The House of Suh: Andrew and Catherine Suh

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Just nine years ago, Andrew Suh’s future looked bright. At Loyola Academy, a prestigious college-prep high school in an affluent suburb of Chicago, Andrew was an honors student with a 91.3 percent grade point average. He played football and was class president during his freshman, sophomore and junior years. He became student body president his senior year and then won the Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship, which offered full, four-year tuition to Providence College in Rhode Island. He had dreams for his future. But all that changed on the night of Sept. 25, 1993, when Andrew, after waiting nearly five hours in the garage of his home, shot his sister’s boyfriend, Robert O’Dubaine, twice in the head. Now serving 80 years for the murder of O’Dubaine, Andrew, 29, walks into the small interview room at Pontiac Correctional Center located in central Illinois with a strong, confident gait. With his shaven head and well-built frame, he appears thuggish at first, but he is friendly and outgoing. He has a striking, handsome face, and speaks Korean with a surprising fluidity (he immigrated here at age 2). And he is talkative, hardly ever slowing his pace. Using words like “impugn” and “inundated,” he says other inmates consider him to be a snob since he doesn’t speak “ghetto slang.” Aside from Gatsby, he’s just finished Dante’s Inferno.

But now, imprisoned for the last seven years, he speaks of a different kind of education, like the things you learn about yourself when you’re chained to a fence for 12 hours during a prison riot. “Now that’s excruciating, hands behind your back, handcuffed to a fence,” describes Andrew. “And stuff like that, you learn things; you learn to experience it.”

He appears fit and healthy, but when asked about prison life, his face tightens. “This is no place to live,” Andrew says. “This is literally an animal farm. We’re in here like animals in a zoo.” He credits having some peace of mind from a structured group of supporters from the Korean American community who visit him often. Indeed, Andrew came from what he describes as a typical KA household. The Suhs were a strong Catholic family, well-known throughout the KA community of Chicago, the majority of which has followed Andrew’s story with keen interest. When Gov. George Ryan suspended all executions in Illinois in 1999, supporters from the community came forward with a petition for executive clemency to reduce his sentence. Andrew claims that part of the reason he refused to testify against Catherine during their trial in 1996 was that he feared she would be given the death penalty. With the death penalty commuted, he is now revealing his full story.

His childhood included a series of tragic setbacks. Andrew watched his father die of stomach cancer when he was just 11 years old. Then in 1987, Andrew’s mother, Elizabeth Suh, was found slain in her dry cleaning store in Evanston, Illinois. She had been stabbed 35 times and her throat slit. Detectives suspected Catherine, then 17, who frequently fought with her mother ever since the father passed away in 1985. She was a rebellious teenager with a 25-year-old boyfriend, O’Dubaine, and his not being Korean had been a source of some of the fighting. Catherine had always been an angry child. Andrew recalls that she was always “high-strung. Eccentric, I think, would be an appropriate word.”

The police, however, couldn’t find any proof, and the case went unsolved. Catherine and Andrew inherited an estate worth $800,000.

For Andrew, it didn’t matter. He was devastated. “I lost it. I just didn’t care about anything anymore,” he says. Catherine, who turned 18, assumed the role of guardian. At first, Andrew resisted, but he eventually succumbed to his sister.

“In a weird way,” he says, “it was kind of relieving.” Thirteen years old and bereft of parents, he let Catherine take control of him. She took care of the bills and the house and attended Andrew’s PTA meetings. “I’m all you have left,” she told him. “I’m your parent now.” Andrew just wanted to be a kid again, so he devoted himself to doing well in school. Whereas he used to show his parents his report card, he now showed the good grades to his sister, in the hopes of some kind of praise and affirmation. Soon thereafter, O’Dubaine moved in with Catherine and Andrew, and the three managed to function as a substitute family to replace the one that had been brutally torn apart. O’Dubaine showed Andrew how to drive stick shift and how to change the oil in his car. Both O’Dubaine and Catherine renovated their home and ran a nightclub with money invested from the mother’s insurance policy. Andrew says O’Dubaine became something of a “father figure.”

Then, during the summer of 1993, after Andrew’s freshman year in college, Catherine took her brother out to dinner and told him some shocking news: She said that O’Dubaine had killed their mother for the insurance money. Stunned, he wanted to go to the police, but Catherine refused, saying that it was she who had told O’Dubaine about their mother’s substantial life insurance policy in the first place. Andrew ran out into the street, crying. Catherine followed him, and then began urging her little brother to kill O’Dubaine. “She said, ‘This is what you have to do. You have to kill him,'” Andrew recalls. “And I couldn’t muster the courage to do it. To me, that was like past anything I’d even comprehend to do. But it made sense to me at the time, where you have to do it. If you don’t, what kind of son are you? And she kept calling and calling and calling, and then I don’t know, I just obeyed, I guess.”

Observers have remarked how it seemed as though Andrew was under his sister’s spell, but perhaps it had more to do with the trauma of his mother’s murder that led him to transfer all his trust and loyalty to his sister. Andrew knows it’s difficult to understand, but he says, “I loved my parents to the point where nothing else mattered but them. And to have that taken from you like that and to find out that someone you trust [O’Dubaine] would betray you like that. That is the most hurtful thing I can imagine. I would never want anyone to experience that.” Andrew now believes that Catherine planned the murder and O’Dubaine executed it. But O’Dubaine was never charged with the murder of the mother; he wasn’t even a suspect. So Andrew is sometimes plagued with uncertainty: Did O’Dubaine really kill his mother?

“There are always doubts,” Andrew admits. And he is remorseful about the pain he’s inflicted on O’Dubaine’s family.

“I know they hate me…. I understand they lost a son. You can’t ever, ever change that. The only thing I can do is say, ‘I’m sorry you lost a son, I’m sorry you lost a brother. I shouldn’t have done that. But I can’t do anything about it now. And I know that.'”

Andrew adds, “But the thing is, I know that [Catherine and O’Dubaine] are both responsible [for my mother’s murder], because they were with each other at the time.” He points out that his sister exerted tremendous control over not only him but over O’Dubaine as well.

“Even at my trial I remember she had some guy on the phone barking like a dog,” says Andrew. “I mean, the guy openly admitted in open court, ‘Yeah, I used to do that for her.’ And I remember I was sitting there, thinking, ‘Wow, that’s some serious control to do that.'”

At their trial (Andrew and Catherine were co-defendants), Andrew refused to testify against his sister, fearing that she would be sentenced to death. Andrew’s former attorney, Michael Goode, states, “Anytime he’d see Catherine, she’d yell at him in Korean, and he’d turn from an intelligent man into this little kid who wouldn’t talk to me.”

After years of reflection, he sees how he “slowly but steadily became hers.”

Under constant urging from his sister to kill O’Dubaine, he flew back from Rhode Island to Chicago on Sept. 25, 1993. Catherine picked him up, drove him to their house, and told him to wait in the garage. She had already placed a loaded gun and a return ticket in the garage. At 7 p.m., O’Dubaine unwittingly walked in, thinking that he was just picking up his car. Catherine had called him, saying her car had broken down. “I knew what I was going to do, but it was almost surreal to me,” says Andrew. “Nothing made sense.”

Andrew fired one shot, thought he heard O’Dubaine groan, “Oh sh_t,” and then shot him again. Andrew threw the gun away in the alley and sped off in the car, abandoned it a few miles later, and took a cab to the airport.

Andrew has been haunted by the murder ever since. He goes back to the night of the event at least once every couple of days. When asked about what guilt he feels, he pauses and breathes out slowly, “Murder is a horrible thing, no matter what the purpose is for. You’re ending somebody’s life; that’s a horrid thing to do…. You never, ever forget that. It’s a life-altering moment.”

After the shooting, he remembers going completely numb. “In the plane going back, I was shaking. I think I was numb for a good week,” remembers Andrew. Back at school in Rhode Island, he didn’t eat or go to class; just sitting dazed for hours. When he was finally arrested, he says that it was a relief. Andrew and his sister were both charged with the murder, but Catherine fled to Hawaii under the alias Tiffani Escada. The media had a field day: an evil sister who manipulated her younger brother to slay her boyfriend. ABC made a TV movie, “Bad To The Bone,” starring Kristy Swanson. Andrew was in prison when he saw his sister on “America’s Most Wanted.”

“At that time in my life, I was like, ‘Don’t get caught.’ Even though she abandoned me, she was still my sister,” says Andrew. “Of course, there were times when we had fights and arguments all the time, but you don’t remember those things. You remember the tender moments where you ate lunch or dinner together or a moment like that…. You cherish moments like that.” Catherine eventually turned herself in to the FBI. She is serving a 100-year term at an Illinois correctional facility. Andrew wrote to her in prison, but he received a return letter that said: “I don’t know who you are. Leave me alone. I don’t have a brother.” Reports are that she is mentally incapacitated, having spent time in the prison’s psychiatric ward.

It is the final chapter in a sad story. Going back to his favorite novel, Andrew brings up the fact that Gatsby ultimately dies at the end. “It’s tragic to a point, but he died believing in something and somebody. And to me that romantic vision is beautiful to the point where that is something somebody should aspire to do.” He pauses. “My case was kind of different. Catherine was my Daisy, I guess you could say. And Daisy turned her back on Gatsby, too, at the end. So it’s kind of like a lose-lose situation. But at the time it seemed right.” He gives a wan smile. “That’s the way I look at that.”

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Rating: 7.7/10 (52 votes cast)
The House of Suh: Andrew and Catherine Suh , 7.7 out of 10 based on 52 ratings

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