02.27.12 9:45 AM ET
Pinkberry Co-Founder Young Lee Accused of Beating Homeless Man
Clad in a bespoke suit, bow tie, and designer glasses, Young Lee is a paragon of Angeleno hipness. The urbane 47-year-old is the visionary co-founder of the Pinkberry chain of frozen yogurt shops, responsible for the stores’ trademark, pastel-colored minimalist décor—replete with $500 Philippe Starck Victoria Ghost chairs, $300 Le Klint lamps shaped like yogurt swirls, and natural pebbles lining the floor. His passion for aesthetics extends to his 4,799-square-foot, four-bedroom Malibu mansion—an architectural marvel boasting a Boffi kitchen, Toto bidet toilets, and a walk-in closet filled with Hermès. He owns a fleet of luxury cars, including a Rolls-Royce Phantom, Ferrari, and a Mercedes G Wagon. He looks like he’s in his early 30s, and enjoys puffing on expensive cigarillos.
But Lee isn’t front row at a runway show or gracing a red carpet. On Jan. 30, he’s seated inside the uninviting environs of the Los Angeles Superior Court, where he is being arraigned on charges of assault with a deadly weapon for reportedly chasing down a homeless man on the side of the road and brutally beating him with a tire iron.
“Young’s voluntary return from Asia twice since the initiation of these proceedings speaks volumes as to his desire to address these allegations and to correct the many factual misstatements which have been published about this case,” Philip Kent Cohen, Lee’s attorney, told The Daily Beast.
According to the Los Angeles Police Department, Lee was driving a rented Range Rover along Vermont Avenue in east Hollywood on June 15, 2011, with an acquaintance in the passenger seat when he spotted a homeless man in the street asking passersby for money.
“The detectives told me Lee was somehow offended by a tattoo that was on the defender’s arm, and it was a silhouette of two people in a sexual position,” Lt. Paul Vernon, commanding officer of the Central Detective Division, told The Daily Beast.
A verbal argument ensued, at which point Lee parked his car and, according to witnesses, approached the panhandler from behind and struck him in the back of the head with a tire iron. Blood was pouring down the man’s face. He ran from the attackers, but Lee and another suspect chased him down, and Lee again used the tire iron to strike the man’s arm, head, and body multiple times. During the attack, the victim recalled hearing Lee repeatedly yell, “Say I’m sorry! Say I’m sorry,” according to an LAPD search-warrant affidavit obtained by The Daily Beast. The man was later admitted to the hospital and treated for various cuts and bruises on his head and torso, as well as a fractured left forearm.
“We’re still trying to track down the other passenger and aren’t sure about the level of his involvement in the assault,” said Vernon.
A witness called the police and, according to the LAPD, gave them the license plate number of Lee’s rented vehicle, and the tire iron was tracked down through the car’s rental agency. Lee, who had left the country while the authorities were piecing together the case, was picked out from a photo display by witnesses according to police officials, and was arrested on Jan. 16 at Los Angeles International Airport after flying back from his native Korea.
Lee is facing seven years in prison on charges of assault with a deadly weapon with the special allegation of causing great bodily injury, and has been released on $60,000 bail. According to a search-warrant affidavit of his Malibu home on Jan. 30, two handguns were found registered in Lee’s name: a Colt .45 and a Para Ordnance brand .45. However, he was not allowed to own or possess any firearms due to court stipulations stemming from narcotics and weapons convictions against him in 2001, and could face further charges. Lee, who is due back in court on March 5, could not be reached for comment.
Pinkberry has been careful to distance itself from the case, pointing out that Lee hasn’t been involved with the company for two years. Laura Jakobsen, senior vice president of marketing and design at Pinkberry, told The Daily Beast that “Young Lee co-founded Pinkberry in 2005 and his contributions were focused on the design aesthetic of the brand leveraging his architecture background. Current Pinkberry CEO Ron Graves took over the leadership of the company in 2007, bringing an experienced investor base, board of directors, management team and strategy to build a global brand. Over time, Lee’s role continued to diminish, and in Spring 2010 Pinkberry ended its relationship with him.” The company declined to comment when asked whether he had been ousted.
This isn’t the first time Lee has found himself on the wrong side of the law. A former bouncer and kickboxer turned architect, he was arrested in 2001, according to the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office, and charged with felony possession of cocaine, one misdemeanor count of battery of a spouse, and carrying a loaded firearm. According to the D.A.’s office, he pleaded no contest to felony possession of cocaine and battery, and was sentenced to two days in jail and three years’ probation, and was slapped with a three-year keep-away order.
In 2004, Lee met Hyekyung “Shelly” Hwang, a South Korea–born graduate of the University of Southern California whose father had run a factory back home. Hwang had reportedly lost money on two restaurants when she hired Lee to help her open an English tea house along a residential street in West Hollywood. Hwang leased a former one-car garage to house the shop, but the duo couldn’t obtain the necessary permits, and the idea was scrapped. According to court documents, Lee claims the two “shortly began a dating relationship,” and that he then offered “the possibility of opening up a high end yogurt house with sleek, sophisticated interior designs, which [Lee] could design for her.” Hwang declined comment for this story.
Influenced in part by his nightclub background, Lee reportedly conceptualized the IKEA-meets-Kidrobot Pinkberry design—including the pastel colors and high-end accoutrements. He also lays claim to the yogurt itself, saying it was inspired by a soft-serve gelato-like yogurt he tasted in Vienna back in 1993, while Hwang experimented with yogurt cultures to make sure their special brand was 100 percent nonfat. They only offered two yogurt flavors to start—plain and green tea.
“In my stores, I serve you a $5 dessert, and I let you sit in $500 chairs,” Lee told Fast Company in 2007. “People can tell the difference.”
The first store opened in January 2005 at the West Hollywood location, and the hip design and attractive product caught on quickly. By May, people were lining up around the block for Pinkberry, and celebrities like Lindsay Lohan and Mike Tyson were seen among the hordes of customers, who had come to call the addictive yogurt “Crackberry.”
“The parking enforcement came out and started ticketing,” Lee told Time in 2007. “One of the meter maids told me the city was making $175,000 a month off of our customers’ tickets.”
Lee and Hwang married on Aug. 17, 2007, according to court documents, and Pinkberry kept expanding, fueled by a $27.5 million investment from Maveron, the venture-capital firm co-founded by Starbucks chairman Howard Schultz (Schultz declined comment for this story). By December 2007, the yogurt franchise—which dubbed its product “swirly goodness”—had 34 stores in Los Angeles and New York City. In October 2009, it opened its first international store in Kuwait following an additional $9 million in second-round funding.
That same year, however, Lee relapsed and spiraled back downward into drug addiction after being clean for eight years, according to a restraining order filed against him in 2010 by a former friend of more than 25 years. In the documents, obtained by The Daily Beast, the man claims Lee has an “extremely violent temper,” has a gun collection, and once swung a knife at him 10 years ago. The man also states that after Lee’s drug relapse, Hwang, Lee’s wife, attempted an intervention on him, and when this failed, she filed for divorce. The man further alleges that Lee blamed him for the divorce, and showed up at his house on the night of Jan. 19, 2010, warning him in a threatening tone in Korean to “Be careful!”
In January 2010, Hwang filed for divorce from Lee, citing “irreconcilable differences,” and, according to documents filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court, the two agreed to divvy up 14 million shares of Pinkberry stock and close to $3 million in assets. Pinkberry ended its relationship with Lee a few months later.
“They were very pleasant neighbors,” William Craven, whose family lives adjacent to Lee and Hwang’s Malibu mansion, told The Daily Beast. “They spend a lot of time away from home. They’re very personable, pleasant people to say, ‘Hello, nice day’ to.”
Pinkberry recently released a statement on its website addressing the criminal charges against its co-founder: “[Lee] has no influence or input into the company in any way, and the parties have not been in communication with one another since Mr. Lee’s exit … we can say without hesitation that Pinkberry values the communities we serve and stands against acts of violence of any kind, especially those involving the most vulnerable among us.”
Christine Pelisek contributed to this report.