Virginia Man whose House Exploded had History of Rambling Lawsuits

Matt McClain/The Washington Post
Investigators on the site of a house explosion Tuesday in Arlington, Va. A blast from inside reduced the home to splinters and debris Monday night.

Before an explosion leveled James W. Yoo’s two-story duplex in Arlington County, Va., during a police standoff Monday night – before the dwelling erupted in a gargantuan fireball, apparently with Yoo inside – the 56-year-old homeowner had gone through a contentious divorce, had a history of alcoholism and filing rambling lawsuits, and had repeatedly complained to the FBI, to no avail, that he was a fraud victim, according to authorities and court records.

Yoo, who described himself in some of his many court cases as a former security specialist for telecommunications companies, was rarely seen around his neighborhood in the county’s Bluemont area, residents said. Then, late Monday afternoon, someone began firing projectiles from “a flare-type gun” in the 800 block of North Burlington Street, police said. When officers arrived at Yoo’s home about 5 p.m., they were met with gunfire, and a barricade situation ensued.

Then, shortly before 8:30 p.m., an enormous blast from inside the home, heard for miles around, reduced the place to splinters and rained debris all over the block. Police said a person’s remains later found in the rubble are presumed to be Yoo’s. They said no one else was seriously hurt and that the cause of the explosion has not been determined.

Neighbors said Yoo recently seemed to be getting ready to move out. Bags were piled atop his garage roof, they said. They said Yoo almost never interacted with others on the block. In fact, they said, they rarely set eyes on him.

“If you saw a human in that house, it would be a miracle,” said Sharney Wiringi, 45, who walked his dog daily by the home. Referring to Yoo, he said, “Nobody in the neighborhood really knew him.”

Yoo, who inherited the house from his parents, stated in unsuccessful legal filings over the years that he had long suffered from alcoholism. Arlington County Police Chief Andy Penn said at a news briefing Tuesday that the investigation of the explosion was ongoing and that the Virginia medical examiner’s office had yet to positively identify the person whose remains were found.

The incident began before 5 p.m. Monday, when police received a call about possible shots fired on Yoo’s block. It was “a flare-type gun,” Penn said, and more than 30 projectiles had been fired. As Yoo barricaded himself inside the home, authorities obtained a search warrant to enter the property and look for weapons, Penn said. Firefighters evacuated neighbors as a precaution.

The natural gas line to Yoo’s home was shut off before the explosion, Assistant Fire Chief Jason R. Jenkins told reporters.

When a tactical unit of police officers breached the front door, attempting to execute the search warrant, a person inside opened fire with a gun, Penn said. In an effort to flush him out, “officers began to deploy nonflammable, less-lethal chemical munitions to multiple areas within the residence where the suspect was believed to be hiding,” Penn said. But this was unsuccessful, and the officers retreated.

Ryan Gill, 41, who lives on a nearby street, was reading a bedtime story to his 6-year-old son around 8 p.m. when he heard what sounded like fireworks, he said. Eventually he recognized the noise as gunshots. Then, about 8:25 p.m., Gill said, his home shook and his family “could feel the shock waves.” When he walked outside to his neighbor’s yard, he could see flames and what was left of a house on an adjacent block.

Wiringi said debris landed on nearby roofs and that electrical power went out along the block. Emergency management officials said 10 to 12 surrounding homes were damaged by the blast.

“It just rocked our house,” said Suzanne Sundburg, 62, who lives a few blocks away and was working at home with her husband Monday afternoon when she started hearing “a strange thumping” that preceded the blaze.

At Tuesday’s briefing, Jenkins said investigators have not ruled out chemical munitions as a possible contributor to the explosion. David Sundberg, the No. 2 official in the FBI’s Washington Field Office, said Yoo had repeatedly contacted the bureau “via phone calls, online tips and letters over a number of years,” complaining of fraud. Sundberg declined to detail the complaints but said none of them prompted the FBI to open an investigation.

Court records show that Yoo and his ex-wife, Stephanie Yoo, had a contentious divorce that was finalized in 2018 and that James Yoo later tried to overturn. The couple had no children, according to a filing in the case. In 2020, Yoo was held in contempt of court for failing to distribute assets to his ex-wife by a court-ordered deadline.

A judge ordered Yoo to sell the Arlington property that exploded Monday by late October 2020 as part of the asset distribution in the divorce. No public record could be found indicating that a sale took place. Stephanie Yoo and a divorce attorney who represented her did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

Over the years, Yoo filed a battery of lawsuits in New York and Virginia, accusing lawyers, judges, doctors and relatives of conspiring to violate his rights. The defendants included his former wife, his sister, his former attorneys, the court officials who handled his divorce proceedings in Monroe County, N.Y., and a hospital in Rochester, N.Y., that treated him in 2015 for “acute alcohol withdrawal,” according to hospital notes quoted in Yoo’s lawsuit.

“Do not send anything to my private residential address again,” one of his former attorneys, Richard J. Bombardo of Syracuse, N.Y., warned Yoo in a 2019 email appended to one of his lawsuits. “If you do, I will immediately file a police report against you and seek an order of protection. Your behavior is extreme and outrageous and beyond all possible bounds of decency.”

Bombardo added: “If you come on my property, or you cause any third [party] to come on my private property, I will immediately file criminal trespassing charges against you. I cannot even believe that I am forced to give a criminal trespass warning to my own client. Former client that is.”

In an interview, Bombardo said Yoo’s divorce was stressful and “quite combative.” Bombardo declined to comment on Yoo’s mental health. “There are several court records that are public, and I’m sure you can draw inferences from them,” he said, adding, “My heart goes out to him and his family.”

In one lawsuit, Yoo said he had a history of “excessive overconsumption of alcohol throughout [his] life as early as the tenth grade.” When his then-wife took him to Rochester General Hospital in November 2015 while he was in withdrawal, she said she had found a suicide note that Yoo had written, according to hospital records quoted in Yoo’s lawsuit. He denied having written such a note or having suicidal thoughts and accused the hospital, his wife and sister of holding him there against his will.

Judges dismissed all of his claims and warned he would face sanctions if he continued to press “frivolous” lawsuits, which at times veered into conspiracy theories, tying his cases to former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Yoo claimed two men, including a New York Times reporter he had seen on MSNBC, showed up at his residence in March 2017 impersonating FBI agents and asked him to stop sending materials to federal prosecutors in New York.

On a YouTube channel, Yoo posted several videos that show screenshot after screenshot of legal documents related to his unsuccessful lawsuits and protracted divorce. In LinkedIn posts, Yoo accused the U.S. government of corruption and uploaded photos of a couple he said were his next-door neighbors in Arlington. He described them as “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” – after the film in which Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie played a spy couple – and claimed his neighbors were surveilling him.

“We are aware of concerning social media posts allegedly made by the suspect, and these will be reviewed as part of the ongoing criminal investigation,” Penn said.

Yoo stated that his mother’s death in 1992 after an extended stay in a hospital saddled him with more than $500,000 in debt, and that he was laid off from his job in 2003 as head of security for a telecommunications company, Global Crossing, that is no longer in business. Records show he sold a property in McLean, Va., for $1 million in 2021, after being ordered to do so by a judge in his divorce case.

In legal filings, Yoo stated that his father had been an adviser to a South Korean presidential candidate and that his mother had been a U.S.-based journalist reporting on Korean issues. In a 2016 email to his sister, included in one complaint, he indicated he was getting therapy but that it was “a long and slow process.”