is no doubt that the anti-American sentiment here, brought to a seething peak by what Koreans perceived to be biased coverage by NBC of their boxing officials attacking a New Zealand referee, has stretched what could have been a brief, unfortunate incident into a political standoff.[...]

In the mask incident [...] the Korean press and the Korean people are not quick to forgive what they see as an insult, perpetrated by athletes, by young men who should be above such hooliganism.
There's more to say to about the press and police reaction to this incident (and it certainly wouldn't be the last time that media treatment of an arrest - especially of an American - would colour how his crime was dealt with) and how it "snowballed into a diplomatic incident." That's for another day, however.

3 comments:

Ben said...

Great to see this story finally told.

King Baeksu said...

Speaking as someone who committed a few notorious high-school pranks in his time, as well as graduating from a university with a tradition of repeatedly stealing a certain famous axe from a certain well-known West Coast school, all I can say is that the Koreans and the Korean media really need to lighten up in such cases. (Hey, it's our culture! Respect it!) Sure, play it up in the media because it's certainly newsworthy, but treat a prank as a prank and not a freaking international crime. I wouldn't be surprised if that mob tarred and feathered Ms. Kim, that shameless race traitor.

As for the Hankyoreh's attempt to be funny, that's the real crime!

K said...

Keep up the good work, Matt. I knew some GIs who stole the Colonel Sanders statue from outside the Itaewon KFC in 2001. They returned it and were back on the street the next day.