TAMPA — One summer day in 2004, a teenager returned to his New York City home and found his foster parents gone. They turned off the water and the gas. They left no note.
Two months passed before the couple finally called. They had moved to Polk County. They were getting into real estate. Maybe he should fly down, they later suggested, and take a look?
His trip to Florida set into motion the loss of $400,000 for Markus Min Ho Kim — all of it money he received as the beneficiary of his murdered mother's life insurance policy.
And the people who swindled him out of the money? His foster parents, Radhames and Asia Oropeza, according to federal authorities.
Last year, the Oropezas were convicted of federal fraud charges for taking the money from Kim. They paid with their freedom — three-year sentences in federal prison.
But would they ever pay back Kim?
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Kim, now 25, emigrated with his biological parents to the United States from South Korea when he was 5 years old. In New York, his father owned a jewelry store; his mother ran a beauty salon.
In 2000, Kim's mother, Ji Sun Kim, was murdered. Kim's father, Yung Hu Kim, was convicted of the crime and sent to prison in New York. Kim was placed in foster care.
Before his mother died, she took out a life insurance policy worth nearly $500,000. Kim was the beneficiary, but he could not tap into the proceeds until he turned 18.
Kim was 18 by the time the Oropezas flew him to Florida in 2005. They took him to a bank and convinced him to buy two certificates of deposit with $400,000 from the insurance policy.
They told him the CDs would protect his money and that he would earn $1,000 a month just from the interest. Kim would later say his foster mother signed the documents, too. He thought she was there to help.
But after a few months, the interest checks stopped coming. Kim called the bank and eventually found out the CDs had been closed.
What federal prosecutors would later say: The Oropezas withdrew large amounts of money from the certificates of deposit and spent it on real estate investment properties. Kim's name was forged on the documents.
U.S. Attorney Robert O'Neill told a judge last year that the couple told authorities that they believed Kim was too young to handle that much money.
"They stated at the time the housing market was good," O'Neill said, "and they took it upon themselves to invest Kim's money for him without his knowledge."
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In October, the Oropezas were each convicted on fraud charges. Radhames, 54, is incarcerated at the United States Penitentiary in Atlanta. Asia, 53, is being held at Coleman Federal Correctional Complex.
In addition to the prison sentences, the couple also was ordered to pay restitution of nearly $410,000 — the original amount plus fines — to Kim.
On Tuesday, the U.S. Attorney's Office, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement held a press conference in Tampa to announce this unusual news:
Kim is getting every penny back.
Officials credited the convictions and the recovery of the funds to the participation of all the agencies, plus the pro bono work of Fort Lauderdale attorney Howard Talenfeld on Kim's behalf.
O'Neill, the prosecutor, said authorities negotiated with the couple to hand over about half the money. The Department of Justice's Asset Forfeiture Program managed to identify the Oropezas' real estate, which officials seized and sold to make up the rest of what Kim was owed.
Also at the news conference was Kim, now a 25-year-old stagehand living in New York. He spoke softly. He said he felt betrayed by his foster parents. Asked about his life with them, he said only "Vacant. It was vacant."
He called the recovering of the money "a new lease on life." He declined to say how he might use the funds.
"I feel like a lot of people these days take for granted what they have. They always seem to want more," he said. "I just wish everyone would look at this case and look at what they have and be grateful for that."
Reach Jodie Tillman at email@example.com or (813) 226-3374.