His wife had been stricken with breast and colon cancer, and in August 2002, Soo Kil Seo turned hopefully to the possibilities of Asian folk medicine.
The 59-year-old Alexandria dry cleaner drove to a rural hunting store that had advertised bear for sale in Korean newspapers, paid $1,200 for two bear carcasses and removed the prized and supposedly curative gallbladders for his wife.
The home-style prescription proved far more costly, though, than he had ever imagined.
Seo and dozens of other Koreans from the Washington area have been charged with multiple felony counts for alleged violations of wildlife protection statutes, all swept up in a sting operation run from a sham hunting supply store in the Shenandoah Valley.
Investigators say they were aiming to stem the illegal trade in wild ginseng and black bears.
Because the sting targeted readers of Asian newspapers and played on a cultural belief in the medicinal properties of black bear and ginseng, defense lawyers and leaders of some Korean civic groups say the operation was unconstitutional and unfair.
Among the defendants are the pastor of a Korean American church in Northern Virginia; at least one other man who said he was buying for a gravely ill relative; and several owners of small shops that are the mainstay of the Korean immigrant community. Most of their purchases were small and, apparently, for personal use.
"My mom had been really sick," said Seo's son, Sang Seo, 31, between customers at the family's dry cleaning shop. "My father was worried about it so much. It doesn't seem fair."
Sang Seo credits the bear gallbladder with improving his mother's health. But now he fears that his father, who is a legal permanent resident but not a citizen, might be deported.
"My father has been here almost 20 years and never broke the law," said Seo, whose father is awaiting trial. "Now he might be kicked out of the U.S.A."
Rockingham County Commonwealth's Attorney Marsha Garst said that although she was sympathetic to the medical needs of Soo Kil Seo's wife, "there are prescription alternatives that have the same purported effects of bear galls. Why deplete natural resources?"
Operation Viper, as the sting was known, was conducted by the National Park Service and the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.
Nearly all the people arrested in the sting were Korean immigrants, many of whom speak little English. Some could receive jail sentences, though thus far the punishments have largely consisted of a felony conviction, probation and fines.
Skip Wissinger, supervisory special agent with the National Park Service, said the defendants knew their purchases were illegal. Surveillance tapes showed that the undercover officer operating the store had warned buyers that the purchases were illegal, albeit in English.
Moreover, Wissinger said, a state judge and a federal judge have rejected arguments that the sting was unfair.
"These are serious environmental crimes that these people are involved with," Wissinger said. "They have a serious impact on the wildlife and plant resources within Virginia and Shenandoah National Park."
Several of the defendants, however, maintain that they did not willfully break the law.
"Please don't break our happiness of the family," Neung Woon Kim, a tailor, told the court recently through an interpreter. "Please give me a chance. I really didn't know that it was illegal to purchase the gallbladder." Kim is awaiting sentencing.
Wild ginseng, which has been harvested and exported from the United States to Asia for more than 200 years because of its purported health benefits, has grown scarce in many states. It fetches as much as $350 a pound, and a recent study at Shenandoah National Park suggested that the number of ginseng plants might have dropped as much as 75 percent over the past 30 years.
The majority of charges arising from Operation Viper, however, have involved the sale of black bear or black bear parts. And, in contrast to the ginseng problem, the black bear population in Virginia has been deemed healthy enough that in recent years state officials have expanded hunting to control it.
The laws prohibiting the sale of black bear are intended to stifle poaching by eliminating the commercial incentives.
"Although the full extent of the trade is unknown, research projects suggest only minor bear losses due to illegal harvest," said the state's 2002 black bear management plan. "It is doubtful that poaching is having a significant impact on the statewide population."
To ensure a healthy population, National Park Service and state game officials initiated Operation Viper in July 2000. It followed leads developed during Operation Soup, which targeted the illegal hunting of black bear and in 1999 led to the arrests of about three dozen people.
For Viper, the agencies rented a storefront in Elkton, just outside Shenandoah National Park, for $1,200 a month for three years. The full costs of the investigation have not been released.
From previous probes, law enforcement officials knew that at least some bear parts and ginseng were being sold among the Washington area's Asian population, they said.
"We had previous knowledge" of the Asian market, Wissinger said. "It wasn't something we just made up."
Upon opening the Elkton storefront, dubbed Rock's Dixie Emporium, the investigators began to advertise. About half their newspaper ads ran in English, in general-circulation local papers, investigators said. The other half ran in the Korea Post, Korea Times and other Korean publications. The ads also appeared in a Vietnamese paper, according to the investigative records.
Records provided by defense attorneys, however, suggest that the explicit solicitation for black bears appeared in the ethnic papers, but not in the English publications.
Some ads said: "For Sale: Wild Mountain Ginseng And Bear."
Others said: "For Sale: Wild Fresh and Dried Mountain Ginseng and other Supplies to Meet Your Cultural Needs."
Over time, more than 40 Koreans made the trip to the sporting goods store in the Shenandoah Valley, bartering with the folksy man behind the counter and going home with ginseng, or whole bears, or their coveted gallbladders.
The language barrier proved a constant challenge during the deals. The undercover officer did not speak Korean; the English of the Korean immigrants was limited.
"Now, let me ask you, since we talked on the phone, are you interested in the bear?" the undercover agent asks Kim, the tailor, and his friends, according to the surveillance tape. They were.
"But one thing," the undercover officers says, approaching the counter confidentially.
"Do you understand English?" he asks each of the men individually. They nod or say yes.
"If you're interested, we could go to jail for that -- just like this. . . . You could go to jail. You could go to jail."
The friends nod.
"I mean they'll do like this," the undercover officer then says, walking away from them with his hands behind him as if in handcuffs.
"I know jail -- like this," one of the men says, putting his hands in front of him in imitation of cell bars.
They are now facing charges more serious than those faced by many first-time drug buyers.
"There is something inherently wrong in pursuing a criminal prosecution this way," said John C. Holloran, Kim's attorney. "They advertised in a newspaper. They had a nice store. Why would someone think it's illegal? And even if it occurred to you that it might be illegal, why would it be anything more serious than a parking ticket?"
In recent weeks, as news of the arrests has filtered out, various Korean American groups have criticized the sting, the arrests and the fact that those arrested are facing felony charges.
Julie Park, president of the Washington Chapter of the Korean American Coalition, said any advertising in Korean media should have been spent on educating immigrants. She called the sting "culturally insensitive."
"They were practically drawing them in by their cultural tastes -- it's like 'come and get it,' " said Park, who emphasized that she was speaking for herself only. "That's why it's wrong."