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Closing The Loop
An embezzler, a ballet school, and the missing links in a true crime story
Hello again, Team Complete Works. I am beyond thrilled about the story we’ve got this week. It’s by Rebecca Ritzel, a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. A former columnist for The Washington Post, Rebecca holds a master's degree in arts journalism from Syracuse University, and has taught writing at American University and the University of Maryland. Her piece for Complete Works is a follow up to a piece she wrote for The New York Times back in March of 2020. That story, which she also details below, is a doozy, full of odd turns and strange connections, a marriage to a man who is already dead, and a ballet school run by the Unification Church (aka the Moonies). The sentencing of the subject of that story gave Rebecca a new chance to try to figure out the connections between a few of the characters in this strange tale. I’ll let her tell you the rest. Enjoy!
Closing the Loop
By Rebecca J. Ritzel
(Kirov Academy of Ballet students perform "Dance of the Hours" at a Youth America Grand Prix competition in February 2020. Photo by Siggul/VAM.)
On September 15th, Sophia Kim, a former bookkeeper who embezzled more than $1.5 million from the Kirov Academy of Ballet inWashington, D.C., was sentenced to 3.5 years in federal prison.
Before reading off his sentence, Judge Rudolph Contreras had just one question for the U.S. district attorney prosecuting the case. Kim had previously embezzled $1.1 million from a nonprofit foundation closely tied to the Kirov Academy of Ballet, and had even done jail time for the offense. Given this, “Do you have any insight into how she was able to obtain that job?” he asked.
The prosecutor said he had “no information.” And that’s the $1.5 million question that remains even as the books close on the most bizarre story to ever combine the Unification Church, gambling casinos, and ballet.
It’s also certainly the most bizarre story of my 20-year arts journalism career.
I owe this particular New York Times byline to an ex-boyfriend with whom I am thankfully still on good terms. As a Korean American who grew up in the Washington suburbs, Mike loves a good Moonie schadenfreude story, so in Nov. 2019 I sent him a link to a D.C. television station report about a woman getting arrested for embezzling $800,000 from the Kirov.
Hahahaha [ROFL emoji], he texted.
Mike knew what the NBC reporter did not, that the (now defunct) Korean Culture and Freedom Foundation, from which Kim had previously stolen more than a million dollars through gambling and day-trading, was also a Unification church charity. The higher ups had to know. So why did they hire her back?
My response was something along the line of, “JFC WTF!”
Turns out, in addition to not connecting his Moonie dots, the TV reporter screwed up his math. Add up all ATM withdrawals, credit card charges and checks written out to herself—all including in the FBI’s findings—and she had embezzled more than $1.5 million over a period of just nine months during 2018. Nearly all of the money was spent at the MGM National Harbor casino.
In January 2020, I dove into over-reporting my Kirov academy embezzlement story like only a freelancer making her debut in The New York Times Culture section can. Yet even after six weeks of research guided by the special projects editor, we still didn’t know why Kim was hired back and given a chance to gamble with millions of tuition dollars paid by the parents of top-tier ballet students from Asia and the United States.
But I did discover that the whole saga began with an arranged double wedding that took place on Feb. 20, 1984, when a promising ballerina and her Ivy League older brother married two children of Unification church founder Rev. Sun Myung Moon.
Oh also: Only one of Rev. Moon’s children was alive at the time of the wedding.
As a journalist who covers dance, I had long been intrigued by the Kirov, a boarding school for promising dancers founded by Rev. Moon in 1989. At its peak in the early aughts, many of the school’s graduates landed at major ballet companies. Standout alumni include Rory Hohenstein (The Joffrey Ballet), Evan McKie (National Ballet of Canada) and Joy Womack (The Bolshoi Ballet.)
All those dancers declined to comment for my New York Times story. When they enroll around age 12, many Kirov students have no idea their parents signed them up to spend years their teenage years surrounded by members of what some would call a cult. Among many idiosyncrasies, the Unification church sideshows include mass weddings, rallies to support Richard Nixon and the right-leaning Washington Times.
Lesser known than the church’s ties to conservative politics: The church’s vast business holdings (including a sushi empire), dance philanthropy and the Moon family feuds.
For a primer on all three, I read (and recommend!) Mariah Blake’s 2012 New Republic deep dive, “The Fall of the House of Moon.” In vivid detail, Blake describes a 2010 telecast service led by In Jin “Tatiana” Moon, who briefly ran led the U.S. arm of the Unification church, now called the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification.
With her thick makeup and sculpted red hair, In Jin bore a striking resemblance to a game-show host. After welcoming the “one hundred six churches all across the country” that were tuning in, she pointed out the church’s new “Liberace piano,” a rhinestone-encrusted Baldwin grand. Her love of Liberace, she explained, dated back to a show she’d seen in Las Vegas as a child. “I must say that he was fabulous.”
According to Blake, Tatiana also “renamed the church Lovin’ Life Ministries, shelved the old hymn books, and launched a rock band. But her attempt to Liberace-ize the church didn’t work. After attendance plummeted from 26,000 to less than 7,500, Tatiana abruptly disappeared, and rarely resurfaced until 2018, when she was named president of the Kirov Academy and began posing for photos at tony Washington social events.
What happened in the interim? Tatiana left her husband for a Norwegian guitarist who played in Sonic Cult, the church rock band, and gave birth to his child in her late 40s. In Jin’s mother, who assumed leadership of the church in Korea after Rev. Moon died, was displeased. Mother and daughter did eventual reconcile, religion scholar Massimo Introvigne told me; she and her husband have since blessed in mass ceremony the couple shared on social media.
Yet if the story of Tatiana Moon’s divorce and remarriage sounds crazy, it’s nothing compared to her first wedding, when as a senior in high school, she married the son of Washington Times chairman Bo Hi Pak, known as “the Father’s Mouth” because he served as Rev. Moon’s right-hand man and interpreter. During the same ceremony, Washington Ballet dancer Hoon Sook “Julia” Pak married In Jin’s dead older brother.
“No way. We can’t print that,” my editor said, upon reviewing an early first draft of my story. Accusing an acclaimed ballet dancer of “marrying” a dead man would be libelous.
He changed his mind after Introvigne graciously supplied a link to a Unification magazine including wedding photos. Tatiana is scowling, while Julia bears the demure smiled of a dancer who has just been told to correct her turn-out. Instead of grasping a barre, she holds the portrait of a 17-year-old boy who ran his Jeep off the road near the Moon family’s Hudson Valley compound.
According to dance historian Max Wyman, the Washington Ballet was on tour 1984, when Julia, who was preparing to take on the lead role in “Giselle,” received a call ordering her to participate in the lavish Seoul ceremony. “This created a theological quandary for [Rev] Moon,” Blake wrote, “since according to his teachings, only married couples could enter God’s kingdom.”
From the wedding on, wrote Wyman, “No expense seemed to great … for [Julia] Moon.”
The Unification church had long sponsored a children’s dance troupe called The Little Angels, but after the wedding, Rev. Moon founded the Seoul-based Universal Ballet, with Julia as its star, and converted a former monastery near Washington’s Catholic University into the Kirov Academy. Oleg Vinogradov, then-director of Russia’s acclaimed Kirov Ballet, agreed to serve one of the school’s first leaders. (Today the organizations have no formal ties.)
Future artistic directors – including one who spent an hour on the phone with me after the Times story ran – found working for the Moon family difficult. Among other challenges, they were expected to pay their own way to visit church headquarters in Seoul, the former artistic director said. He was also constantly worried they would close the school and sell it to developers. By 2017, Julia was serving as the Kirov’s president, chairperson and artistic director. One of her brothers was executive director. The remaining five board members included her father and a Unification Church communications specialist. Church subsidies were dwindling, so money was tight. And that’s when Pak’s former assistant got out of jail after serving her first prison sentence.
Born in 1960, Kim joined the Unification Church as a teenager, immigrated to the U.S. in 1982 and married an American church attorney. She met Pak in 1985 while working on The Washington Times’ business side. After a stint at the Kirov, Pak tapped her to run the Korean Cultural and Freedom Foundation, but she was concerned that bad investments were draining the KCFF coffers. So she took up daytrading, and she took up driving to New Jersey to play Blackjack.
Between 2001 and 2005, Kim embezzled $800,000 from the KCFF. Although a nonprofit, the KCFF largely existed as a pass-through organization that funneled money from the Unification church (and related businesses) to the Kirov, Little Angels and Universal Ballet. The foundation was eventually dissolved. When the Feds finally caught up with Kim in 2012 — among other paper trails, her bank records contradicted financial claims in a bankruptcy filing — her public defender argued that Kim had no qualifications to be an accountant, and should not be blamed for her financial crimes.
“Ms. Kim has a high school education and was hired as a KCFF bookkeeper because of her devotion to the Unification Church and her loyalty to Dr. Pak, not because of any specialized accounting or tax knowledge,” he wrote.
After Kim was convicted by a jury, Julia was among those who pleaded with the judge for a lenient sentence. Yet I still could not directly tie Tatiana to Kim. There court records refused to connect the dots. Thankfully, Blake’s New Republic article came close when she recounted the troubling downfall of Paradigm, the hedge fund run by Tatiana’s husband, who was also, thanks to their odd double wedding, Julia’s brother and brother-in-law.
He goes by the Americanized name James Park, and, according to Blake, he developed a cocaine addiction that only got worse after he and his partners made plans to sell Paradigm to Hunter Biden.
Yes. That Hunter Biden, who eventually found out the company wasn’t worth what he and his team initially agreed to pay. In 2010, Paradigm filed for voluntary liquidation, leaving Tatiana and Park deeply in debt. (A 2019 Politico Magazine investigation into the Paradigm debacle provides plenty of details.)
The financial safety net, for Tatiana, was to glam it up and start running the church. She had an affair with one church musician, which Blake said Park tolerated, and then the Norwegian guitarist, which was the nail in the 1984 arranged-marriage coffin. After recovering from the scandals, she became president of the Kirov, collecting a salary of $145,020 a year, according to the school’s public tax records.
Were Tatiana and Kim close? Maybe. One Twitter user who DMed me after my story ran described the convicted embezzler as someone who, “loved and cared for Tatiana in her time of massive struggles. This is why Tatiana just rehired her,” the user wrote.
But that is only the theory of a Twitter user who declined to provide any evidence. So the truth is, my debut investigation in The New York Times may never be complete.
I’m not the only one still wondering. Among pleas Judge Contreras received as he prepared to send Kim to prison for the second time was a letter from Michael Sebold, her ex-husband.
“When she got out of prison … the Kirov took her back and gave her a job, which seems compassionate,” Sebold wrote. “But knowing that she had a gambling problem they put her back in charge of finances? Out of a sense of compassion? Seriously? I'm sorry, but you don't show compassion to an alcoholic by hiring him or her to tend bar for you. That is not compassion but irresponsibility. I am at a total loss as to what in the world the Kirov was thinking.”
“He seems to be blaming the victim here,” Contreras said, calling the letter “very curious.”
In the end, the judge settled for less than the six years federal prosecutors requested, but tacked on years of court supervision that should prevent Kim from ever working in finance. Contreras requested that she spend her 3.5-year federal prison term in Danbury, Conn., where she will continue treatment for a gambling addition.
Tatiana lives about 90 miles away in Mountainside, New Jersey, according to public records. Perhaps she’ll visit, to show compassion. And for old times’ sake, whatever those “old times” may be.