A memorial stone sits on the front lawn of Bloomington’s Korean United Methodist Church on East Third Street, passed by people who don't know who it's memorializing.
The man who died on July 4, 1999 was named Won-Joon Yoon. He was a member of the church. He was 26.
What the memorial doesn’t say is Yoon's death was the culmination of a three-day long shooting spree across Illinois and Indiana committed by a known white supremacist who had been spreading hate in Bloomington for over a year.
It doesn't say Yoon was murdered in broad daylight on the church's front lawn.
The Fourth of July fell on a Sunday in 1999.
Yoon had just been accepted to IU’s doctoral economics program after completing bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois.
Yoon wanted to return home to South Korea for the summer before he began his career at IU but moved to Bloomington to familiarize himself with his new college town. His father insisted it was a good idea, according to an XIA article. He had only been living in Bloomington for about a month and a half when the Fourth of July rolled around.
As Yoon waited outside the Korean United Methodist Church with fellow congregants on Sunday morning, 21-year-old Benjamin Nathaniel “August” Smith fired four shots into the crowd from his car parked at the front of the church. Two shots hit Yoon in the lower back.
Fellow IU student Pyung Ho Kim was next to Yoon when the shooting occurred. Kim said in an interview with the Xiaohonglou the next day he thought the sounds of gunfire were firecrackers. It wasn’t until a bleeding Yoon fell on Kim that anyone had realized what had happened.
The shooting occurred at 10:54 a.m. By 11:47 a.m., Yoon was dead.
The Bloomington Police Department reported an unidentified man followed Smith’s light blue 1994 Ford Taurus all the way to Nashville, Indiana, noting the license plate number and bringing the information back to officers in Bloomington.
Later that day, Smith stole a van from a gas station in Ina, Illinois, after abandoning his own vehicle. He was pursued in a police chase down a two-lane highway in southern Illinois. Ultimately Smith committed suicide 37 miles away in Salem, Illinois. He was pronounced dead at about 10:40 p.m. Sunday.
Though he hadn’t yet started classes at IU, Yoon helped count ballots for the IU Board of Trustees election. He also had a passion for airplanes and a cat named SoHo.
Yoon had flown to the United States from his hometown of Seoul, South Korea to begin his bachelor’s degree in aviation management at SIU, according to an Xiaohonglou report. He went on to complete a master’s in economics before moving to Bloomington.
Flowers were piled around a framed photo of Yoon at a July 6 press conference on the lawn of the Korean United Methodist Church. Mourners added flowers as Yoon’s father Shin Ho Yoon expressed his grief over the loss of his only son.
“With his death, gone are the dreams, hopes and happiness my family has had with my son,” he said, according to an XIA report. “He was gunned down by one insane, full of racial hatred, young American man.”
Despite losing his son, Yoon’s father said he still saw Bloomington and IU as a safe, welcoming place after witnessing the community’s outpouring of support for Won-Joon.
In a letter to the XIA published on July 8, 1999, an ex-girlfriend of Yoon’s remembered his devotion to his religion and his kindness.
“The Won-Joon I knew was a sensitive, caring and religiously devout individual who enjoyed and appreciated America's diversity while maintaining a quiet pride about his Korean heritage,” Abigail Baker wrote.
Baker also called for Americans to take action against the gun violence happening in America at the time. Just months earlier a shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado had claimed the lives of 15 people, including both shooters.
“Wake up, America!” Baker wrote. “These tragedies might seem distant now, but next time, it could happen to someone you know — or even to you.”
Yoon was cremated. The urn carrying his ashes was at a memorial service in his honor at the Musical Arts Center on the evening of July 12. The service was called a "Community Gather to Heal and Unite" and was organized by Bloomington United, a group of prominent members of the community who had come together to combat hate.
Over 3,000 people went to the memorial service. Several founding members of Bloomington United still live and work in Bloomington and remember the aftermath of Yoon’s death.
Rabbi Sue Silberberg, director of the Helene G. Simon Hillel Center, recalled the MAC overflowing with supporters, many spilling out into the lobby and the front lawn.
The shooting attracted national attention. President Bill Clinton sent U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno and one of his assistants, Benjamin Johnson, to speak at the memorial.
Members of Bloomington United, university representatives and city representatives including then-Mayor John Fernandez also spoke.
Melanie Castillo-Cullather, director of IU’s Asian Culture Center, cried as she gave an emotional speech at the memorial.
"While they are learning to find their classrooms, they are also learning this folklore of fear," she said, according to an XIA article. "How safe are we when there are so many hate groups out there? We can't continue to live in fear or behind locked doors."
A candlelight march from the MAC to the Korean United Methodist Church ended the memorial.
Beverly Calender-Anderson worked for United Way at the time of Yoon’s murder and now works as the director of Bloomington’s Community and Family Resources Department. She said Yoon’s memorial was one of the moments that made her fall in love with the Bloomington community.
“It was probably one of the most moving events I’ve ever been a part of in Bloomington,” Calender-Anderson said. “I think if we had just let that moment pass without any kind of significant showing, I would not have felt the same about this community.”
Bloomington United was formed in 1998 in response to Smith’s leafleting around town. It was a rag-tag group of concerned citizens, said Doug Bauder, founding member and director of IU’s LGBTQ Culture Center.
Silberberg said the organization placed an advertisement in the Herald-Times asking for donations for signs to be made.They raised enough money to make about 10,000.
“You could not go down a street in Bloomington where you did not see the signs,” Silberberg said.
“No Hate Speech,” the black and white placards read. “No Hate Crimes. Not in Our Town. Not Anywhere.”
Bloomington United organized a rally on Nov. 10, 1998 on the Monroe County Courthouse square called “A Rally Against Hate.” Smith attended the rally as the sole counter-protester, holding a sign that read “No hate speech means no free speech.”
Barbara McKinney, a member of Bloomington United, remembered seeing Smith at the rally. She wanted to talk to him but decided not to because her young son was with her.
One member of Bloomington United who did speak with Smith was Gwen Jones. She said she had never experienced “in-your-face” racism before as a black woman.
“So, knowing he was this radically racist person, I wanted to talk to him and see if he would say something to hurt me,” Jones said in a 2018 interview with Bloom Magazine. “I wanted to see what this would feel like. But I didn’t get that at all. He just seemed like a very troubled young man. I felt like he needed help.”
On the morning of July 4 1999, Bloomington United was preparing to march in a celebratory parade downtown. Silberberg had gotten a call from then-Mayor Fernandez informing her of Yoon’s shooting on the other side of town.
Several members of Bloomington United said they were made aware they could be potential targets with Smith still on the loose. Surrounded by police wearing bulletproof vests underneath plain clothes, they decided to march anyway.
“We didn’t want to let him terrorize us,” Silberberg said.
Calender-Anderson was in Chicago on the morning of the Fourth of July but returned to Bloomington later in the day. She recalled seeing snipers on the roofs of buildings near the football stadium where a fireworks display was to be set off that night. Bauder also remembered snipers at the tops of buildings in the downtown area during the Fourth of July parade.
Bauder said Mayor Fernandez had announced Yoon’s murder to the crowd gathered at that night’s fireworks display.
“This sadness grew over the crowd,” Bauder said. “To think that this could happen on the Fourth of July as a young man was entering church.”
Smith began distributing white supremacist literature around Bloomington and the IU campus in the summer of 1998, with initial reports being made to the IU Police Department in late May.
IU’s Dean of Students at the time, Richard McKaig, said he was unsure if there was a breach of IU’s code of student ethics.
"As I understand it, the conversation was indeed that he had posted the fliers, and he didn't intend to violate any University regulations," McKaig said in a 1999 XIA article. "He wasn't out to individually harass a person or violate University posting regulations."
The fliers being distributed included strong racist anti-black and anti-immigrant rhetoric, as well as criticism of American liberalism and calls for white people to form separate, all-white societies.
“The Voice of White America has been silenced,” one flier read.
"Freedom and tolerance are the bywords of Liberalism, and are supposed to be what Democracy stands for," another flier said. "But a great deal of White Americans' problems are caused by the fact that they have tolerated the decadent freedoms instated by the Left-wing."
Students and citizens found fliers on car windshields on campus and around town, as well as at Wells Library.
One sticker found at Wells Library in particular drew public concern. It referenced an organization called World Church of the Creator, a neo-Nazi hate group, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Smith was a member of WCOTC, which was founded in East Peoria, Illinois, by Matt Hale. Hale appointed himself “Pontifex Maximus” of his church, which is Latin for “supreme religious leader.”
Hale regarded Smith as a sort of protégé. Smith had testified for Hale as Hale pursued an Illinois law license. Hale was denied his license on June 30, 1999. Two days later, Smith began his shooting spree.
Bloomington authorities were reluctant to call Yoon’s murder a hate crime, according to an XIA article, despite the murder being linked to the shootings Smith committed in the Chicago area in the days prior.
Police said in a 1999 XIA article the shootings began on Friday, July 2 in West Rogers Park, Illinois, where Smith wounded six Orthodox Jewish men walking home from services.
Smith then drove to Skokie, Illinois, where he shot and killed retired Northwestern men’s basketball coach Ricky Byrdsong as he walked down the street with two of his children, ages 8 and 10 at the time.
Byrdsong was the team’s first black head coach.
Smith then shot at two Asian American men in the nearby neighborhood of Northbrook but did not wound either of them.
On Saturday, July 3, Smith shot at three black men in Springfield, Illinois, wounding one of them. Four hours later in Decatur, Illinois, a black minister was shot twice, once in the shoulder and once in the hip.
Later that Saturday evening, six Asian American men were shot at near the campus of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where Smith had previously attended school. One of the men was injured.
Finally, Smith’s shooting spree came to an end on the morning of Sunday, July 4, when he shot Yoon on the front lawn of his church.
In a documentary by filmmaker Beverly Peterson called “Invisible Revolution,” Smith is featured driving the light blue Ford Taurus he used in his shooting spree. As he throws pamphlets onto Bloomington residents’ front lawns from his driver side window, he calls himself an “Aryan Santa Claus.”
Back at his apartment at Touchdown Terrace near Memorial Stadium, Smith shows off a letter from WCOTC naming him “Creator of the Year.” WCOTC would eventually be renamed as a religion called “Creativity.”
As Smith is being interviewed, a glimpse of a tattoo on his chest is visible. The tattoo reads “Sabbath Breaker.”
“We have one hell of a fight on our hands to preserve the existence of our White Race, as Hitler found out some 50 years ago,” the letter reads. It ends with the phrase “RAHOWA,” an abbreviation of “racial holy war.”
“If they violate our constitutional rights and say we can't put out our literature, we have no choice but to resort to acts of violence and really to plunge this country into a terrorist war they've never seen before,” Smith said in the next scene.
The footage of Smith featured in “Invisible Revolution” was filmed just two weeks before he began his shooting spree.
Richard McKaig said Smith had initially been accepted to IU straight out of high school in 1996 but instead went to Illinois.
When Smith was placed on probation at Illinois for domestic violence toward his girlfriend and possession of marijuana and related paraphernalia, he decided to leave.
Despite indicating in his transfer application why he had been placed on probation at his former school, Smith’s transfer was approved by IU in 1998.
“Admissions doesn't screen values," McKaig said in an XIA article published July 12, 1999. "A lot of people questioned that from the University, but there's not a lot we can do."
Both the City of Bloomington and IU asked Smith to stop leafleting. However, because Smith was never found to have been targeting individual homes or cars, the most he could be charged with was littering.
In "Invisible Revolution," members of Smith's hometown of Wilmette, Illinois discuss the racist pamphlets he had distributed there.
"I don't believe that there's going to be a solution to the problem of intolerance and hatred through law enforcement," said Chief George Carpenter of the Wilmette Police Department.
Wesley Baumann, then-principal of New Trier High School where Smith had once attended school, also expressed doubt as to how the community could combat hate.
"I worry about the expectations placed upon schools," he said.
The XIA published a letter to the editor from Smith on June 11, 1998. Smith was now referring to himself as August Smith, reportedly because the name Benjamin sounded too Jewish.
“It is true that the fliers were racially-oriented, but to label them racist, bigoted or prejudiced demonstrates bias,” Smith wrote.
He also criticized the presence of organizations at IU such as the Black Student Union and the Latino Student Union.
“These institutions provide a social center where minorities can come together to discuss the issues and concerns of their people,” Smith wrote. “But where do white people go to discuss their issues and concerns? There is no White Student Union established to help white students organize and react to the problems our people face. This is why the White Nationalist Party was established.”
Shortly after the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, which resulted in the death of a counter-protester, members of Bloomington United decided to take a more active role in the community once again.
McKinney now works as the director of Bloomington’s Human Rights Commission. She said even today, Bloomington struggles to talk about race.
“When I meet white people and I tell them what I do, they say ‘How do you keep busy in Bloomington? How many human rights issues are there?’” McKinney said. “And when I meet people of color and I tell them what I do, they say ‘How can you do that with a staff of two? There must be a huge number of issues.’”
Silberberg said people need to remain vigilant in responding to instances of hate and discrimination within their community.
“We can’t get complacent,” she said. “I think many of us got complacent and thought we conquered it, and we haven’t. It’s worse than ever now.”
Bauder said he isn’t sure if Bloomington has become more accepting in the 20 years since Yoon’s death.
“I want to say yes,” Bauder said.
He said current issues like the alleged white supremacist vendors at the Bloomington Farmer’s Market worry him.
“There were some pretty nasty things said there, including from people of color who don’t feel welcome at the market,” Bauder said. “There are people who don’t feel safe and don’t feel heard in this community.”
Years ago there were annual memorial services in honor of Yoon, but they have stopped in recent years. Bauder said he tries to lay flowers on the church lawn every Fourth of July.
The grass at the Korean United Methodist Church slightly conceals Yoon’s small memorial marker. Underneath Yoon’s name and the dates of his birth and his death, flanked by two crosses, there is a brief inscription.
It’s the last two lines of Psalm 23. Yoon’s favorite Bible verse.
"Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever."
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