Murder in Room 103

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Murder in Room 103

Jamie Penich began her brief stay in Korea on a quiet campus in Daegu. Arriving at Keimyung University in early March of last year, Ms. Penich signed up for courses - Korean language, religious studies, taekwondo and Korean dance - and started making friends.

Two weeks later, on March 18, she was found murdered in the bathroom of a motel in Itaewon.

The community at Keimyung, a popular destination for international students, went into shock. Keimyung is the type of friendly campus where professors invite students for barbecues.

Mary Bellerose, a professor of English conversation at Keimyung for five years, said, "For us foreigners at Keimyung, whether we knew Jamie or not, [the death] was a devastating tragedy."

Within days of the murder, as the Korean police, the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command and the FBI began investigations, several international students at Keimyung cut short their semesters abroad and flew home.

Almost a year has passed, and the campus has begun healing now that a suspect has been arrested.

In the first several months of the investigation, detectives searched for a white male, possibly a soldier, who owned an American brand Sketcher shoe with a thick tread.

Korean police detectives at Yongsan precinct said Ms. Penich died some time after 3:30 a.m. Her head, neck and chest had been repeatedly stomped, causing her to suffocate. The most conspicuous piece of evidence found at the scene was a bloody shoe print.

But the path from the shoe print eventually led police away from the Yongsan barracks to another exchange student now back in the United States.

On March 1, the FBI announced the arrest of Kenzi Noris Elizabeth Snider, a student at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia. On Monday, Ms. Snider was refused bail. Ms. Snider's family and friends have told Pittsburgh television reporters that she is innocent.

If Ms. Snider is extradited to Korea, she will face murder charges here. She will be the first expatriate to be tried for murdering another expatriate in Korea, according to Hwang Eun-ha, police superintendent of the Yongsan Police Precinct. The extradition papers are being translated into English and should be sent to the United States "soon," Mr. Hwang said.

A junior at the University of Pittsburgh, Jamie Penich left her hometown of Derry Township, Pennsylvania, on March 1 for another one of her jaunts abroad; earlier, she had studied in Europe. "She called home three, four times, so excited about the people and the culture in Korea," said Jamie's mother, Patricia Penich.

Jamie had come home from college one day and announced that she was going to Northeast Asia, Mrs. Penich said. Her daughter worked two jobs all winter to earn enough money for the spring semester abroad.

Mrs. Penich said her daughter also considered studying in Japan and Thailand and was interested in religions such as Buddhism. As a senior in high school, Ms. Penich studied in Belgium and became fluent in French. "Jamie made friends no matter where she was," Mrs. Penich said, adding that her daughter was smart and well-read.

On March 16 of last year Ms. Penich and several school friends took a train to Seoul for the St. Patrick's Day weekend. The group booked three adjacent rooms on the first floor of the Kum Sung Motel. On March 17, five of the students went to Nickleby's, a nearby English pub. At about 2 a.m., most of the students returned to the motel, according to police.

But Ms. Snider and Ms. Penich stayed at the bar until 3. Ms. Snider originally told police she returned to the motel with Ms. Penich, helped her into the shower, then left. Sharing room No. 103 with Ms. Penich was Anneloes Verwyk, a student from the Netherlands, who was already asleep.

The rooms at the motel are small and barely big enough for one bed. The bathtubs in the bathrooms are tiny. Ms. Snider said she came back a few minutes later to check on Ms. Penich, then left again without locking the door.

In the morning, Ms. Verwyk found Mr. Penich's body under a brown jacket, police said.

After getting news of their daughter's death, Mrs. Penich and her husband Brian flew to Korea to meet with police. Detectives ruled out burglary and initially suspected a soldier, saying he could have followed Ms. Penich to her room.

When the Penichs returned home to Derry Township, the family, including daughters Jennell, 24, and Amanda, 17, began watching television crime programs - "America's Most Wanted," "Unsolved Mysteries" - to look for a clue that might solve Jamie's case. When terrorists bombed the World Trade Center, Jamie's grandmother, Sue Sherback, posted a plea on the Web, asking how the terrorists could be identified so quickly, while Jamie's murderer was unknown.

In early February, after an intense round of questioning, Ms. Snider told the FBI that she became enraged when Ms. Penich made sexual advances toward her. Ms. Snider is 170 centimeters tall and 86 kilograms, and her description of the event matches the evidence, Mr. Hwang said. The bloody shoe has not been found.

When Mrs. Penich heard about the confession, she rejected Ms. Snider's allegations of a rebuffed sexual advance, saying her daughter had been engaged to be married.

If Ms. Snider is tried in Korea, Brian and Patti Penich will attend the trial. But it may be months before Ms. Snider faces extradition. While Ms. Snider's confession brings bittersweet relief to the Penich family, it raises more questions.

In the early morning of March 18, the owner of the Kum Sung Motel, Park Jong-soon, 51, awoke in her bedroom of the motel and went to look for her husband. She heard a noise in the first floor hallway, which has a ceiling-to-floor mirror. Under hypnosis arranged by the police, Ms. Park recalled seeing a Caucasian man with stains on his pants walk out of Ms. Penich's room and quietly close the door behind him.

After Ms. Snider's confession, Ms. Park said: "I'm sure [Ms. Snider] confessed because she did it, but I did not lie about the man. Who was he?"

"It's so strange," Ms. Park said. "Someone was dying and I didn't hear a thing."

Mrs. Penich said: "How do I deal? I can't explain. It's a constant thing."

In Itaewon's history, some things are remembered, some are lost

Itaewon is a colorful neighborhood with multiple personalities. During the day, it's a shopper's paradise. During the night, it's a partier's haven. Lively music can be found in the bars lining the main strip. International restaurants can be found in the back alleys. Every day, almost 5,000 people visit Itaewon.

On the hill that rises from the north side of the strip, police guard scores of luxurious residences. On the hill that rises from the other side, men guard garishly dressed women. A jazz club and bar shares the same building with a Protestant church.

"The Burger King murder?" asks Park Eun-mi, who works at the Hamilton hotel shopping arcade, when asked about the murder of a U.S. college student a year ago.

A murder at the Itaewon Burger King on April 3, 1997 remains among the neighborhood's most talked about crimes. A Hongik University student, Cho Jung-pil, was stabbed to death in the bathroom at the fast food restaurant. The two chief suspects were teenagers, one a Korean-American, the other the son of a U.S. soldier. The public outcry was tremendous, with college students angrily condemning the Status of Forces Agreement, which protects U.S. soldiers and their dependents from being tried in other countries' courts.

Two other high-profile murders took place in the area, one in 1993 and one in 2000.

Burger King quickly shook off the incident. On a recent weekday afternoon, the store was filled with many foreigners. "Most people have this misconception that we get a lot of G.I.'s, but that's only on Fridays and Saturdays," said Cho Jung-haeng, the manager on duty. "Most of our customers are African, Middle Eastern and Japanese. When there is a problem, it's often cultural. At the wrong moment, a foreigner may look a Korean guy in the eye."

If a fight breaks out, the manager calls the police. If the fight involves U.S. military personnel, the military police also come. "The peace is kept pretty easily," Mr. Cho said.

In stark contrast, the Korean public paid little attention to last year's murder of the American college student Jamie Penich, 21, at Itaewon's Kum Sung Motel. Until Ms. Penich's classmate Kenzie Snider, 20, confessed to the murder recently, Ms. Penich's mother, Patti Penich, was frustrated at the lack of suspects and public awareness.

At the time, Ms. Penich and Ms. Snider were in a study-abroad program at Keimyung University in Daegu. A teacher at the college echoed Patti Penich's concern: "I was afraid Jamie's story would be lost. Many of the teachers at Keimyung thought that because it was a foreigner who was killed, the police would put it in a dead-end file."

When recently asked about the Penich murder, Kim Ji-young, who works at one of Itaewon's tourist booths, said she knew little about it. "I didn't think it was really true," Ms. Kim said. A few months ago, when some backpackers came to Ms. Kim's booth, she said she referred them to the Kum Sung Motel. But soon they returned saying, "Isn't there another motel? Someone died there."

Ms. Kim thought they were misinformed, but wasn't surprised to hear that the murder did happen. "When we close, at 9 p.m., I run home," she said. "Thugs are here at night."

Before the Korean War, Itaewon was a well-heeled neighborhood. Afterward, its proximity to the U.S. military base changed the place dramatically. The area is still dynamic; recently, several posh restaurants have opened and landmarks have been erected, like the offbeat arch at one end of the strip.

Theresa Pihison, an English teacher from the United States, said she is not afraid to walk at Itaewon at night: "I don't think Itaewon is particularly dangerous. But you have to be careful in any neighborhood."

by Joe Yong-hee

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