Real-life tales of mysteryOne good thing to do on a hot, sleepless summer night is to read a mystery novel. But you won’t need one once you’ve heard enough stories from investigators like the ones the JoongAng Ilbo recently interviewed at the police bureau and the National Institute of Scientific Investigation. True crime stories, it seems, can hold their own with fiction.
One such story involved a fire at a drinking establishment in Changwon, South Gyeongsang province, in 1999. The investigators couldn’t find a cause. There were no cigarette lighters, no ashtrays, nothing wrong with the electric wiring, no traces of trespassing ― no nothing. And the oddest fact was that all 20 rooms seemed to have caught on fire at the same time, which was next to impossible if it was an arson case. But after tiring days of investigation, police spotted a seemingly trivial clue that answered the mystery.
Check out the story below ― and some other tales of real-life Sherlock Holmeses.
The case of the arsonist and the telltale shoes
The Changwon drinking joint fire was shrouded in mystery. Ten rooms on each of two below-ground floors were left charred and ashen, with no visible clues.
Firefighters and police officers went three days without a single lead. Then Park Nam-gyu, head of the sound and engineering department at the National Institute of Scientific Investigation’s Busan branch, arrived on the scene.
At first, Mr. Park was at a loss as well. Then he happened upon the breakthrough. While roaming through the place, he happened to spot a corner that the fire hadn’t touched. What he saw was a few dark stains that looked like footprints. There seemed to be no disttinctive marks or patterns from the soles of the shoes ― just jet-black shapes of footprints.
“In this case, we had only one possibility: that somebody had trodden upon the carpet with gasoline-soaked shoes on,” Mr. Park said. “Then the fire from downstairs burnt the footprints to erase the soles.”
Gasoline-soaked shoes? Then there must have been an arsonist.
The search began again, in every nook and corner of the rooms that had been burned to ashes. They found a fist-sized lump of cloth, also jet-black from the fire. Mr. Park’s analysis revealed gasoline in the cloth. “From then on, everything cleared up,” Mr. Park said.
The arsonist had spread the cloth, drenched in gasoline, in the hallway of the lower basement. Then he tied ropes leading to every single room, making a kind of makeshift fuse, in order to burn all the rooms at once, before firefighters could arrive. This would also confuse the investigators. After setting the second basement floor on fire, the arsonist moved up to the first basement, looked around to make sure there were no witnesses, and left the building. He had of course walked on the carpet by this point. The person with time to do all this was none other than the establishment’s owner.
So the police tracked down the owner and the shoes he’d wore on the day of the fire. Bingo! The footprints were identical. The police then found more clues, like traces of the cloth that had been soaked in gasoline.
The owner came clean, saying he’d been deep in debt and that he’d done it for the insurance money.
Unlocking memories to capture a predator
The spring and summer of 2003 were nightmarish for one small country town.
In April, a 7-year-old girl walking home from school was kidnapped and sexually assaulted by a truck driver. Over the next four months, there were 10 similar incidents in the same neighborhood. The culprit always approached children under 10 on their way home, offering them a ride in his truck.
The police investigation was stalled for lack of clues. The victims were too traumatized to help. The only statements police got from them were about “a small, blue truck,” and “that scary ajeossi.” Some children said something about dolls in the truck, and something red that looked like a toy car.
Police obtained a list of every single blue truck in the neighborhood. They numbered more than 6,000.
Eleven detectives worked the case for three months, with no developments. There was no truck that fit the description involving “dolls and red toy cars.”
“We tried every single way,” said one detective on the case, who didn’t want to give his name. “Our last resort was to hypnotize the victims to get more details.”
With their parents’ permission, Ham Geun-su of the National Institute of Scientific Investigation hypnotized two children. He had them seated on a comfortable sofa, and brought the lights down to create a warm atmosphere. Then he started to ask questions.
“Make yourself comfortable,” he said. “Okay, there is a television set in front of the sofa. From now on, we’re going to see what happened on that day the way we watch TV dramas.
“So, where are you now?” he asked. One of the children answered, “Inside a blue truck.”
“Have a look around,” Mr. Ham said. “What do you see?”
Soon, Mr. Ham had obtained more details ― including a partial license plate number.
Thus began the second round of searching. There turned out to be one truck in the neighborhood that matched all the details ― and in which police found dolls and a red toy car. The truck hadn’t been found in the original search, because its owner had kept it in a garage.
And so the police found the culprit, who was in his early 30s. He was convicted.
The woman on the hill and the secret pictures
This case dates back to the winter of 1982. On a hill in suburban Seoul, the body of a woman in her 20s was found stark naked. There were no traces of violence. The cause of death was poisoning.
The victim was identified as a woman who worked at a barbershop that ran an illegal prostitution business. The likely offender, based on the investigation so far, was an amateur photographer who frequented the shop. But he vehemently denied killing her.
“My gut feeling told me that the culprit must have taken nude photographs, judging from the fact that he was a photographer and she was naked,” recalled detective Kim Won-bae.
The next step was finding those photos, which turned out to be harder than expected. Mr. Kim checked in vain with every single photo developer in the culprit’s neighborhood. Then a photographer friend of his informed him that there were a number of unlicensed developers downtown who specialized in such photos.
One of these underground developers confirmed the identity of the culprit. “I thought he was a detective, trying to develop crime photographs,” the developer said.
Confronted with this evidence, the culprit confessed. “I was afraid that she might talk about the adultery, so I killed her after telling her that I’d photograph her nude,” he said. He’d filled a cold capsule with poison, he said, and gave it to the woman, telling her, “You might catch a cold during the photo session, so take this in advance.” Twenty-one nude photos of the woman were found in his closet.
That seemed to be the end ― but it wouldn’t be so easy. The culprit retracted his statement, saying that he’d taken the pictures, but hadn’t killed her. “Maybe she committed suicide after feeling so ashamed,” the culprit insisted.
With no hard evidence, the case seemed to be back at the starting point. But Mr. Kim’s photographer friend saved the day. “Since the nude photos were taken in winter, her hair must have stood on end from the cold,” he said. “Unless the photos were taken after her death.”
So Mr. Kim magnified the photos. The woman’s hair stood on end in the earlier photos, but not the later ones. Mr. Kim had his proof: She had died during the photo session. The photographer confessed, saying, “I wanted to photograph a woman dying.”
[INTERVIEW]Finding the truth, whatever the cost
At 6 p.m. on a recent Friday, Han Gil-lo, head of the Seoul Forensic Medical Service, got a call. “Please come quick. Somebody burned herself to death,” said the agitated officer at Yongsan police station.
Mr. Han is a doctor of medical jurisprudence, specializing in autopsies in cases of unnatural death. That day’s case was an elderly lady living alone, found burned to ashes.
When Mr. Han arrived, detectives were already at the apartment, a hellish scene of death, gasoline and ashes. Unperturbed, Mr. Han set to work. Judging from neighbors’ statements, it was fairly clear that this was a suicide, but Mr. Han thoroughly investigated the scene. He told the detectives not to touch the body and gave dos and don’ts, just in case it wasn’t a suicide after all.
Until three months ago, Mr. Han was a forensic doctor at the National Institute of Scientific Investigation, far from the field and dealing only with bodies that were brought to the institute. But three years ago, when he came upon a case that he was only able to solve by visiting the scene, he decided to change jobs.
“If I had not checked out the field, I might have wrongly picked an innocent person as a murderer,” Mr. Han recalled. “Then I realized that one visit to the scene is better than performing autopsies on 1,000 bodies.”
Being in the field has made his life harder, interfering with weekends and holidays. But he seems not to mind at all. “This is the road I’ve taken, to shed light upon the whole affair, so that there will be no possibility of giving an innocent person a bad name.”
[INTERVIEW]On justice and the limits of evidence
For Jung Hui-seon, director of forensic science at the National Institute of Scientific Investigation, a case from the fall of 1995 stands out more clearly than any of the others she’s dealt with in her 25 years at NIS.
In November of that year, a pop star, Kim Seong-jae, was found dead in a hotel room in Seoul. Ms. Jung found a trace of a hypodermic injection on his arm. She analyzed his blood, and found a chemical that no one at NIS had ever seen.
She and her team finally identified the chemical after 10 days of research, combing through 100,000 descriptions of various substances. It was soon apparent why the chemical, Zoletil, had been so hard to identify: it was an anesthetic used only for animals. Police investigated veterinary hospital records and found that a woman close to Mr. Kim had bought Zoletil. Soon, she was summoned before the court as a suspect.
But Ms. Jung’s team worried that the chemical might not have been the direct cause of Mr. Kim’s death, since it had never been tested on the human body. In other words, the woman might have been innocent.
The court found the woman not guilty for just that reason, noting in addition that there was no direct evidence that she had given Mr. Kim the injection.
Despite the effort they’d gone to, Ms. Jung’s team was not disappointed by the court’s decision. Ms. Jung says that forensic science is a tool for fairly evaluating guilt, and that the thorough pursuit of evidence minimizes the possibility of convicting the innocent. She is content that she did her best.
by Kwon Hyuk-joo, Kim Pil-kyu