CINCINNATI (AP) — He’ll never forget the howls.
Cincinnati police Sgt. Hank Ward was at the hospital. He had taken Jessica Kim and her three boys there to see their father.
Police Officer Sonny Kim, the best man at Ward’s wedding, had been shot to death earlier that morning. His boys would never see him alive again. When they saw him lying there, they screamed.
When describing his job as a police officer, Ward often says his eyes are much older than he is. On that day, everything aged.
It was June 19, 2015. Kim had the day off. He didn’t tell Ward he picked up an overtime shift. So when Ward got the frantic call about his friend’s shooting, he didn’t believe it.
“It doesn’t look good,” the sergeant told Ward. “You need to get down to UC.”
“You’re mistaken,” he replied.
The sergeant told him again — and again.
Kim was still at home, he was sure of it. He had spoken to him an hour and a half ago. The painter working at Ward’s house had just visited Kim to give him an estimate for future work there.
He found out Kim was dead while driving to the hospital.
Ward doesn’t remember anything when he got there. Not the cops. Not the doctors.
Officers drove to the Kim home and delivered the news to his widow. She wouldn’t leave the house.
Ward had to go get her. When they got back to the hospital this time, he remembers everything.
Trepierre Hummons had been drinking. He was distraught because he girlfriend filed rape charges against him the night before.
It was 9:03 a.m. when Hummons called 911. He warned police there was a man in his Madisonville neighborhood acting belligerently with a gun.
It was 9:10 a.m. when he called 911 again. The man with the gun was Hummons.
Officer Kim, 48, arrived and began speaking with Hummons’ mom near the intersection of Roe Street and Whetsel Avenue. Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters said Hummons stepped around his mother and began firing.
It was an ambush, Deters said.
Police Spc. Tom Sandmann shot and killed Hummons. An investigation by the prosecutor’s office found no fault with that.
To this day, Ward can’t drive by that intersection.
Ward and Kim used to be partners. They rode together every day for two years while patrolling Kennedy Heights. But their friendship started long before that.
They met in eighth grade at Norwood, when Kim was staying with his aunt. The two bonded over being the short guys in high school.
At the police department, they carpooled to the office and even spent their off days together. Ward worked on Sonny’s cars and they made regular visits to Ward’s family in West Virginia.
“He was truly a family member,” Ward said.
There was that one time that Kim saved his friend’s life.
It was a run for “family trouble.” A father and son were drunk. The dad had shot their dog in the backyard. The two police officers separated the two family members.
Ward turned his back and the son picked up the gun. Kim acted quickly and took the gun from him.
“He always had my back like that,” Ward said. “I felt very safe working with Sonny.”
If someone like Kim could die in that way, it could happen to anyone.
Ward didn’t take extra time off work. He didn’t speak to the clergy who came to the department. He pretended he was OK, if only for the officers he commanded, many of whom had no idea about his relationship with Kim.
He saw the empty chair Kim used to sit in every day during roll call. He stopped eating and lost 40 pounds in three weeks. He couldn’t even spend time with Kim’s children because his middle son looked and acted too much like his father.
Ward describes the days and months after Kim died as a performance. He refers to it as his clown makeup. It’s the persona he puts on for work. He laughed, joked and entertained.
But at the end of the day, with the makeup off, he had nothing left to give to his family. His wife worried about him.
Six months later, his family didn’t celebrate Christmas.
Then, on New Year’s Eve, Ward visited Kim’s grave. He’d often been asked whether he’d visited it.
“No,” he always replied. “I see Sonny every day.”
But something needed to change. He needed to be able to talk to Kim’s children. He needed to be able to share his story with other officers. He spent 15 minutes there speaking to Kim.
“Give me a break,” he said. “I have to start moving on my own.”
Kim swore at him, Ward said, and told him to straighten up.
It was a light-switch moment. He felt it immediately. He could say Kim’s name and look at pictures without crying.
It wasn’t a performance anymore.
In Sonny Kim’s old dojo, there are no medals or trophies. Not because he didn’t win them – Kim was beating grown men by the time he was 14 – but he didn’t need them.
Umang Joshi, a Sycamore High School student, has been training at Japanese Karate-Do for about eight years. At times, he can still hear Kim telling him to keep his heel down while fighting.
Joshi says Sonny was the toughest person he’s ever known. So he understands why most accounts of Kim’s life turned him into a hero.
But he wouldn’t want to be remembered that way, Joshi said. He would want to be remembered as a simple man.
Because he wasn’t perfect. Ward says he was a terrible driver, and a former karate instructor says they once failed at an attempt to start a cosmetics business.
His dojo in a Symmes Township strip mall is now being run by Rob Grossheim and Marc Silverman.
During a recent class, Grossheim marveled at the way Kim wouldn’t give his students the answers, but pushed them to find it within themselves.
“You want a black belt? Give me $2.50. That’s what it cost me,” Kim would say. “It’s not about the belt. It’s about what you did to get it.”
“He was very much a builder of people that way,” said Grossheim.
The students file in, each with their own relationship to Kim, bowing as they enter.
Ari Kirsch spent a night last week watching videos of Kim training and fighting. He couldn’t finish them.
“It was like he was in that room with me,” said Kirsh. “I didn’t watch it all because I wanted it to last longer.”
Kirsh, a 23-year-old student at Ohio State University, has trained with Sonny since he was 5. There is, and was, no adult’s opinion he values more.
A few years ago, Kirsh was trying to decide whether to accept scholarship money or enroll in a program that would take him to Israel for a time. He couldn’t do both.
It was a huge decision for him. One that he wouldn’t even talk to his sister about it. Other than his parents, the only people he confided with were his rabbi and Kim.
He spoke to Kim first.
Cincinnati Police Specialist Buddy Blankenship reaches for his phone. He straightens his tie. He doesn’t say anything. He is trying to compose himself.
Blankenship met Kim while studying criminal justice at the University of Cincinnati. Blankenship didn’t want to be a Cincinnati police officer. He changed his mind once Kim became one.
Blankenship is recounting his trip last month to Washington, D.C., where his friend’s name is now on the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial. It was National Police Week. Blankenship accompanied Jessica Kim and her children.
Jessica does not like going to these things. Her close friends say she is an intensely private person who moved to the United States from Korea shortly before she met Sonny.
She didn’t speak English very well at first. Blankenship says this kept her from developing an outgoing personality. Instead, she focused on her husband and then their three children together.
“She has not wanted to be the focal point,” said Blankenship. “But she thought it was important for her sons.”
So she has participated in fundraisers and memorial events. Always front and center. Just last weekend, two of her children gave the customary “start your engines” call before a motorcycle ride in Sonny’s honor. She declined an interview request from The Enquirer.
As part of her trip to D.C., Jessica stayed in a hotel with family members of other fallen police officers. She spoke with them. And after all the pomp and circumstance of the official ceremony was over, she went back to the memorial the next day.
This is when Blankenship pauses. His eyes well up.
“She said she was very thankful to live in Cincinnati,” he said.
He met Sonny Kim for a reason. It’s clear now. There was something bigger at play.
Terry Schildmeyer was in the emergency room when a doctor asked Jessica Kim if there was a funeral home she wanted to contact. She pointed at Schildmeyer.
“No one but him,” she said.
Schildmeyer is the chief operating officer of the Tufts Schildmeyer Funeral Home. It’s a family business for him. Something he’s done for 30 years. He’s also lived next door to Sonny and Jessica Kim for about 20 years.
The families vacationed together. Schildmeyer’s son is going to UC – largely, his father thinks, because that’s where Kim’s oldest son is going. One of her other sons, Joshua, is working for Schildmeyer this summer. On a recent afternoon, he is moving mulch outside the funeral home’s Loveland location.
Inside, Schildmeyer laughs a lot. Sometimes in disbelief. He saw Kim in his driveway before he left on June 19, 2015.
“I can’t believe it’s been a year,” he said.
The second year after a death is often the toughest, Schildmeyer said.
It’s been a chaotic year for the Kim family, and Jessica, in particular. But now there are no more funerals to plan. There have been public memorials, fundraisers and other events honoring Sonny Kim. As time goes on, those will become less frequent, and the media coverage will stop.
But he will still be dead.
Howard Berry didn’t know Sonny Kim.
It didn’t matter. He visits his grave every week.
When Kim died, Berry made a promise to the family. Although because he’s never met them, it was more of a promise to himself.
Before the sun sets, there will always be an American flag marking Kim’s grave. On Tuesday, after maintenance crews cleaned up the flag he put there before, Berry kneeled down and placed another small flag in the ground.
He didn’t say anything, and after a short time, he left.
Berry’s son is buried a few lots over. An Army veteran, he killed himself in 2013. Berry believes he was forgotten.
He’s not going to let that happen to Kim.
Information from: The Cincinnati Enquirer, http://www.enquirer.com
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