Updated: June 29, 2011 at 12:00 am
Prosecutors Wednesday dropped their case against a Colorado Springs liquor store owner who was arrested in 2010 on suspicion of shooting a shoplifter he allegedly chased into the parking lot.
Chang Ho Yi, 58, faced a potential charge of attempted first-degree murder, though prosecutors never officially charged him with a crime.
Bryson Dewberry, then 22, was wounded in the jaw, and a second person hit in the leg, when Yi fired once into a car after the Oct. 25 theft at Austin Bluffs Plaza Liquor, Colorado Springs police said at the time.
The thief jumped into the car after stealing a bottle of Grey Goose vodka, and the driver was pulling away, police said in an arrest warrant.
In a brief court appearance before 4th Judicial District Judge Ronald Crowder, prosecutor Dan Zook said the District Attorney's Office would defer to a grand jury, which declined to return an indictment.
After the hearing, Zook said prosecutors went to the grand jury for a "community determination" on a case that involved a self-defense claim. The grand jury rendered its judgment after a two-day review of evidence, effectively ending the prosecution.
“We respect the finding of the grand jury,” Zook said.
Yi was arrested Dec. 3 on suspicion of attempted murder. Although charges are generally filed in court within 10 days of an arrest, prosecutors in this case asked a judge for more time so that the grand jury could be convened.
Crowder ordered that Yi's $250,000 bond be returned.
Dewberry survived his wound. He couldn't be reached for comment.
Yi’s attorney, Allen C. Gasper, said Wednesday’s announcement shows that “the system worked.”
Had the case gone to trial, Gasper said he would have argued that Yi acted in self-defense. Gasper said the longtime businessman routinely follows shoplifters, usually to get a license plate to report to police. This time, Yi was hit on the head after leaving the store, Gasper said, although he didn't say by whom.
“He’s no vigilante,” Gasper said, as Yi sat surrounded by family members outside the courtroom. “The bottom line is, he’s a business owner in Colorado Springs with a good reputation, and he’s continuing to serve the community.”
An arrest affidavit by Colorado Springs police didn't mention any physical confrontations before the shooting. Gasper couldn't provide details.
Yi has operated the liquor store at 4150 Austin Bluffs Parkway for 16 years, and runs a Subway sandwich restaurant in north Colorado Springs. In June 2009, Yi was shot in the abdomen during a robbery at the same liquor store. The shooting remains unsolved.
"He could have died," Gasper said. "My client is in no condition to chase after anybody."
The liquor store shooting isn't the first time that prosecutors turned to a grand jury to resolve thorny questions of self-defense.
In 2009, District Attorney Dan May's office cleared a Colorado Springs auto shop owner in the shooting death of a burglar, 20-year-old Robert Fox, when a grand jury declined to return an indictment.
In that case, Jovan Milanovic slept in his store for several days, lying in wait for burglars to return, and hid the assault-style rifle he used to kill Fox, police said.
Colorado law protects people who use deadly force in self-defense or to protect someone else. But it doesn't allow merchants to use deadly force to protect property.
H. Patrick Furman, a law professor at the University of Colorado in Boulder, said grand juries are increasingly used in Colorado as a way of gauging "community sentiment" on cases where a guilty verdict would be far from certain.
At the same time, they provide political cover for controversial decisions, he said.
"If you can't get a probable cause finding to file charges, you certainly aren't going to be able to convince a trial jury beyond a reasonable doubt," he said.
The grand jury decision was praised by workers at neighboring businesses, who described Yi as a nice man and a hard worker.
Some, however, said they have reservations about the shooting, even though robberies and other crimes are a constant concern for business owners and employees.
"They shouldn't have been stealing, but maybe he took it too far and he acted on impulse," said Megan Titus, a Waffle House server who has known Yi for five years and said he has “always been a pleasure.”
Aaron Franklin, the assistant manager at Best Budz, said he was also glad to hear Yi would not be charged, but doesn't agree with his actions
"I don’t think – if they’re running away from you – that you should go out and shoot them. I personally don’t think that should happen," he said.
Police said the Yi shooting shouldn't send the message that vigilantism will be tolerated by law enforcement in Colorado Springs.
"What we don't want the public to think is that you can just go out and shoot shoplifters," said Colorado Springs police spokesman Sgt. Darrin Abbink.
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Gazette writer Angie Jackson contributed to this story.