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Man who conspired with sister in infamous 1993 ‘black widow’ murder case released from prison

Thirty years after killing his sister’s boyfriend in a sensational Chicago crime that launched an international search, Andrew Suh walked out of prison in western Illinois early Friday thanks to a new state law that grants retroactive sentencing credit for rehabilitative programs.

Suh, who turned 50 earlier this month, was greeted by a half-dozen supporters and his lawyer, Candace Chambliss, legal director of the Illinois Prison Project, about 9:45 a.m. outside the gates of Kewanee Life-Skills Re-Entry Center.

Among his supporters was Sungmin Kim, an immigration attorney and member of Grace Presbyterian Church in Wheeling whose family is giving Suh a place to live. The two have known each other for nearly 20 years. Suh thanked supporters for their steadfast advocacy and celebrated a Korean tradition of eating tofu to “purge the negativity of the past 30 years,” Chambliss said.

A couple hours later, back in the Chicago area, Suh enjoyed a Korean BBQ meal at a Glenview restaurant and then headed to the Wheeling church, where other supporters, including an old high school classmate, welcomed him home.

In a tearful interview, Suh told the Tribune he is overwhelmed with emotions.

“I cannot possibly begin to explain the emotions that are racing through me right now because this is 30 years in the making,” Suh said. “It’s everything from happiness to sadness to guilt to overwhelming elation. I’m so thankful.”

Suh said he wants to continue his college education and work with troubled youths in his community.

“I’ll do well,” he told the Tribune. “I promise.”

Chambliss said Suh found out earlier in the week that his release might be a possibility, but it wasn’t confirmed until less than 24 hours before it happened, when a warden confirmed the news.

“He’s so excited and so ready to start the second part of his life,” Chambliss said. “He’s healthy and has years and years to live his life, which is beautiful.”

Suh had been serving an 80-year sentence for the Sept. 25, 1993, murder of his sister’s boyfriend, Robert O’Dubaine, in Chicago’s Bucktown neighborhood. Suh has long admitted he pulled the trigger in the premeditated, ambush-style killing. But, in repeated clemency requests, he argued his remorse and efforts to better himself have earned him a measure of mercy.

Suh was eligible for day-for-day credit under sentencing laws in place at the time of the killing. His latest petition for clemency has been pending before the Illinois Prisoner Review Board for several months. Cook County prosecutors did not object to his request to have his remaining prison term commuted to time served.

Meanwhile, a new state law that went into effect Jan. 1 allowed for retroactive sentencing credits, significantly shortening incarceration time for those inmates who qualify. Suh’s attorney estimated he had earned nearly 4,000 days of credit due to his accomplishments behind bars.

“We just hope it’s (the new law) applied generously to everyone,” Chambliss said. “It’s hard to understand why it’s applied to some people and not others.”

A spokesperson for the Illinois Department of Corrections told the Tribune prison officials are diligently recalculating program credits for those eligible under the law and notifying inmates once approved.

Prison records show Andrew Suh’s disciplinary record is nearly perfect over his three decades of incarceration. Besides completing several rehabilitative and educational programs, including becoming a certified optician, he has assisted disabled inmates and volunteered in his former prison’s hospice unit. At Kewanee, Suh also co-authored a prisoner newsletter and is involved in a mentoring program for at-risk youths involved in the juvenile justice system.

Chambliss noted he would have been eligible for parole in 2015 if Illinois’ Youthful Parole law had been in place. The 2019 law acknowledges that young people’s brains are not fully developed and that they lack the decision-making abilities of more mature adults.

DuPage County State’s Attorney Robert Berlin, who prosecuted Suh decades ago while an assistant Cook County prosecutor, said Suh should have been required to serve the remainder of his prison term.

“The fact that Andrew was released after serving just over 30 years when he was required to serve 40 for a cold, calculated, premeditated murder is, in my opinion, an affront to justice and the memory of Robert O’Dubaine,” Berlin said in a Friday statement.

At the time of the murder, Suh had a bright future despite a difficult upbringing. His parents, Ronald and Elizabeth, moved from South Korea to Chicago’s Northwest Side in 1976 when Andrew was 2. He was 11 when his father died of cancer. Two years later, his mother was fatally stabbed in the family’s dry cleaning business in Evanston.

O’Dubaine had begun dating Suh’s sister, Catherine, a couple of months earlier. Nearly seven years her senior, O’Dubaine moved into her family’s home immediately after the death of her mother, and 18-year-old Catherine took on the role of guardian to her 13-year-old brother.

Andrew Suh went on to graduate from Loyola Academy in Wilmette, where he excelled academically, played football and was elected class and student body president, school records show. In fall 1993 he was a sophomore at Providence College in Rhode Island, having received a full academic scholarship.

Then he threw it all away.

That Sept. 25, he flew home from college and his sister dropped him off at the posh two-flat she shared with O’Dubaine on North Hermitage Avenue in Chicago. Catherine Suh had hidden a paper bag containing a gun and a plane ticket in the garage.

Andrew Suh waited there for hours until O’Dubaine, responding to a call from Catherine Suh asking for a ride, walked into the garage to get his car. Andrew Suh shot O’Dubaine twice in the neck and head.

The Suhs were arrested separately about six weeks later following an intense police investigation. Authorities said the sister and brother plotted to kill O’Dubaine for his $250,000 life insurance policy.

The slain man’s parents and a sister are now deceased. Other relatives have written to the state prisoner review board over the years urging Andrew Suh’s continued incarceration. The victim’s brother and the retired judge who convicted and sentenced Andrew Suh told the Tribune in the past that they don’t oppose his early release. They said the murder wouldn’t have occurred if not for Suh’s sister, Catherine, who they said should never be set free.

Andrew Suh, too, has said he killed the victim at the insistence of his sister. She was convicted and is serving a life sentence. In earlier Tribune interviews, Andrew Suh has said that he killed O’Dubaine to protect his sister and out of a misguided sense of family honor. His sister, he said, claimed O’Dubaine had been abusing her and squandering their family inheritance on gambling debts.

Suh also said his sister told him O’Dubaine was behind their mother’s 1987 slaying. Andrew Suh told the Tribune in a 2017 interview he became convinced his sister lied and that she killed their mother to inherit an $800,000 estate, though nobody has been charged in that crime.

The siblings are estranged, he said, and haven’t spoken in decades.

Catherine Suh was portrayed in media coverage as a femme fatale who manipulated her younger brother into committing murder. Dubbed “the black widow,” she abandoned him days before their Cook County trials by going on the run while free on bond. Her disappearance created a media frenzy, and the case was featured in January 1996 on a segment of “America’s Most Wanted.”

Catherine Suh, who was convicted of murder in absentia, turned herself in to the FBI in Honolulu that March. Now 54, she is not eligible for parole.

Andrew Suh’s prior appeals, post-conviction petitions and earlier clemency requests to three Illinois governors — George Ryan, Bruce Rauner and J.B. Pritzker — in 2002, 2017 and 2020 were unsuccessful.

As for the 1987 death of the Suhs’ mother, Evanston police said Catherine Suh and O’Dubaine provided alibis for each other on the morning Elizabeth Suh’s body was found under a pile of clothing in her business. She had been stabbed more than 35 times.

In recent years, police have tested old crime-scene evidence with the hope that more advanced forensic testing might reveal the killer’s identity. Authorities recently told the Tribune the testing failed to yield any “actionable leads.”

The Evanston case remains unsolved.

cmgutowski@chicagotribune.com