More than five years after Dr. Albert Woonho Ro was found beaten to death in his Glen Burnie dental office, his dental assistant admitted Monday that she siphoned more than $17,000 from his business and had him killed to cover it up.
Shontay Joyner Hickman, 36, of Baltimore pleaded guilty Monday to first-degree murder in the death of the dentist, who was from a family well-known in the local Korean-American community. She was sentenced to life in prison.
Hickman's plea agreement was sealed because of the continuing investigation — a man charged in Ro's killing is scheduled to go on trial in May.
"I have destroyed a lot, his family and mine," she said through tears as she apologized to more than a dozen members of Ro's family seated in the courtroom.
"You're right. You made a horrible, horrible choice, and now we're seeing the effects of it. … The ripple effect is just unbelievable," Anne Arundel County Circuit Judge Pamela L. North told her after hearing how Ro's death turned his relatives' lives upside down.
"Any time one of us will pick up the phone, fear will overwhelm us," said James Ro, who stood by his brother, Thomas, and spoke of the pain of losing their father, who was 51. His father was not alive to see him marry, and he said every occasion and holiday is marked by grief. He cannot even look at family photo albums, he said.
In a statement read in court, Ro's brother, Michael, wrote that he "had to give up my medical practice for fear of suffering the same fate." Their bond was as brothers, but also as friends, he wrote.
"No one deserves to experience what we have experienced," said Annie Kim, whose mother, Susan, was married to Ro for three years.
She said she had never seen such a loving relationship as theirs, and that Ro's life revolved around family, church and work. In the aftermath of her husband's death, Susan Ro lost her home and business, went bankrupt, moved in with a friend and remains depressed, her daughter said.
"She really lost everything," Kim said.
After leaving the courtroom, Hickman's attorney, Warren A. Brown, said his client took the money — payments for patients' dental treatment — for family expenses. She is married and has three children, he said. He said Hickman did not participate in the July 26, 2006, slaying but arranged the fatal beating of Ro.
Prosecutor Anne Colt Leitess said after leaving work, ostensibly to pick up her children early, Hickman was seen returning close to 5 p.m. with three men.
When the doctor had not come home by 7 p.m., as usual, or answered his wife's increasingly frantic calls, police were called.
Investigators found Ro dead, every bone in his face broken, and having been repeatedly stabbed, Leitess said.
Police said they traced Hickman's movements with her cellphone to an area near where Dante Jeter, 24, of Baltimore was staying. Jeter will be tried in May on identical charges. No other arrests have been made.
Jeter was convicted of first-degree murder in an unrelated killing and sentenced last year to serve 60 years in prison. Baltimore prosecutors said the May 2008 slaying of Tyrone Freeman was over a $150 drug debt.
Ro's relatives previously have said that he was alerted to patients saying they were getting billed for payments they'd already made.
The week before Ro was killed, he had hired an office worker to go through files, the prosecutor said.
"She had found discrepancies in the files," Leitess said.
Leitess said the police investigation indicated that Hickman had been stealing for about five months.
Hickman and Jeter were arrested in 2010, after cold-case detectives took over the investigation.