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Ex-cello instructor found guilty of attempted sexual assault, acquitted of more serious charges

Kenneth Y. Kang, 70, of Palatine
Kenneth Y. Kang, 70, of Palatine

A jury Tuesday found a 70-year-old former Crystal Lake cello instructor guilty of attempting to sexually assault a student whom he taught for nine years. Jurors also acquitted the man of multiple felony criminal sexual assault charges tied to the same victim.

Throughout the two-day trial, attorneys argued about whether Kenneth Y. Kang intended to sexually assault his juvenile student, who now is an adult woman. In his closing argument Tuesday, McHenry County Assistant State’s Attorney Michael Combs told jurors there was no other reason why Kang might have touched his juvenile cello student in the manner alleged in the 20 counts of felony charges that Kang faced.

“If he wasn’t attempting to sexually assault her what was he doing?” Combs said.

Kang’s family hugged one another and cried Tuesday as sheriff’s deputies led the shackled, 70-year-old Palatine man to the McHenry County Jail. McHenry County Judge Robert Wilbrandt revoked Kang’s bond after the verdict was announced.

After about two hours of deliberation, jurors returned with guilty verdicts for 10 counts of attempted criminal sexual assault. The jury also found Kang not guilty on five additional counts of criminal sexual assault.

If he had been convicted of more than one count of criminal sexual assault, Kang would have been required to serve the sentences back-to-back. Instead, he faces probation or three to seven years in prison for attempted criminal sexual assault.

“We’re grateful he was found not guilty of the most serious charge,” one of Kang’s attorneys, Adam Sheppard, said after court Tuesday.

The case rested almost entirely on the victim’s testimony and a partial transcript from her 2019 interview with a Crystal Lake police detective.

Kang faced charges in two separate felony cases. The first case, filed in 2018, is ongoing and alleges aggravated criminal sexual abuse against four people. The second case, which Kang went to trial for this week, alleged criminal sexual assault and attempted criminal sexual assault against a fifth victim who came forward in 2019.

Charges were filed in that case while Kang was out on bond in connection with the 2018 allegations, to which he has pleaded not guilty. That case centered on accusations that Kang had sexual contact with a girl from October 2016 to August 2018 while she was between 14 and 17 years old, according to a redacted criminal complaint.

The investigation into that original complaint led police to three additional alleged victims, whose allegations are each included in the still pending case against Kang.

The former music instructor posted bond on those charges, but was arrested nine months later in connection with new allegations by a fifth person who said Kang sexually assaulted her in 2015, the allegations at the center of this week’s trial. A sentencing hearing now is scheduled for Sept. 30.

Before closing arguments Tuesday, McHenry County Judge Robert Wilbrandt partially granted a request by Kang’s attorneys to find Kang not guilty on multiple charges. Wilbrandt ultimately determined the state failed to prove five counts of a particular kind of criminal sexual assault, but left the jury to interpret the remaining counts that alleged a different kind of sexual assault.

Sheppard, one of Kang’s defense attorneys, referred to the matter during his closing argument as a “tough case” with an “emotional witness.”

“Maybe in her own mind something happened,” Sheppard said.

In addition to teaching cello lessons at the McHenry County Youth Orchestra and Academy, Kang previously worked as an adjunct faculty member at McHenry County College until the time of his 2018 arrest.

He also served a member of the National Taiwan Symphony Orchestra, and was formerly regarded as the No. 1 cellist in Seoul, South Korea, said one of his attorneys, Daniel Hofmann.

“If you asked him, ‘What are you, Ken?’ he’d tell you, ‘I’m a teacher,’ ” Hoffman said during opening statements Tuesday.

The victim was the first and only witness to testify at Kang’s trial. The woman, now a 20-year-old college student, began seeing Kang for weekly cello lessons around 2009, when she was 9 years old and continued working with him until she was 18, she said.

The abuse occurred any time the now-adult woman made a mistake and was explained to her as being a “technique” to help her cello playing, she testified.

“This case is about abuse of trust and abuse of authority,” Combs said in court Tuesday.

Although the woman’s memory of dates and times of the assaults was unclear Tuesday, she stood firmly on her testimony that it occurred during her hourlong cello lessons with Kang that took place every Monday over the course of nine years. The woman didn’t recall missing a single cello class between the ages of 9 and 18.

Although her mother would attend the classes early on, she eventually trusted Kang enough to conduct the lessons privately with her daughter, the woman testified. Lessons typically began in a routine way. The woman would start by practicing musical scales and a warm-up song before working on a performance piece, she said. Throughout the class, however, Kang would use an “aggressive tone of voice” and grew impatient, she said. As the woman got older, the lessons took a darker turn when she held a note too long or made an error of any kind, she said.

“When I messed up, that’s when some of the abuse would happen,” the woman said.

According to her testimony, Kang would touch her inappropriately when she made errors in her cello performances. Kang’s attorneys, however, emphasized a 2019 Crystal Lake police interview, during which the woman claimed no penetration ever occurred.

“Mr. Kang was overcharged,” Sheppard said.

Questioned Tuesday about her 2019 statements, the woman cried as she recalled being “unsure” and “nervous” at the police interview.

“It was my first time being alone in a room with a man in a really long time,” she said. “I think I was confused. I didn’t know what to say.”

Kang’s attorneys also pointed to a letter the woman wrote Kang before she left for college. In it, she used “glowing terms” to describe the cello instructor, Sheppard said, noting that the letter included what the woman called an “inside joke” between the teacher and student.

“An inside joke with your abuser?” Sheppard said. “It’s hard to believe.”

In a way, the woman appreciated all Kang had taught her, she said.

“It’s really messed up, but I loved him as a teacher,” the woman said in court Tuesday.

She also testified that she didn’t recognize all the abuse that occurred until she was older and tended to believe the abuse she did recall would be the last time every time.

“It was just really traumatizing,” she said.

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