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In 1975, a little more than a year after Ricky was born, the couple did something extraordinary: They left Korea. Hoping for a measure of independence and wealth away from their large, extended families, they headed for Miami, where Shin had a friend. Do planned to introduce his Korean brand of martial arts here. Their son would stay behind with his grandparents, at least temporarily. "I'm not going to live in America and have my child here unless I have a house," Do told his family.
When Do and Shin arrived at Miami International Airport, they hailed a cab and asked the driver to take them to a safe neighborhood. He dropped them off near NE 125th Street and Griffin Boulevard in North Miami, and that's where the young couple rented their first apartment. Soon Shin found a job as a nurse at Jackson Memorial Hospital, and Do began work at a flea market.
Back then, North Miami was a working-class, mostly Anglo area populated by lots of retirees. Do, with his long, shaggy hair and kung fu movie-star good looks, stood out. In 1976, he opened Young Tae Kwon Do in a 1,000-square-foot storefront near Barry University. He kept the school open every day — Sundays, Thanksgiving, it didn't matter.
One of his first students was a 19-year-old tough guy from the Bronx named Peter Cruz, who had drifted to the area to distance himself from his family. Cruz had a job as a typesetter and worked weird hours, so during the day, he spent free time practicing at Do's place. At first the student was taken aback by the master's curt, rigid, and intense teaching style. "It wasn't a very democratic environment," Cruz says. "It was his world and his way, but I needed that discipline."
The two hit it off, and Cruz was soon invited to the Do home for a Korean meal of kim chee, sautéed beef, and white rice. "You need a real job," the master told the student. "You go be a policeman."
Cruz followed his advice.
In 1979, Do and Shin brought their son, Ricky, to live with them in North Miami. A year later, Kathy was born. The Do family felt at home in the sedate area; they moved into a comfortable waterfront place in the Keystone Point neighborhood, and in 1985, a third child, Stella, was born. Do still worked seven days a week, attracting students with his odd mix of serious charm and harsh discipline. "He was an intimidating guy," admits George Oxar, who began attending class in 1994. "You would envision him as being your worst nightmare at the end of a dark alley."
During an annual tae kwon do exhibition at the North Miami Armory, Do bestowed black belts on formerly nerdy kids and put on shows. With his teeth, he once pulled a truck filled with 30 people. Another time, he allowed a pickup truck to run over his midsection. And he walked atop crates of eggs without breaking a shell. "He was kinglike," says Shin.
The school's enrollment grew to 500 students a year. Philip Michael Thomas of Miami Vice visited, and Barry Gibbs's son studied there. The City of North Miami made Do an honorary police chief, probably because of his popularity with local cops. The martial arts master even taught his techniques in special classes for federal agents. "I've seen him do things that maybe 10 men in the world can do," says Miami Beach sports agent Jason Rosenhaus, who, along with his brother Drew, took classes from Do starting at nine years old. "He was the scariest person I'd ever met," says Rosenhaus. "Looking into his eyes, you saw a killer. But he had the warmest smile, and you were terrified and enamored at the same time."
Rosenhaus remembers being mesmerized by Do's hands, which had knoblike calluses on the knuckles of the index and middle fingers. "He'd punch through anything — punch through concrete, punch solid metal. You idolized [Do] as a kid and you idolized him as an adult. He was the real deal."
Do was firmly rooted in his West Dixie Highway studio — he particularly liked the fact that it had plenty of parking for parents to drop off their children. But over the years, North Miami changed. There were fewer Anglo kids in class and more students from the Caribbean. In the Nineties, middle-class immigrants, mostly Haitians, increasingly dominated the city's population. And the eight-square-mile community of about 75,000 people always seemed to avoid the problems of less affluent areas such as nearby Opa-locka. In 2001, when Haitian-American Joe Celestin was elected mayor, Haitians had a majority on the city council — a first among U.S. cities. In 2002, there was a flareup of violence between rival Haitian gangs in North Miami, but by the next year, things had quieted down.
In 2006, crime was at the lowest point in 10 years; there were only four murders in the city, and robberies and thefts were also down. Even the first four months of 2007 were relatively quiet, with no murders at all.
But on April 19, 2007, the calm ended. It seemed to some residents that the problems of the poorer and more violent immigrant enclave of Little Haiti a few miles south had settled in North Miami. Frankie Lafontant, a 32-year-old with a long and violent criminal record, was shot and killed at 8 that morning as he loaded his two kids into a car. No arrests were made; police have questioned whether his death was retribution for an earlier gang killing.