The Murder of Master Do
Shortly after noon on November 10, 2007, Ricky Do surveyed his students at a cluttered, well-worn martial arts studio on West Dixie Highway in North Miami. About 10 lanky, awkward preteens and a handful of middle-age adults performed side and roundhouse kicks, reverse full-twist strikes, and torso punches. Nearly everyone was sweating and panting. As the others tired, Ricky — a handsome 34-year-old — launched into a rigorous routine of calisthenics. Then, just as the class groaned about doing 40 deep knee bends and the same number of situps, a loud noise sliced through the warm air.
Boom boom boom boom!
North Miami murders
Ricky looked across the room toward his athletic, 27-year-old sister, Kathy, who was helping him teach. They exchanged confused glances. It sounded like gunfire, which was certainly not the norm in this working-class, suburban neighborhood.
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"Everyone down!" Ricky shouted. "Hit the deck!" He walked quickly to the studio's back door, which was open so the fall breeze could waft through the room. Kathy followed closely. At first they saw nothing. Then Kathy gasped. "It's Dad, it's Dad!"
Ricky turned to the left and spotted his father, 62-year-old Young Soo Do, lying on the asphalt about 20 yards away. He was on the ground under a tree near his black 2006 Cadillac STS. Ricky then saw a slim, mustached black man in a white tank top running from the parking lot. He sprinted out the door in pursuit but then stopped cold. Blood was seeping from his father's abdomen.
"Call your mother," Young Soo Do rasped to his son in Korean.
Ricky yelled to his sister to get on the phone ; then he knelt down and gently placed his father's head in his lap. He noticed blood coming from the older man's stomach and several other places; he had been shot four times. Ricky put his hands on the wounds, hoping to stanch the bleeding. He was breathless from confusion; his dad, a ninth-degree black belt, had never seemed so vulnerable. The old man could pull trucks with his teeth, shear off the tops of wine glasses with the edge of his right hand, and break stones with his head. Though he had left Korea in 1975 with only $400 in his pocket, he had built a martial arts empire in South Florida. Now his life was ebbing away on a bright day just a few feet from that empire's heart.
After a minute or so, students streamed from the studio and several dialed 911. They also discovered another man, Leclerc Prosper, lying on the ground and bleeding about 20 feet from Young Soo Do. He had been washing Do's car when the gunman shot him twice in the legs. His pants were covered in thick, scarlet blood. Prosper, a Haitian immigrant who was Young Soo Do's age, had been buffing the Cadillac. Soon ambulance sirens wailed in the distance.
The adult students tried to shield the children in class from the scene; one 11-year-old boy ran next door to the beauty salon where his mother worked as a hairdresser. "It's Master," the boy cried, using the students' respectful nickname for Do. "He's been shot." None of the approximately two dozen people milling about the parking lot wailed or sobbed; instead an eerie, dazed calm took over. Several parents in minivans and SUVs pulled up to collect their children from class and were greeted by cops unrolling ribbons of yellow crime scene tape.
Ricky looked down. His father's eyelids fluttered, and he said softly: "Son, I love you."
Young Soo Do grew up in Seoul, South Korea, the youngest of eight children. His father was a well-known calligraphy professor, and his mother stayed at home. As a child, Do was unnaturally small. Other kids picked on him. So he turned to martial arts for confidence. Soon teachers realized the boy had a gift: He was flexible and fast, a natural fighter.
He attended college for a few years, where he majored in physical education. In 1967, he was deployed to Vietnam to fight alongside American troops.
As one of about 300,000 Koreans involved in that war, Do trained U.S. Special Forces in tae kwon do. He was a marine in Korea's prestigious Blue Dragons Brigade, which was known for ferociousness and cunning. He also saw battle. Do sometimes winnowed his way into foxholes where larger Americans couldn't go and killed Vietnamese with his bare hands. He would later tell his son gruesome stories of combat, such as how he would slice off his victims' ears and thread them like a necklace to show others how many men he had killed.
After three years of active duty, Do returned to Korea. In 1972, he married a local girl, Soon Shin. She was 23 years old, happy, and quiet. He continued practicing tae kwon do — but never in front of his wife. In the early days of their marriage, when he would perform feats of strength, such as breaking bricks with his head or fighting against another martial artist, he shielded his wife. "He thought I'd have a heart attack," says Shin, still shy and now 57 years old.
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.
Then three days later, José Luis Leon Olivera was shot to death during a robbery while he was working as a manager at the Burger King on West Dixie Highway. Police said the two men who killed him with a handgun — 23-year-old Waltaire Choute and 22-year-old James LaPointe — were gang members. Choute killed himself in jail last May, and LaPointe is in jail awaiting trial on first-degree murder and robbery charges.
Three months later, 33-year-old Diego Rojas was shot at 9:30 p.m. The killer drove by, spraying Rojas's NW 125th Street home with 17 high-caliber rounds, barely missing the Argentine native's two-year-old son. Rojas, who worked as a supervisor for a remodeling company, had never been in trouble with the law, and the shooting baffled his family. Police made no arrests.
Over the next few months, crime spiked. Thefts swelled by 19 percent. Robberies were up nearly 30 percent. Cops identified 400 members of seven gangs in the city, including the Zombie Boys and Zoe Pound — groups that use vodou amulets and crosses as silent talismans. During a community meeting on crime, resident Tavia Robb told the Miami Herald that burglars had attempted to break into her home four times. "I can't live like this anymore," she said.
In September, prosecutors announced the arrest and indictment of 17 gang members, including 23-year-old Johnny Charles and 24-year-old Frantzy Jean-Marie, who were alleged ringleaders in the Terrorist Boyz, a deadly group that committed more than a dozen murders throughout Miami-Dade County (at least one was in North Miami) in 2002 and 2003. Police said Charles, who called himself "The Angel of Death," lived in North Miami — and committed many crimes after cutting off a jail electronic ankle monitor.
The violence continued. Nineteen-year-old Gracia Beaugris was shot by Miami-Dade Police during a crime sweep October 26. Officers said he attacked them; the young man had no criminal record and was unarmed. In the wake of the shooting, folks in North Miami — and across the county — held vigils to protest what they said was an unprovoked attack and demanded an investigation.
Beaugris's shooting happened just off West Dixie Highway, across the street from Do's tae kwon do studio.
Ten days later, Jean Etheart, a 37-year-old security guard, was shot while patrolling an apartment complex on NE 18th Avenue, about a mile and a half from Do's studio. No one was arrested.
Finally, on November 10, a 14-year-old named Marc Petit and a buddy tried to rob Knight Auto Repair on NE 121st Street, about two miles from Do's studio. The shop owner confronted the two boys, who were unarmed. Police said the owner felt threatened and took out a handgun, shooting Petit dead.
It all happened as the North Miami Police Department was in turmoil. In late October, Chief Gwendolyn Boyd was fired after months of political skirmishes with Mayor Kevin Burns. She filed a discrimination complaint. Almost immediately after taking office, Interim Chief Clint Shannon organized a violent crime task force.
North Miami officers soon came head up against an entire generation of angry, wayward kids in North Miami — mostly dropouts and second- or third-generation Haitians — who thought crime was the avenue to success. "They say that's the only way they could make a living for their families," says Det. James Mesidor, a Haitian-American who witnessed the birth of gangs such as Zoe Pound and the Zombie Boys while he was a student at Miami Edison Senior High in the late Eighties. "They say job opportunities are scarce, the only way of obtaining money, gaining respect."
As violence surged around the studio, Master Do took advantage of his success. In 2005, the family moved from North Miami to Davie, where they built a house worth a half-million dollars. In 2006, Do and Shin took a vacation to Paris — their first European trip together in 30-plus years of marriage. And the family planned to open a larger studio in North Miami Beach, though zoning issues delayed the project.
Do invested more responsibility in Ricky, who was an accomplished tae kwon do master with a ninth-degree black belt and had a full-time job managing Miami Beach real estate. In his twenties, the younger Do had appeared as an extra in two martial arts movies.
On the Saturday of his shooting, the master planned to wash the Cadillac — his fourth; he loved big American cars — while Ricky and Kathy taught the 11 a.m. class. Then he would play golf before driving to Orlando to assume presidency of the Florida chapter of the Korean-American Association, a group he had been involved with for years.
About 9 a.m. he went to Rapid Oil Change on West Dixie Highway and then stopped by the studio to read the newspaper and chat with Ricky and Kathy. He called Leclerc Prosper, a young-looking 62-year-old Haitian-American with smooth skin and wide brown eyes. "Can you come wash my car?" he asked. Prosper agreed to meet him at noon in the parking lot.
Prosper parked his yellow van in the studio's back lot. He could hear students practicing inside, yelling "Kee-ya" as they kicked heavy bags. Do arrived a few minutes later. A pressure washer was fired up, and Prosper soaped up the black Cadillac while Do cleaned the interior.
The two were friends. "Okay, take a break now," Prosper joked to Do after just a few minutes of work. Then he turned his attention to the left front tire.
Suddenly gunfire sounded. "I was scared," says Prosper, who speaks English with a thick Kreyol accent. "That's a gunshot. I didn't look. I just kept putting water on the tire. I didn't want the guy to see me."
But out of the corner of his eye, Prosper glimpsed the man in a white shirt and dark, baggy shorts. He was about 20 feet away, holding a long brown rifle in both hands. "I swear to the Lord, I didn't see his face," Prosper says. However, he did see Do lying on the ground near the Cadillac. The shooter took a couple of steps toward Prosper and aimed at his legs. One bullet barreled through his left calf, the other through his right.
Prosper lay on the ground, bleeding and in excruciating pain. He looked down and saw the exposed bone of his left shin; then he spotted the shooter running from the parking lot and toward a black Mercedes waiting at a nearby Farm Stores market. A religious man, he closed his eyes and prayed as the Mercedes peeled off. God give me life, he thought.
Patrol officers soon arrived, and one of them called Sgt. Peter Cruz — Do's longtime student and a North Miami police veteran — at home. Cruz, who is 47 years old and looks a bit like a tougher Russell Crowe, was preparing to attend a baptism with his family. "When I arrived at the studio, rescue had taken Master away to be airlifted to Jackson," Cruz says slowly. "I heard he had been shot several times. I should have known it was over, but I was in denial."
Sgt. Scott Croye, a North Miami Police homicide detective, went to Jackson Memorial Hospital, where he spoke to Ricky and Prosper; they didn't know anything about the shooter. Then crime scene technicians found five shells at the scene. Later Croye spoke to employees at the shops nearby — a beauty salon, a Haitian notary, a cell phone store — but they claimed not to have seen or heard anything. Frustrated, Croye watched a surveillance video from the Farm Stores market. The camera had captured the Mercedes, but the license plate wasn't visible.
Over at Jackson, Do clung to life. Students gathered outside as surgeons operated. At one point, a doctor emerged to talk to Ricky. "He lost a lot of blood," the doctor said. "I don't know how he's still alive." As Sunday dawned, the family had some hope. Do was hooked up to a breathing machine and nodded his head when people spoke to him. The surgeons operated three more times, but on Monday his prognosis was even worse. Around noon, he was taken off the ventilator, and the family prepared to watch him die. But Do lived for five more hours — long enough for nearly 600 students to pass his bed and say goodbye.
Ricky watched his father take his final breath. "I reassured him that everything was going to be okay," he recalls.
When the heart monitor flat-lined, Ricky walked out of the room and down the hospital corridor. Tears welled in his eyes. This is not for real, he thought. It's a bad dream.
Just then, a yellow beam began pulsing toward him. "It was the most beautiful light I'd ever seen," Ricky recalls. He rubbed his eyes, but it didn't go away. "It made me feel so calm. I think that was my father speaking to me, telling me right then that everything was going to be all right."
Three days later, the family buried Do. Nearly 2,000 people attended the funeral — including Mayor Burns, Police Chief Shannon (who was promoted), and countless students. In Korean tradition, the body was driven past the place where Do spent the most time — the tae kwon do studio — so his spirit could say goodbye. Scores of students laid flowers and tributes at the door. "Thank you," wrote members of a black-belt class from some years back, "for your patience and wisdom in helping us achieve the understanding of the night."
Ricky opened the studio a week after his father died. During the first class after the shooting, he says, "people didn't know what to say. I couldn't stop looking at the back door, looking at the parking lot. I was waiting for my father to show up."
In the following weeks, 27 tips poured into the North Miami Police station. Sergeant Croye identified several suspects — but none panned out. Meanwhile, violence in North Miami raged on. Three people were killed over the next three weeks, less than a mile and a half from where Do was gunned down.
Six days after the Do shooting, 16-year-old Bunky Telys was murdered by another teenager. Both were gang members, police said. On December 3, Victor Manuel Guzman Lopez was discovered dead in a closet inside his home. Police suspected foul play but made no arrests.
And on December 14, Pedro Fernandez Moreno, age 43, was shot and killed in his Nissan Altima while he was parked outside a strip mall less than a half-mile from the tae kwon do studio. This killing echoed the Do tragedy — it happened in broad daylight on a weekend.
But so far, police haven't linked any of the killings. The city ended 2007 with 10 homicides — six in the final two months of the year. "We're concerned, definitely," says North Miami Police Chief Clint Shannon. "Some of these cases were not random acts."
Though Shannon says it's a stretch to call Do's killing the product of a gang execution, that's not completely clear. Sources close to the investigation say the murder weapon was an M-1 military rifle, a half-century-old gun that was one of the first semiautomatics manufactured. They are mostly collectibles now, though they were the weapon of choice for the Haitian army in the Nineties.
Indeed Haitian gang activity — and police crackdowns on those thugs throughout Dade County — had bubbled up in North Miami, possibly because enforcement had been stepped up in Little Haiti and other parts of the county. And it was perhaps no coincidence that North Miami's bloodiest two months in memory came immediately after the October indictment and arrests of the two Terrorist Boys leaders and 15 other gang members.
Sergeant Croye won't speculate why Do was killed. "We can't confirm that this was a robbery gone bad," he says. "We know that nothing was taken and that Mr. Prosper did not hear any words exchanged."
Though Do had no criminal record, no pending civil lawsuits, no legal troubles of any kind, his student George Oxar believes the killing might have been planned. "In my heart, I think the person who did this either knew him, was angry at him, or was paid to shoot him. That's the only thing that makes sense," he says. "There's no doubt in my mind that if the shooter had been within three or four feet of Master, the shooter would have been dead."
But Lucien Cayard, co-owner of a Haitian bakery located in the same strip mall as Do's studio, disagrees: "Master didn't have a beef with anybody. Everyone really liked him."
Maybe it was a random murder. Or it could be the bullets were meant for Leclerc, although the 62-year-old has no criminal record and says he "never had trouble with nobody."
Sergeant Cruz is now in charge of the department's violent crime unit. He thinks it's possible that Do might have angered some kids by telling them to leave the back parking lot. Or his brand of discipline perhaps didn't sit well with a student. "The culture in this county, the youth culture, they just have a lack of concern about life," Cruz says, shaking his head. "Master didn't even have the opportunity to defend himself. I don't know the reason why someone would want to kill him. That person who shot him would have been taken in with open arms into the school, to harness his anger."
The most difficult thing for students to grasp was the fact that Do, who seemed invincible, was unable to fight his attacker after a lifetime of teaching self-defense. Says Oxar: "Master always taught us that with respect to weapons, the closer you are, the better your chances. He trained you so you would have a chance. He taught people not to feel helpless. But for whatever reason, he didn't have that chance."
Ricky, meanwhile, is moving his father's business forward. He recently opened a satellite studio in Hallandale and is planning a May 17 martial arts exposition and memorial for Do at South Broward High School. He's also overseeing the opening of the North Miami Beach location later this year. Eventually the family will move out of the West Dixie Highway storefront and away from the bad memories of November 10, 2007.
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