If the man who killed In Cha Choe had just asked for the money, it’s very likely she would have given it to him, her family said before he was sentenced Thursday.
She ran her Lakewood convenience store for the neighborhood, they said.
After Choe’s death, they found handwritten tabs that showed just how often she’d helped customers who couldn’t pay.
Marcus Louise Williams fatally stabbed the 59-year-old while robbing the McChord Mart store she owned.
The 25-year-old pleaded guilty to first-degree murder, and Pierce County Superior Court Judge Thomas P. Quinlan gave him a mid-range sentence of 31 years, two months in prison.
“You’ve taken everything from us,” Choe’s daughter, Angela Choe said at the hearing. “... I just want you to think about her life.”
She said her mother grew up in South Korea, poor enough that she left school at a young age to work in a factory. Then she immigrated to the United States, where she raised her three children as a single mother.
She worked extremely hard at her store, her daughter said, and took care of her customers.
People left flowers, balloons and notes outside the shop following her death. Regular customers knew Choe as “Mama,” and many said she cooked for them, gave hugs and smiles and helped those in need, The News Tribune previously reported.
“No one bought coffee in that store,” Angela Choe told the court. Her mother put on a full pot every day anyway, for the one customer who wanted a cup while waiting for the bus.
Another daughter, Hannah Choe, told the court she and her mother were going to live together again and that she’d been looking forward to the opportunity to take care of her. She wanted to take her mother on trips, cook good food for her and give her new experiences.
Hannah Choe said her understanding was that Williams had a challenging childhood, but that she did, too.
“But I don’t go around hurting people to benefit myself,” she told him.
She told the court she doesn’t want Williams to hurt anyone else.
He would have won with one strong push, she said, he didn’t have to stab her mother.
Elijah Choe, In Cha Choe’s son, said the same.
“The lady you killed is about half your size,” he told Williams. “... You wanted some trouble that night.”
‘HEARTBREAKING AND SENSELESS ACT’
Charging papers gave this account of what happened:
Surveillance video showed a man walk behind the counter of the McChord Mart convenience store Oct. 14, 2019, push Choe and reach for the register.
As Choe tried to stop him he stabbed her in the abdomen, chest and arm, and left with the money.
Choe followed with a collapsible baton. They struggled at the door, he shoved her to the ground, and she followed him outside.
“The suspect runs toward Bridgeport Way, Ms. Choe re-enters the store, closes the register, leaves the store and locks the door, is seen walking down the ramp with an unsteady gait, then enters her car and briefly leaves the parking lot before pulling back in and stopping the car in front of the store,” the declaration for determination of probable cause said. “Ms. Choe does not exit the vehicle.”
She was found unconscious and pronounced dead at Madigan Army Medical Center soon after.
Tips led police to Williams, and DNA linked him to a bottle of barbecue sauce he touched in the store.
Court records show Bonifacio Alvarez Reynolds, who allegedly drove Williams to the store and waited down the street, is awaiting trial. Like Williams, he was charged with first-degree murder in connection to Choe’s death.
Deputy prosecutor Scott Harlass told the court the killing was a “heartbreaking and senseless act” and said Choe had been a “pillar of the Lakewood community.”
Defense attorney David Katayama noted Williams’ traumatic upbringing, and said the person he is today is not the person he will be after 30 years in prison.
When it was Williams’s turn to speak he described severe abuse and neglect he suffered as a child. He would have liked to go to school, he said, but instead had to prioritize finding food and a warm place to sleep each night.
He said his past trauma was not an excuse for his actions, and he apologized to Choe’s family.
“What I did can never be taken back,” he said.
Williams also said that he’s a father and acknowledged what he’s losing in that respect when he goes to prison.
Taking Choe’s life was not what he intended that night, he said.
“I do think of her every morning, every night,” he told the court. “I pray for her.”
Before handing down the sentence, Quinlan talked about what Choe meant to the community and how she had lived the American dream.
“Unfortunately,” he said, “the dream turned into a nightmare on the evening in question.”
This story was originally published on The News Tribune.