|By Hal Dardick, Chicago
TribuneMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Aug. 21, 2007 - After John Seo's arrest during high-profile raids on Joliet-area hotels that police said were selling credit-card numbers, he quickly proclaimed his innocence, claiming a five-time felon duped police into an errant, monthslong probe.
In response, a spokesman for Will County Sheriff Paul Kaupas, whose department led the raids five days before the election in which he was re-elected, said then that Seo "will have his day in court." And he did, when prosecutors in early February dropped all charges against Seo, his partner, John Rhee, and other remaining defendants in Operation Sleepover.
Now, Seo and Rhee are seeking another day in court -- this time with Kaupas and two of his investigators as defendants in a federal lawsuit filed Monday. The hotel owners say their arrests almost destroyed the business they built over the last 30 years after coming to the United States from South Korea.
"I want them to admit they made a mistake," Seo said. "I don't want to see this happen to any other innocent citizens, and I want our good name back and our honor back."
The suit, which seeks unspecified damages, alleges an informant worked with Will County Sheriff's Detective Dennis Carey and Sgt. Edward Hayes to manufacture false charges against hotel owners and employees, "the majority of whom were of Asian descent."
Kaupas knew what was going on in the probe and acted with "deliberate, reckless indifference," the suit states.
Pat Barry, Kaupas' spokesman, noted officers had search and arrest warrants approved by judges. "The probable cause was there," he said.
Sheriff's personnel on Nov. 2, 2006, led raids on seven hotels, after alerting the media, which documented the arrests of Seo and Rhee at their Holiday Inn in Joliet. Officers arrested four hotel owners, the wife of another, two managers and five employees.
Three months earlier, Seo had called police to report that Timothy A. Hecker, who had been staying at the Holiday Inn for about two months, used other people's credit card numbers to pay his $9,700 tab. Hecker was arrested Aug. 7, 2006, at the Holiday Inn and charged with identity theft.
Since 1991, Hecker had been convicted five times on felony charges of forgery and theft in Will, DuPage and Kankakee Counties. He served four prison sentences.
After his arrest at the Holiday Inn, Hecker told police he had purchased 10,000 credit card numbers from one hotel and thousands from others in the previous six years, police said. Prison and court records indicate Hecker was in prison or jail at least three of those years.
Working as a confidential informant, Hecker allegedly purchased 150 credit card numbers from the seven hotels, leading to the charges in the case.
Meanwhile, he had been writing letters to his ex-girlfriend, Karen Sunde, a former part-time clerk at the Holiday Inn. "We are going to set them up," he wrote. "Are you glad I am doing what I am doing to the two Johns at H.I.?"
Sunde, in an interview before the cases were dropped, said she, at Hecker's request, delivered Holiday Inn scratch paper to other hotels caught up in Operation Sleepover. On the back of some of the scratch paper were the names of former guests and expired credit card numbers, Seo said.
While working for police, Hecker went to Holiday Inn and at least one other hotel, Ramada Inn in Joliet, and retrieved the scratch paper, the former defendants said. At the same time, he gave hotel workers money -- saying it was for blocks of rooms -- that police had given to him to pay for credit card numbers, according to case evidence and former defendants.
He left Ramada Inn with credit card numbers that traced back to Holiday Inn and were never used at Ramada Inn, authorities later confirmed.
"This case involves abuse of an informant," said Jon Loevy, an attorney for Seo and Rhee. "This guy is a con man, and they knew it, and they used him for political purposes without regard to the truth. ... It's no coincidence this happened within a week of an election."
Barry denied that. "This was not politically motivated at all," he said. "We knew prior to the election that we had an insurmountable lead."
The sheriff feared the theft of credit card numbers used at hotels could be a widespread problem the public needed to know about, he said.
Seo and Rhee said they feared bankruptcy after their arrests. The credit card processing company cut off their service for days, until media coverage appeared about Hecker, and the parent corporation of Holiday Inn declared them in default of their franchise contract, only dropping that effort after charges were dismissed.
News of the raids made national headlines, and Seo's friends and family in South Korea read about his arrest on the Internet, he said. "So many people still think that John went to America and John is a bad person over there," Seo said.
Seo immigrated to the United States in the early 1970s. He joined the Army and was honorably discharged after serving as a helicopter crew chief.
Rhee likewise emigrated from Korea. Both men went into the hotel business, becoming partners in 1999. They raised their children here and became U.S. citizens.
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