Death of an English teacherOn April 19, Matthew Sellers, an English teacher in Seoul, was scheduled to fly home to Birmingham, Alabama. At 35, Mr. Sellers had been teaching in Korea for 10 years. He was, by many accounts, free-spirited, happy-go-lucky and fond of the young children he frequently taught. Though he seemed to relish Korea, on April 10 he bought a one-way ticket back to the United States, vowing not to return to the peninsula.
Mr. Sellers never made it home. He died unexpectedly in Seoul on April 20 from causes that his family in Alabama says never should have happened. A former swim coach and lifeguard back home, in Korea he liked to inline skate along the Han River. He was healthy and full of life, his sister Lee Sellers Love says. David Sellers, Matthew’s older brother, says the last anyone in Alabama heard from Matthew was a phone call on April 17, around 7 p.m. He was looking forward to seeing his newborn niece, family members said, and he was complaining about all the anti-Americanism going on in Korea.
Anti-Americanism in South Korea is acknowledged to have hit a peak late last year following the trial in the fall of two American soldiers charged and then acquitted in the vehicular deaths of two teenage girls in June 2002. Since the beginning of this year, anti-American demonstrations have fallen off considerably, thus Matthew Sellers’s complaints now seem curious. But Lee Sellers Love says, “For about the three weeks before he died he had been saying that anti-American sentiment was very prevalent. For the first time in a decade, he feared for his safety.”
His friend, Brian Mandville, an English teacher from Canada, says, “Matthew had become disillusioned and angry about Korea.”
During his final weeks in Korea, on an Internet bulletin board run by by the Seoul city government, Mr. Sellers went public with his anger. On April 10 he wrote, “As an American, I cannot stop thinking of reasons why no Americans would want to spend ANY time in this country. Of course, the most obvious is the anti-American sentiment that pervades my every waking experience in a land that Koreans so wrongly call a polite Asian country. The anti-American sentiment is fueled and perpetuated by every aspect of Korean life ― from cradle to grave. The most popular words in Korean language are: ‘pucking USA, pucking GI pucking Americans and I don’t like America.’”
On April 14, Mr. Sellers allegedly engaged in a heated argument in a Seoul subway train with a group of anti-American Koreans. Afterward, says one of Mr. Sellers’s friends, Mr. Sellers showed up at the U.S. Embassy in Gwanghwamun, central Seoul, reportedly barefoot and with a bloody nose, claiming he had been attacked. The U.S. Embassy, the friend says, did little to help him. The embassy will not comment on the incident, except to confirm that he showed up that night.
Five days later, on April 19, at 7:30 a.m., when he should have been on his way to Incheon International Airport to fly home, Mr. Sellers was in southern Seoul, breaking into a stranger’s automobile. The driver had been parking the car in the neighborhood when he turned around and noticed that Mr. Sellers, shaking and jittery, had managed to open the car’s back door and was climbing in. The driver reported the incident to a nearby patrolman. Because he didn’t understand English, the patrolman took Mr. Sellers to Shin Young-keun, an officer at the nearby Gangnam Police Station. Mr. Shin, who speaks English, at first glance took Mr. Sellers for a homeless man. Mr. Sellers, the officer wrote down in his report, had with him just a pack of cigarettes ― no wallet, no identification, no shoes. “He was acting very strange, like a drunk,” noted the officer.
Mr. Shin asked Mr. Sellers where he had spent the night.
“Under the bridge,” said Mr. Sellers.
“The one in Alabama.”
Mr. Shin reported that Mr. Sellers mumbled a lot. Then the officer gave Mr. Sellers a piece of paper so that he could write his name, which Mr. Sellers did in a quivering hand, and in fact, ended up writing an entire personal history. At one point in the interrogation, Mr. Sellers supposedly told Mr. Shin that he hated George W. Bush. Mr. Sellers, said the officer, then lay down on a sofa at the police station, quickly stood up and marched about, his eyes unfocused, his concentration wavering.
Mr. Shin contacted the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, but being a Saturday he was unable to get much help. One U.S. Embassy official supposedly told the policeman that he doubted Mr. Sellers was an American citizen.
Mr. Shin finally hung up and put Mr. Sellers in a police car and took him to the emergency room at a nearby hospital. But the hospital rejected Mr. Sellers, for he did not have a traumatic injury. Next, Mr. Shin drove to a mental hospital in Cheongnyangni, northeastern Seoul. That institution rejected him as well, for the hospital was for women only. Mr. Shin next stopped at the Seoul Immigration Office, but no one there could assist him, either. Finally, Mr. Shin escorted the young American to the northwest part of the capital, to Seoul Metropolitan Eunpyeong Hospital, another mental hospital.
Was Matthew Sellers mentally ill? Shin Young-keun definitely thinks so. Mr. Sellers’s sister and brother strongly disagree. David Sellers says, “He never would have said, ‘I hate Bush.’ The anti-American sentiment that Matthew experienced came because he admired and supported President Bush and the United States.”
Others suggest that something besides anti-Americanism was bothering Matthew Sellers before he died. Gerry Robinson, another friend of Matthew’s, also an English teacher from Canada, says, “For a few weeks before his death, he was pretty much out of contact. He did not own a cell phone, so it was really hard to track him down. He seemed to be missing.”
Still, Mr. Robinson says, “I know Matthew really wanted to go back home.”
Mr. Mandville says, “Matthew was not himself during those last few weeks. He used to always be part of a conversation, and suddenly he was not talkative; he seemed agitated. I think he needed help from a professional.”
Mr. Mandville says that a few years ago Mr. Sellers, while on vacation in Thailand, received treatment for a mental problem. No further details are known.
Three weeks before Mr. Sellers’s death, Mr. Robinson and Mr. Mandville went to Mr. Sellers’s tiny apartment in Cheongdam-dong, where he lived alone. They saw him put a small decorative penguin sculpture in the freezer. When they asked why he was doing that, Mr. Sellers said, “Where else should I put it?”
Matthew Justin Sellers first came to Korea in 1991 as a photojournalist with the U.S. Army, serving in Daegu. At 1.8 meters (5 feet, 11 inches) and 86 kilograms (190 pounds), he was a strapping, curly-haired young man who spoke with a slight Southern accent. He had graduated from Birmingham-Southern College, as a philosophy major. Earlier, he attended Berea College in Berea, Kentucky, where he was president of the student body. After college, he entered the military.
“He seemingly joined the army on a whim,” says an Alabama friend, Gina Pearson. “He was not interested in wealth or material possessions. He just wanted to seek out rich experiences and travel the world.” His world soon became Korea. He fell in love with the country and its people, and when his tour ended the following year, he returned to the United States, received a discharge and immediately headed back to Korea.
Initially he taught at a university in Gwangju, South Jeolla province, but soon decided he liked hagwon that targeted small children, and came to Seoul. “He loved Korean kids,” says his sister. Indeed, in the months before his death, Mr. Sellers was working on a children’s book based on his teaching experiences, titled “Mark T. Park’s Adventure,” inspired by Mark Twain. The book’s protagonist was a Korean boy who flew across the world on a magic dolphin. Mr. Sellers wrote and illustrated the manuscript.
The last hagwon where he taught, the Phillip School in Cheongdam-dong, southern Seoul, specializes in toddlers, the sort of kids Matthew Sellers appreciated. The Phillip School refuses to discuss Mr. Sellers.
In time, Korea consumed Mr. Sellers. His sister, who visited the peninsula in 1995, says, “Matthew learned about Korean pop culture so he could speak to his students about their favorite soap operas or singing groups, coaxing them into conversations in English.”
He liked to have a good time, at least before his final weeks in Korea. “When I met him five years ago,” says Gerry Robinson, “the first thing I noticed was his laugh ― loud, boisterous and contagious. Matthew was a friend I could always count on. We were like high school buddies. He was always saying, ‘Gerry, you’re crazy!’”
Like many English teachers, away from his hagwon he wore jeans and a T-shirt, most often a gray shirt that had on the back philosophic sayings of Socrates and Descartes. He liked to hang out at the bars near the Gangnam subway station and at the Starbucks in Apgujeong-dong. His last phone call home on April 17 was made from a pay phone in front of that Starbucks.
He had a serious side, particularly where Korea’s future was concerned. He attended graduate school at Yonsei University, where he studied Korean history and culture. In October 2000, Mr. Sellers received a silver medal from the Seoul Metropolitan Government for suggesting the implementation of a “renaissance campaign.” Mr. Sellers in his writing borrowed the idea of a Renaissance man, “who has vast intellectual interests and is accomplished in both the arts and sciences.” In his essay, Mr. Sellers showed strong affection for the city, suggesting the city government revitalize areas of Seoul around interesting themes, build a cultural recreation center near Insa-dong and improve adult education in Seoul.
Though few of his family or friends from the United States came to Korea, he wrote and e-mailed them often. Gina Pearson, who knew Mr. Sellers’ from college, says, “Matthew had only good things to say about Korea ― the food, the culture and the people.” Gerry Robinson describes Mr. Sellers as “Koreanized. He was just happy to be in Seoul.”
In 2001, Mr. Sellers was invited to join Seoul Cyber Discussion, an online talk program organized by the city government. Kim Hyun-sook, a staffer in charge of the Cyber Monitoring Congress at Seoul Metropolitan Government, says, “Mr. Sellers was very impressive with his active engagement as the speaker of the group. Unlike those who are just too self-centered to care about others, he was always trying to be of service, by sharing his ideas to make a better world.” Ms. Kim had met Mr. Sellers several times in offline discussion groups, until he paid a visit to his Alabama home to help his sister manage an art gallery in early 2002. After five months there, Ms. Love sold the gallery and Mr. Sellers returned to Korea. Ms. Love says, “Matthew went back to Korea to do what he liked best ― teaching English to children.”
When Lee Love dropped her brother off at the Birmingham airport in June 2002, it was the last time anyone from back home saw Matthew.
It was about 1:45 p.m on April 19, when Mr. Sellers arrived at Eunpyeong hospital. Park Jong-ik, the psychiatrist in charge of Mr. Sellers at the hospital, says, “Mr. Sellers did not have any external injuries. His death seems to have nothing to do with such a thing as anti-American sentiment.” After being injected with sedatives, Mr. Sellers reportedly was tranquilized. Mr. Robinson says that another friend who saw Mr. Sellers lying on the bed in the hospital said that he was sleeping and looked all right.
The next day, at approximately 3 p.m., Dr. Park noticed that Mr. Sellers’s condition was turning unstable. “Mr. Sellers’ vital signs started to dip ― it was something other than a psychiatric symptom. Mr. Sellers started to complain of a breathing problem. We needed to run tests to determine what was happening, which was not possible at this hospital because it specializes in mental problems.” About 5 p.m., Dr. Park transferred Mr. Sellers to Kangbuk Samsung Medical Center, a general hospital in central Seoul. While he was en route to that hospital in an ambulance, at about 5:20 p.m. on April 20, Mr. Sellers’s heart stopped beating.
An autopsy was performed April 22 by the National Institute of Scientific Investigation, and though the final results have not officially been released, it’s known that the cause of death is listed as “unknown.” Choi Yeong-geun, a detective in charge at the Gangnam precinct, says, “One thing’s for sure: He did not have a traumatic injury. The lack of an external wound is a sign that there is no suspicion of murder, which brings the case to the end, when confirmed.”
Ms. Love received word from the U.S. Embassy that her brother was given an injection of a mixture of Valium and Haldol against his will at Eunpyeong hospital. Valium is used to treat mildly anxious patients, as well as to help control epilepsy and alcohol addiction. Haldol, or haloperidol, is a prescription medicine indicated for use in management of psychotic disorders. A spokeswoman at the U.S. Embassy says, “We’ve got preliminary reports of the autopsy, and we’re still working on the case.”
Dr. Park says, “Mr. Sellers did not have a heart attack. In this case, the only possible explanation for his sudden death is suffocation. But I learned from the autopsy team that there were no sign of being choked. This is absolutely strange, but there is no way to know what exactly caused the death.”
When Matthew Sellers’s body arrived in Birmingham on April 29, the family requested another autopsy be performed. Ms. Love says, “The news of Matthew’s death was a complete shock. He was in very good health and was to come back home. We had eagerly made arrangements for his arrival, like buying extra food and making transportation preparations. We were and still are stunned by this.”
The report of the U.S. autopsy is to be released in about two months, Ms. Love says. “They took slides and tissue samples of Matthew’s body. The cause of his death is still not clear.”
Angry and confused, the Sellers family hired an attorney, Charles Salvagio, to deal with the case. Thus far Mr. Salvagio has no plans to come to Korea. According to The Birmingham News, Colin Powell, U.S. Secretary of State, expressed his concern about Mr. Sellers’ death. At a congressional hearing May 1, Mr. Powell said, “We’re trying to get an answer. I’ll look into it when I get back to the department.” Ms. Love says she has not heard directly from the State Department yet. She added, “We are confident Mr. Powell and his staff are working diligently to help us resolve the circumstances surrounding Matthew’s senseless death.”
Until then, few answers are available. Some of Mr. Sellers’s friends say the Seoul hospital is at fault, but others indicate something unexplainable was troubling Matthew Sellers. His death stirred up a controversy online. Many postings complained that the death was not being covered in the local press. The discussions also target anti-Americanism to be the cause of death. Gerry Robinson says, “This was not a political issue. He was fine until he went into the hospital. Matthew was forced to the hospital against his will. I’ve never seen him complaining about pain. Maybe the hospital did not properly check the personal medical history and it can be something drug-related. A man died in a hospital, when a medical system is supposed to help people.”
Mr. Shin says, “We in the police force are sorry, but we did our very best.” Mr. Shin’s superior, who says he’s pro-American, adds, “People are upset about this case because it turned out badly.”
‘Matthew was the beacon of our family that always shone brightly, keeping hope alive for the rest of us,” says his sister, Lee Sellers Love, one of Matthew’s six siblings. “He was an eternal optimist. He always believed in us more than we did ourselves. He could have achieved anything.”
The funeral took place May 2 at Jefferson Memorial Gardens in Trussville, Alabama. Several dozen people attended the service, some coming from hundreds of miles away. The casket was draped with an American flag.
by Chun Su-jin