The Ordeal of Yong Jo Ji
The Ordeal of Yong Jo Ji By Jerry Bilinski The story of East End artist Yong Jo Ji and how he became involved with, and survived the criminal justice system in America is a harrowing, inspirational, and cautionary tale. Yong Jo’s efforts and his plight to remain a free man, continuing to create his art despite overwhelming odds, is a story of redemption. Yong Jo Ji is a Korean born artist and practicing Buddhist who immigrated to the United States as a young child. His family settled in the Midwest. After graduation from high school, Yong Jo attended the University of Wisconsin, eventually earning a Master’s Degree in Fine Arts. At his graduation he had the opportunity to meet the Dali Lama, his spiritual hero, who was being awarded an honorary degree by the university. Yong Jo’s art career flourished with numerous shows and very positive reviews of his eclectic work influenced by his interest in Eastern philosophy and religions. His personal life also flourished after meeting his soul mate Anna. Sharing a love of music and the arts, they eventually married and also became partners in creating art. Despite apparent successes in his life, Yong Jo continued to experience mood swings that had plagued him for most of his adult life. He attributed these emotional ups and downs to his artistic nature and looked to natural remedies to address them. A friend from college, who became a successful businessman in New York, offered Yong Jo his guest house on his Quogue estate to relax and create art. Yong Jo and his wife Anna accepted and relocated to the East End of Long Island. Bipolar Disorder is a serious mental health disability that touches the lives of millions of Americans and can be debilitating if untreated. Frequently people who suffer from it go undiagnosed because of the different ways it symptoms manifest depending upon the individual involved. Some people are able to lead very productive and functional lives and channel the energy stemming from the manic phases associated with the disorder into work and careers. Others may develop more severe symptoms that result in psychotic episodes producing grandiose delusions, severe depression, and sometimes psychotic episodes. During a get together with friends at their home on the Quogue estate, Yong Jo decided to do some target shooting. They were using a target pistol designed for that purpose. At some point in time Yong Jo became increasingly agitated for no apparent reason. He was apparently in the midst of a psychotic episode. He suddenly put the gun to his chest and fired resulting in a superficial wound. In the middle of the chaos, someone called 911 in an effort to get medical help. Yong Jo continued to deteriorate mentally and was becoming extremely paranoid. The call to the police describing the incident, which involved a gun and shooting, set off red flags with the local police department. They responded with multiple officers as well as the SWAT Team. Thus began a 6 hour standoff with the Swat Team and police negotiators. Yong Jo, a practicing Buddhist and follower of the Dali Lama, who had never been arrested nor had any prior trouble with the law, was now in the middle of a potentially deadly confrontation with a SWAT Team. After telephone calls into the house from the police negotiator and his wife Anna, Yong Jo, exhausted and in physical and emotional pain, agreed to come out of the house. The only injury from the incident was to Yong Jo, a superficial self-inflicted wound. After being arrested and taken into custody, the police brought him to a local hospital where he was treated both for his wound and his mental health instability. He was subsequently discharged from the hospital and then transferred to the Suffolk County Jail in Riverhead. At the jail he was placed on suicide watch. Still unstable mentally and not properly medicated and now under even more stress and isolation, Yong Jo’s bipolar symptoms quickly moved from a hyper-manic state to severe depression. At one point Yong Jo recalls telling one of the correction officers he “felt like killing himself”. According to Yong Jo, “the officer handed him a cloth laundry bag and dared him to do it”. Yong Jo did and attempted suicide by using the bag to try and hang himself. The jail staff intervened and interrupted the attempt. He was transferred to a secure forensic state psychiatric hospital in upstate New York for treatment. After nearly two months in psychiatric hospital setting, Yong Jo was finally stabilized on the right medications to properly treat his Bipolar Disorder. He was now assessed as being competent and returned to the Suffolk County Jail to continue through the court process. Despite the fact that Yong Jo did not hurt anyone during the events that led to his arrest, had no prior arrest record, and was clearly mentally unstable at the time of the incident, prosecutors in Suffolk County were seeking a 10 year prison sentence for Yong Jo. Yong Jo’s wife Anna, his family back in Wisconsin, art colleagues, and friends around the country rallied to his defense. The judge presiding over his case agreed to allow him to be released from jail under very strict conditions of probation supervision. Yong Jo was able to gain his freedom but still had a long road ahead of him in order to avoid a lengthy prison sentence. A referral from a sympathetic probation officer who was supervising him led to my involvement in his case. I have spent over a decade working as a Case Manager and advocate for the mentally ill in Suffolk County who become involved in the criminal justice system. After listening to his story I agreed to assist Yong Jo. Eventually the court agreed to a plea and sentence of probation rather than years in prison. In order to make a living and help with his rehabilitation, Yong Jo started painting again with his spouse. Yong Jo and Anna quickly developed a following and market for their art and had showings in local galleries as well positive stories in various media outlets, including Dan Papers. Yong Jo was eventually given an early discharge from probation for good conduct and following all conditions of his supervision, and without any further contacts with the criminal justice system. Yong Jo’s story is uplifting and an example for all of us. He attributes his belief in Buddhism and love of art as the key to surviving during his darkest moments, when all seemed to be lost. In this case, art and Buddhism prevailed over the criminal justice system.