Irvine police: Man kidnapped, tried to sexually assault woman in retaliation for anti-Asian hate crimes

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Michael Sangbong Rhee is seen in an undated photo released April 9, 2021, by the Irvine Police Department.

Michael Sangbong Rhee is seen in an undated photo released April 9, 2021, by the Irvine Police Department.

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A man was arrested after attacking a woman in her car outside her Irvine apartment building, holding her hostage and attempting to sexually assault her in retaliation for recent hate crimes against Asian Americans, police said Friday.

Michael Sangbong Rhee, 37, of Lake Forest, targeted a woman sitting in her car outside her apartment in the area of Harvard Avenue and Coronado around 1:30 p.m. Thursday, Irvine police said in a news release.

The victim looked up from her open driver’s side door to see Rhee standing there, holding what she believed was a handgun, investigators said.

Rhee then allegedly told her that she needed to get in the back of her car if she wanted to live.

The woman offered to hand over her wallet and cash, but police say Rhee replied they would “do that later,” before pushing her into the backseat.  

Rhee is accused of committing sexual battery against the woman as she struggled to escape, in fear of her life and safety.

The victim was able to shout to a nearby maintenance worker that Rhee was armed, prompting Rhee to leave her car and run through the apartment complex to flee in his vehicle, police said.

Surveillance cameras captured Rhee’s license plate as he left, and police were able to track the information to his home in Lake Forest, officials said.

Officers found him there and took him into custody Thursday night. A search of his home and vehicle also uncovered several items tying him to the attack, including a BB gun that was similar to the weapon the victim described, according to investigators.

Rhee was booked on $1 million bail on suspicion of kidnapping with the intent to commit a sexual assault. Inmate records showed he remained in custody Friday night.

The woman he assaulted was of Asian descent herself, but detectives say they believe he targeted her because he thought she was white “based on the totality of the investigation and statements made by Rhee.”

Police say they will ask the Orange County District Attorney’s Office to file hate crime charges against Rhee because the attack was in retaliation for recent hate incidents targeting Asian Americans.

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