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Parents' three-year quest to uncover details of son's death in LA heads for trial

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Pam and Ed Sullivan are fighting the findings from the California Highway Patrol that their son Trevor died from a self-caused motorcycle accident in Los Angeles. Sullivan was an avid skateboarder and his parents keep the board that was with him when he died. It’s been three years since their 24-year-old son died, but Edmund and Pamela Sullivan scarcely have had time to grieve. They’ve been too busy waging a single-minded battle to get to the bottom of his death.

On Sept. 3, 2013, the Portland couple got the call that every parent dreads. Their son Trevor had died after losing control of his motorcycle on a Los Angeles freeway.

Not until two weeks later did Ed realize that some little things didn’t seem to add up.

The California Highway Patrol told them no other vehicle was involved — that Trevor had hit the side of an onramp and then crashed.

But some witness accounts didn’t make sense. And as the Sullivans learned later, initial police, fire and hospital reports described the accident as a hit and run.

Even more puzzling, bank records show that Trevor had just withdrawn $300, but that money was never found. And phone records the couple obtained suggest his cell phone, which was never found at the scene, was repeatedly turned on and off in the days after Trevor’s death.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Caption: A high school photo of Trevor Sullivan in the kitchen of his parents' house in SW Portland. His parents, Ed and Pam, are fighting the findings that Sullivan caused his own motorcycle death in Los Angeles three years ago.
Questions led to more questions, which then led to theories.

Rapidly, the Sullivans say, they started to put the puzzle together. Not only did they become convinced that Trevor had been struck by a driver, they also had a strong suspicion of who that driver was: Yong Sung Kim, then a 29-year-old who moved to the United States from Korea at age 15.

Contacted by the Portland Tribune, Kim repeatedly declined to comment on the case, referring questions to his attorneys. Told they had not responded to calls or emails, he said, “Sorry about that.”

Individuals do not have the power to bring criminal charges, but they can bring civil cases to recoup losses. That’s what the Sullivans did in November 2014, asking for unspecified damages and alleging “wrongful death.”

In motions, Kim’s lawyers said the Sullivans’ theory was “unfounded and fantastical. ... Kim had nothing to do with decedent’s fatal accident and (Ed Sullivan) has proffered no evidence to the contrary.”

But last Friday, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge refused to toss out the Sullivans’ civil case and set a trial date for Jan. 9.

Citizen lawyers

The Sullivans’ long-distance court case is unusual not only in its allegations but in the fact that they’ve had little help. For the past year, the couple has had no lawyer.

Pamela Sullivan is a former paralegal worker and her husband is a building contractor by trade.

“It’s amazing that anybody could (represent themselves) this far and be ready for trial,” says Curtis Edmondson, a Hillsboro patent lawyer who has spoken with the family about their case. “I’m impressed by what a good job they’ve done.”

The couple has invested countless hours — Ed estimates 6,000 — on their efforts to piece together Trevor’s final moments of life. They’ve spent more than $60,000 pursuing the case, much of it borrowed from friends and relatives.

They no longer have paying jobs. Their Southwest Portland home lies unfinished, remodeling plans on hold, boxes and stacks of police documents, cell phone records and depositions scattered about.

“We haven’t gone on vacation; we haven’t been anywhere,” Sullivan says.

Anywhere but California, that is. They’ve confronted top California Highway Patrol officials in Sacramento and have flown back and forth to Los Angeles to face off with high-priced lawyers, while conducting sworn deposition interviews of witnesses, paramedics, firefighters and police — 19 of them so far.

Pamela’s paralegal training has been a huge help. And so has the ability to do much of their research online. California’s rules for civil trials “are all there on the internet, so we just started studying,” Ed says.

Avid skateboarder

Trevor grew up in Lake Oswego, one of four Sullivan children. Friends remember him as full of life, humor and positivity. YouTube is home to several videos featuring him skateboarding in Tualatin or yukking it up with pals. In one, he’s shown puffing on a cigarette while filming another skateboarder’s stunts, narrating and muttering quotes from “Forrest Gump,” and delivering Beavis-like metal riffs with charisma, self-possession and comedic timing, sort of a younger-generation Bill Murray.

Several videos online are dedicated to him, including one advertising a skateboarding event set up in his memory at the Commonwealth Skateboarding park in Southeast Portland.

Friends have posted countless comments on his Facebook page in the years after his death, keeping Sullivan apprised of happenings in the lives of his friends and relatives. Six months after his death, a friend named Valerie wrote “Happy birthday to literally the most interesting man who will ever walk this planet.”

Moving to L.A.

In late August 2013, barely a week before his death, the Lake Oswego High School graduate set out for Los Angeles, his skateboard strapped to his motorcycle, intent on seeking a career in acting. He started a job at a Santa Monica sporting goods store and found an apartment.

At about 9 p.m. Sept. 2, the 911 dispatch center for the California Highway Patrol started getting calls about a motorcyclist who’d had an accident on an onramp to Interstate 10 west of La Brea Avenue.

It was not until about 9:30 p.m. the following night that Ed heard about it, getting a call from the CHP’s investigating officer. The officer indicated the accident was Sullivan’s fault, Ed recalls.

CHP had launched an investigation that would list one witness as saying Trevor was swerving from side to side trying to pass a white SUV, and didn’t appear to notice the median curb before running into it.

The name of that witness: Yong Sung Kim, the man who Ed eventually would sue.

According to a subsequent narrative prepared by the CHP on Sept. 10, 2013, Ed immediately appears to cast doubt on any notion that his son caused his own death. According to the report’s narrative, Ed said his son didn’t drink and “would never speed or drive erratic (sic).”

In mid-September, Ed and Pam finally were able to purchase from the CHP a copy of the report documenting their son’s death.

That sparked more questions. The police summary of Kim’s statement immediately jumped out, Ed says.

Kim, according to the CHP report, describes following two to three car lengths behind Sullivan, as the motorcyclist swerved side to side while traveling 35 mph, trying to pass the white SUV. Sullivan crashed into a curb and was ejected. Kim pulled over safely a few feet away from Sullivan, rushed to his side, then called 911, according to the police report.

However, the only other witness listed by CHP as seeing the accident told police she saw no SUV or any other vehicles.

The report concludes Sullivan caused the accident that killed him, by committing an “unsafe turning movement.”

After months of calls down to California and countless hours requesting and reviewing documents associated with the crash, Ed concluded the CHP was withholding evidence that Trevor was hit by another vehicle.

The 911 dispatch log showed the call was initially listed as a hit and run. And Cedars-Sinai hospital, where Sullivan was treated, did the same.

Other witnesses weigh in

As Ed began reaching out to witnesses, he eventually started getting texts from Ashton Proctor, who was driving a car on the freeway when the accident happened. According to his subsequent deposition, Proctor said an Asian guy had been acting “weird” at the scene, repeatedly saying Sullivan flipped the bike on his own, and that nobody hit him. Proctor texted Ed that while he didn’t actually witness any collision, he “felt like the car the Asian guy was driving hit him.”

It was a “gut instinct” call, Proctor told Kim’s lawyers. “I’m entitled to my opinion.”

Proctor believes the “Asian guy” was driving a white sedan, he said in the deposition.

Firefighter paramedic Joe Mendoza, formerly a dispatcher, was among the first to respond. He said in a separate deposition that the 911 code dispatched about Sullivan’s accident typically means that an “auto hit something ... So I know the auto is involved.”

One of the mysterious figures in the case is an African-American man dressed in some sort of uniform, described as an off-duty paramedic, or maybe just a guy holding Sullivan’s helmet steady to stabilize him.

Mendoza told Ed he spoke to the man, an account he repeated in his deposition this January

“I believe he said he saw the whole thing, and I believe he said he saw him being hit by a car,” Mendoza stated in his deposition.

The problem for the Sullivans is that it’s not enough to prove in court that their son was hit by a car. They have to show by a “preponderance” of the evidence that a man who claims he came to their son’s aid actually killed him.

NEXT: The case against

Yong Sung Kim.