You are listening to: The Evidence Locker.
Our cases have been researched using open source and archive materials. It deals with true crimes and real people. Some parts are graphic in nature and listener discretion is advised. Each episode is produced with the utmost respect to the victims, their families and loved ones.
This month, we are celebrating Evidence Locker’s third birthday, as well as our 150th episode. In the spirit of celebration, we decided on a Blockbuster theme for the month of July. This week, we look into the true crimes behind Bong Joon-ho’s multi award-winning film, Memories of Murder.
On the 14th of January 1994, a rice farmer from Cheonju was concerned, because his 19-year-old daughter did not come home the night before. The area of Hwaseong, South Korea, had been plagued by a ruthless serial killer – his victims were all female, but that’s where the similarities ended. They ranged in age from 13 to 71 and came from different walks of life. The murders were mostly centered around the township of Taean-eup (more than 75 miles north), so it was unlikely the killer was active in Cheonju.
The entire family grew concerned and when his son-in-law showed up to offer his help, the farmer decided to go with him to police to report his daughter missing. She had plans to meet a friend from church the night before but did not show up.
The community assisted the distraught family as police launched an official search. Two days after she was last seen, the wife of a hardware store owner cleared their snow-covered garage when she discovered the girl’s body. Her pants were on her head and her hands were tied behind her back. Her body was wrapped in female stockings and bag straps and was covered with a blue plastic sheet.
Police moved swiftly with their investigation and questioned all of the victim’s family members, friends and colleagues. One person piqued their interest from the start: the dutiful brother-in-law, who showed up the morning after her disappearance to offer his help. He was married to the victim’s sister, and she had left him a month before. When the family learnt that the younger sister had been killed, everyone was shocked. In the chaos of the situation, investigators overheard the brother-in-law asking around:
“How many years do you serve in prison for rape and murder?”
Phone records proved that he had spoken to the victim in the afternoon she disappeared. A blood stain on the washing machine in his home matched the victim’s DNA. The brother-in-law, Lee Choong-Jae was arrested and charged with the murder. He served his life sentence as a model prisoner and guards sometimes found it hard to believe that he was a heartless killer. For more than 30 years Lee had them fooled, until technology caught up with him. The murder of his sister-in-law, was only the tip of the iceberg…
>> Intro Music
Hwaseong is a rural city in Gyeonggi Province, along the Yellow Sea, in the northwest of South Korea, about 19 miles south of the country’s capital, Seoul. Hwaseong is comprised of many small villages, townships and neighbourhoods, surrounded by farmland. In 1986, this region was home to about 226,000 residents – living in villages and scattered throughout its surrounding rice paddies and hills.
There were not many signs of affluence in Hwaseong, and people did what they could to get by – some worked in the rice paddies, others in factories. It was a simple, but wholesome living. Apart from theft, there was no real crime to speak of in the area. People knew each other and respected one another. There was a sense of community and locals congregated in Korean-style coffee shops and rice-wine bars.
In the 1980s, the people of South Korea had had enough of President Choon Doo Hwan and his military dictatorship. Rallies and protests against the government took place all over the country and the police force was needed to assist with security. There was a sense of imminent change, and the uncertainty that came with it. Hordes of rural people flocked to the cities in search of employment.
Country towns were sparsely populated. In 1986, the country roads surrounding Hwaseong were isolated and poorly lit. Local residents were not afraid for their safety, as nothing bad really happened there. But the peaceful rural existence came to a screeching halt when the bodies of murdered women started turning up.
At 2pm on September 16th, 1986, some kids were out in the fields chasing dragonflies. They saw what they thought was a heap of garbage, but when one of them noticed a lifeless human hand, they called for help. It was the Hwaseong Ripper’s first victim: 71-year-old Lee Wan-im. She had left her daughter’s home the night before. She was not wearing any pants when she was found and there were signs of sexual assault. Her cause of death was strangulation.
Four weeks later, on October 20th, 25-year-old Park Hyun-Sook was last seen getting off a bus after travelling to Songtan to meet a man whom her parents wanted her to marry (?). The killer bound her hands behind her naked body, stabbed her four times and then strangled her with his bare hands. When he was done, he discarded her body in a canal. Hyun-Sook was found three days later.
The residents of Taean-myeon were up in arms about the rapes and murders taking place in their area. They erected a scarecrow in the rice fields, next to the road, with a banner saying something along the lines of:
“Come forward, or you’ll be tortured.”
But that was not enough to deter the perpetrator. The scarecrow was standing vigil in the field for less than two weeks, when, on December 12th 25-year-old Kwon Jung-bon disappeared. She was last seen out the front of her own home. Months went by and there was still no sign of her. Her loved ones knew she wouldn’t just up and leave and feared that she had fallen victim to the killer too.
Two days after Jung-bon was last seen, 23-year-old Lee Kye-sook was snatched while walking home, late at night, after her shift at a local factory. She was found a week later, in a scene familiar to investigators. Like the other victims, her hands were tied with her own stockings and raped. During a brutal attack, Jung-bon was also violated with her umbrella.
On the 10th of January 1987 Hong Jim-young – only 19 years old – was killed walking home from the bus stop. Her hands were tied together with her socks. She too, had been raped and strangled. Across a pepper field, behind some trees were clear footprints. Investigators theorised that the killer fled there after the murder and waited a while so he could escape without being seen. The shoe print was made by a man’s sneaker and measured 245mm. This was vital evidence – the first concrete proof. Although the killer always left his semen on the victims, it was before the prevalence of DNA testing, so all they could determine from analysing the semen was the assailant’s blood type.
On the 23rd of April 1987, the body of 25-year-old Kwon Jung-bon, who had disappeared the previous December, was found on an embankment next to a rice paddy. She had been gagged, raped and strangled with her own stockings. As a final insult, the killer put her panties over her face.
This brought the body count of victims bearing the signature of the same killer to five. All of these murders took place within a 3.7-mile radius of Hwaseong, within a seven-month period. Police increased patrols to ensure the safety of local residents – officers spread out and stood guard only a couple of yards apart. It deterred the killer, because no more killings took place between January and April. But police could not keep up surveillance indefinitely, and as soon as the patrols ceased, the killer struck again, claiming his sixth victim.
29-year-old Park Eun-joo, 29 was a housewife who, when she saw the clouds draw in on May 2nd decided to do something nice for her husband. He was out working in a field, and she left home to take him an umbrella, but she never reached him. Eun-joo’s body was found a week later on a hillside, strangled with her own bra. Like the other victims, Eun-joo had also been raped. The location where her body was found, was in close proximity to the second victim, 25-year-old Park-Hyun-Sook’s murder scene.
No more murders took place over the summer of 1987, but police knew better than to let their guard down. It was only a matter of time till the faceless killer struck again. And he did, almost poetically claiming his 7th victim on the 7th of September of 1987. 54-year-old Gi-soon’s body was found in a canal a day after she was killed. She was gagged with her socks and her hands were tied up with a handkerchief before she was raped and strangled. There was also a bizarre element to the crime, as the killer had inserted peach slices into her. Police were concerned that the perverted rapist/killer was ready to escalate his behaviour even further.
Gi-soon was a housewife who was last seen getting off a bus, but she never made it home. Her murder brought one of the biggest breaks in the case… A local bus driver and conductor both came forward to provide police with the description of a man who got onto a bus shortly after Gi-soon was said to have been killed. It was the last bus of the night going from Balan to Suwon, and the got onto the bus only 400metres from where Gi-soon’s body was later found.
The driver and conductor remembered the man, because he was obnoxious and kept telling the driver to go faster. He was also wet from the rain and his shoes were covered in mud. He also asked the driver for a cigarette. When the driver gave him one, he noticed a fresh scar on the man’s hand, as well as a dot tattoo on his left wrist, only just visible under his watch. The description of the nocturnal bus passenger was similar to the description of a serial rapist, as provided to police by sexual assault victims: the suspect was tall and thin, about 165 to 170 centimetres, with short hair and a sharp nose. He did not have double eyelids but slit eyes, not uncommon in East Asia. He was Korean and many of his victims recalled that he had soft hands, so the assumption was that he did not work on one of the farms in the area.
Police had to consider that the serial rapist and the serial killer was one and the same person. It was puzzling that he only killed some of his victims, others he allowed to live. By studying the pattern of the murders, investigators noted the following: Most of the murders were committed after hours (between 7-11pm) or on weekends which made police believe that the killer had a steady job and lived locally. It was only the very first murder that took place at 6am, possibly as the killer made his way to work. Or perhaps he was a shift worker who had work a nightshift and headed home at that time.
There was no real type of victim, other than all being female. There wasn’t a common factor linking the victims and it seemed that they were all simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. He chose his victims at random, when he saw an opportunity. Their killer followed the same pattern with all the murders… He bound and gagged his victims using their own clothing. Each victim was sexually assaulted before he strangled them.
After Ahn Gi-soon’s death, the murders stopped. Months went by without any rapes or murders and people wondered if the killer had moved away, perhaps he was doing his 2-year compulsory military service… Maybe he was in prison. Or did he die? A bounty of 5 million won was placed on the killer, but he seemed to have disappeared into thin air.
This respite gave investigators time to work through all the evidence. The killer was not overly cautious – he left semen, hair samples and blood stains at the crime scenes. Because of this, police were able to determine his blood type was type B – a relatively rare type in South Korea. According to the website koreabiomed.com, Type B accounts for only 27% of the population. This, combined with the footprint evidence and the composite sketch made if feel like the case could be solved…
7 September 1988 marked one year since his last murder. But just when everyone thought the Hwaseong Ripper was done, he crawled out of the woodworks and struck once more. This time, he had changed his modus operandi, and broke into a family home. He attacked 14-year-old Park Sang-hee in her bedroom, raping and killing her while her parents were asleep down the hall.
The crime scene had many of the same tell-tale indicators as the other murders, which is why police linked it to the others. This time, thanks to hair evidence found at the scene, police had a plausible suspect in custody. 22-year-old repairman, Yoon Sang-Yeo was charged with the murder.
For a moment, the community was relieved. But who was this killer who had been living and working among them? Yoon was a loner, whose father left him to fend for himself after his mother died. The young Yoon had no family and no home and was forced to live on the streets. He begged for money outside of a Fried Chicken restaurant in Hwaseong for years. When he was old enough, that is only 11, he found work at a farming tool center. He still worked there when he was arrested for the murder of Park Sang-hee.
The pubic hair found at the scene was a 40% match to Yoon Sang-Yeo’s and that was enough for police. After a deeper analysis of the crime scene, however, they concluded that, although Yoon had murdered Park Sang-hee, he was not the serial killer. This victim was much younger than the serial killer’s victims, and he did not that the murder took place inside the victim’s home. Investigators believed that Yoon had committed the murder in an attempt to copy the serial killer. According to investigators, Yoon had gone for a walk on the night of Park Sang-hee’s murder. Polio had left Yoon with a limp since childhood and had to rest often during his walk. During one of his breaks, he noticed Sang-hee’s light was on and – this was the police’s theory – Yoon was suddenly overcome with an ‘urge to rape’. He broke into her room and attacked her, knowing that her parents were asleep next door.
Yoon Sang-Yeo, who confessed after three full days of torturous interrogation, was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for the murder. He later said that he did NOT do it, he was innocent, but police were confident that they had the right man behind bars. With no family or money to support his plight, Yoon was pretty much locked away and forgotten. He appealed his conviction, insisting that he was coerced into making a false confession, but his conviction was upheld.
To the Hwaseong community, it was bad enough that someone was killing their women: mothers, sisters, daughters… But having a copycat killer elevated the sense of panic. When was this going to stop? Everyone remained overly cautious and tried NOT to go out alone at night. Rumours were floating around Hwaseong about the killer’s habits… He only killed on rainy nights, and everytime before a murder occurred, an anonymous male called a local radio station and requested the same love song. None of this was ever confirmed and lives in the realm of urban legend, rather than factual history.
A story also went around that the killer only targeted women wearing red clothes. This was actually only the case in two of the murders yet, to be on the safe side, women avoided wearing the colour red. Police were prepared to try anything, and female officers dressed in red, hoping to reel in the killer, but it didn’t work. The killer always seemed to be two-steps ahead of investigators.
Even the men were scared, as police took anyone who looked suspicious in for questioning. At night, the streets were empty, which made the situation even scarier. And it looked like the community’s efforts paid off, because in the two years that followed, no more rapes or murders occurred.
Then, on 15 November 1990 another 14-year-old girl fell victim to the heartless monster. Kim Mi-jung was making her way home from the bus stop after school when she was attacked, raped and strangled. The killer took a razor from her pencil case and cut a grid with 38 incisions on her chest. Her body was found the following morning. A footprint was found next to her body and a blood sample that did not belong to the victim, showed that she had been in a struggle with someone with the blood type B.
The last victim in Hwaseong, was raped and strangled with her pantyhose on a hill outside of Hwaseong, around 9pm on April 3rd 1991. 69-year-old Kwon Soon-sang’s body was found the following day. Her pubic region had been mutilated. Like the others, she had been tied up with her own clothing before being raped, tortured and murdered.
The murders caused an outcry and the public questioned police efficiency. It was the first time that a serial killer was active in South Korea and the police were out of their depth. But they were committed to catching the killer, in what became the most extensive investigation in South Korean history. Officers collectively clocked in more than two million man-days. More than 21,000 persons of interest were questioned, but no one was ever charged. More than 40,000 people had their fingerprints taken, 180 hair samples were also analysed and almost 600 people’s DNA samples were taken in the course of the investigation.
With mountains of data and exclusion-evidence to work through, the investigation was erratic and desperate. Possible suspects were taken in for questioning without much – or any – evidence linking them to the crimes. Community members complained about the brutality of the interrogating officers, but it seemed that – with a serial killer on the loose –investigative methods were left up to the discretion of the officers. According to reports, at least four people who were questioned by police ended their own lives in the course of the investigation, because of unjust suspicion cast onto them.
Another aspect that baffled investigators was the string of unsolved sexual assault cases in the Hwaseong area. They had to wonder if they were dealing with the same perpetrator. Again, DNA testing would have helped, so had these crimes occurred nowadays, the cases would have been definitively linked sooner. Either way, in the 1980s detectives had to make do with what they had at their disposal.
Eyewitness testimony was vital, and the surviving sexual assault victims all described someone similar to the person described by the bus driver and conductor. Early twenties, tall, lean, short hair, sharp nose… He always wore black, and his head was always covered, either with a baseball cap or a hoodie. In some cases, he may even have worn a balaclava to avoid recognition, which made police believe he lived locally.
A profile was drawn up, hoping it could narrow down the search: the killer was likely from a poor background, and he likely suffered abuse at some point in his life. He’d be prone to harming animals and deriving pleasure from their pain. His parents probably punished him, or sought help, either way, he resisted their interference and resented his mother for trying to change him. The brutality of his crimes indicated that he was a psychopath. He was both a serial killer, having killed his victims over a long period of time, and also a spree killer, who raked up as many as four victims in three months. He used a weapon like a knife or a gun to subdue his victims. Because of the diversity in age and looks of his victims, the attacks were deemed to be spontaneous. He was opportunistic and knew when and where to strike and not be seen. He had the self-control to stop the murders, to avoid capture. He was a narcissist who kept a keen eye on the investigation and enjoyed the fact that police had no idea who he was. He may have served in the army, where he could have been in trouble for violent behaviour, especially towards women.
In 2003, 12 years after the last murder, with the case still unsolved, Bong Joon-ho’s film,
Memories of Murder was released and sparked a renewed interest in the case. When a college student was found murdered in Hwaseong a year later, people were convinced the killer had returned. There was a newfound urgency to solve the case, seeing as the statute of limitations was about to run out. At the time in South Korea, if the killer was not brought to justice within 15 years after a murder was committed, they could no longer be prosecuted.
By 2006, they still didn’t have anyone in custody for the Hwaseong murders. However, this was the biggest case of the century in South Korea, and police knew all evidence had to be preserved. Even if someone couldn’t be brought to justice, it could still help in solving the case. Officially, the case was closed, but police vowed to solve the murders one day.
The case remained in a dormant state for another 13 years, until July 2019, when police sent evidence from the original case files to the National Forensic Service for DNA testing.
It came back with a match of someone already in police custody. 56-year-old Lee Choon-Jae was convicted of murdering his 19-year-old sister-in-law in 1994. When confronted with the evidence, Lee denied any involvement.
Police were not about to give up, and corroborated all the evidence they had against Lee, even though they knew they would not be able to prosecute him. They owed it to the families of the victims, and to the people of South Korea, to solve the serial murders. Sadly, a vital eyewitness from back in the eighties, the bus driver, had passed away. But police were able to track down the conductor and placed him under hypnosis. While he was hypnotized the conductor picked Lee out of a photo line-up The bus driver’s testimony also mentioned a tattoo, only a round dot on the passenger’s left wrist – Lee had the very same tattoo. His shoe size was also the same as the footprint found next to the pepper field, of someone watching over the murder scene of 19-year-old Hong Jim-young.
A month after Lee was named as the Hwaseong serial killer, cornered by a mountain of physical evidence against him, he relented and confessed. Lee Choon-Jae told police that he was responsible for 10 murders in Hwaseong between 1986 and 1991, as well as three other murders in Hwaseong and the murder of his sister-in-law in Cheonju.
People who knew Lee Choon-Jae were taken aback by the news that he was a serial killer. Even prison guards found it hard to believe that the reserved, model prisoner had killed one person, let alone 14. Who was this two-faced monster?
Lee Choon-Jae was born in Hwaseong on the 31st of January 1963. He was described as a good kid, who kept to himself. He was kind and amiable and polite to his neighbours. His classmates remembered him as bright and reserved. He grew up and lived in the Hwaseong area for 30 years. His sister drowned when he was young, and the loss had a huge impact on him. Lee claimed that he was abused by an older sibling, which caused his warped perception of sexuality.
After graduating high school in February 1983 Lee joined the army. He spent three years, working as a tank pilot. During this time, Lee had a personality make-over of sorts. He was no longer the shy, bright-eyed kid from the village. Instead, he showed leadership skills and was often the pilot who took initiative during training, while others followed.
When he left the army at the end of January 1986, it was like all his confidence was suddenly gone. He no longer had the respect of his troop and he felt aimless, bored and lacking in purpose.
Lee committed his first sexual offense, a rape, on the 8th of February that same year. The second one on the 20th of March, then April 3rd, and again three weeks later on the 25th. He carried on, overpowering his sixth and seventh rape victims less than a week apart: on the 8th and 14th of May. He committed one more sexual assault, before escalating to murder. These victims remained anonymous to the public after Lee confessed, but Lee was able to provide police with exact information and there was no doubt as to his guilt.
Meanwhile, his day-to-day life carried on. Lee found a job at an electric parts company, working as a fork-lift driver. It was not quite the same thrill as being a military tank pilot, but one has to make a living somehow.
In September 1989, police in the city of Gwanju, Suwon, about a 40-minute drive inland from Hwaseong, received a phone call from a man who said there was an intruder in his house. The robber was caught red-handed, wearing gloves and carrying weapons and sentenced to eighteen months in prison.
This was Lee Choon-Jae. He claimed that he was a victim himself, fleeing from an unknown assailant who attacked him. According to Lee he only went into the house because he was seeking refuge. Due to a lack of evidence, his sentence was commuted to two-years’ probation and he was released in April 1990.
Significantly, no murders occurred in Hwaseong during his stint in prison. He was perhaps more cautious after his arrest but could only restrain himself for seven months. In November 1990, he killed schoolgirl Kim Mi-jung. When her family learnt that Lee was the one who had killed her, they requested to speak to him. Lee agreed and met with Mi-jung’s brother. With little emotion Lee answered as many questions as he could. In the end he told her brother that she was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Had she not met Lee that day, she would still be alive.
All the while, Lee was still working the same job as a forklift driver and was ready for a change. He found employment as a crane driver in Cheongpa, Yongsan. He never had a license, but gained enough experience to secure another job, also as a crane driver for a company in Cheongju. Here he met his wife, who worked as an accountant at the same company, and they got married in April 1992. A year later, in March 1993, Lee and his wife both lost their jobs, when the company they worked for went bust. His wife managed to find some part-time work and supported them. During this time, he did not return to Hwaseong, and there were no more killings.
In December 1993, Lee’s wife left him, because he was abusive. She said that he threw an ashtray at her and used to beat their 2-year-old son. Lee’s wife broke down and told police that Lee had raped her many times. He was so angry about his wife leaving him, and threatened to tattoo her so she could not get married again. He also warned her:
“Know that I’m planning something terrible…”
And he kept his promise. In January 1994, 31-year-old Lee invited his sister-in-law over to collect his ex-wife’s belongings. She stopped by on her way home from the university where she worked. Lee gave her a drink, laced with sleeping pills, then, he proceeded to rape her. She fought to stay awake, and Lee recalled her last words:
“Why are you doing this?”
Lee could not provide an answer and watched as the drugs took effect and she drifted into sleep. When she was no longer conscious, he hit her over the head with a heavy object. He wrapped her in his wife’s stockings and other clothes and disposed of her body in the yard of a hardware store, half a mile from his home.
The next day, Lee went to her family home under the pretence of helping on the farm. When they told him that their youngest daughter did not come home the night before, he agreed to accompany his father-in-law to the police station to report her missing. Her family believed that she had been abducted and launched an urgent search. Lee assisted with the search and feigned concern.
The worst was confirmed when his sister-in-law’s body was found wrapped in a blue tarp, hidden in the snow-covered, unused garage of a hardware store. Her head was covered with her jeans and a plastic bag, and her hands were tied behind her back with her own underwear.
Police questioned family members and friends, hoping to gain more information about her last movements. Police found it strange that Lee had called her on the afternoon before her disappearance. When they found blood on Lee’s washing machine, matching the victim’s, they were onto him. Lee also asked someone how many years one would serve for rape and murder. Five days after the murder, Lee was arrested.
Lee pleaded not guilty, and the court threw out his confession obtained during interrogations. He managed to convince the court that investigators had coerced him into confessing. It took three trials to convict him, and prosecution called on his wife and acquaintances to testify about the seemingly dutiful Lee’s violent side. Others, like employers, prison guards and family members testified to the contrary: Lee Choon-Jae was mild-mannered and kind. A police psychologist reconciled both sides, concluding that Lee had tremendous respect for hierarchy. He was demure and obedient to people above his station but turned into a brute to those he deemed to be below him, like his wife and their son.
Lee eventually relented and confessed that he had caused his sister-in-law’s death but claimed that it was an accident. According to Lee she arrived at his place and insulted him, criticising him about his failure as a husband to her sister. He snapped and attacked her in a fit of rage. However, because Lee had lured her to his home and drugged her, the court believed that the crime was pre-meditated. He was found guilty and sentenced to death in May 1994. The next year, his sentence was commuted to life in prison, with a minimum of 20 years.
After serving 25 years in prison, the DNA evidence from the serial killer investigation proved that Lee was in fact guilty of much more than his sister-in-law’s murder. He was the elusive Hwaseong Serial Killer. Early in the investigation, police believed that their suspect had the blood type B, but in 2019, they acknowledged that this was possibly an incorrect conclusion, due to antiquated testing procedures in the eighties, as Lee’s blood type is Type O.
On the 18th of September 2019, police finally made an announcement they had been longing to make for more than 25 years. They had a suspect in connection with the serial murders. DNA from the underwear of one of the victims matched Lee’s. His DNA was also linked to four other victims. In addition to the murders, he also confessed to more than 30 rapes and attempted rapes.
The nation demanded answers: why did Lee do it? The police explained that the introverted Lee suffered from very low self-esteem. The only time he achieved a sense of accomplishment was when he completed his mandatory military service. During this time, he became self-reliant and felt a sense of pride. However, when his service term was done, he grew frustrated with his monotonous life. He committed sex crimes to vent his frustration. The police chief further stated publicly that Lee had psychopathic tendencies and lacked any sense of empathy.
On the 2nd of July 2020, police were able to close the case: Lee Choon-Jae could be linked to all of the Hwaseong murders and nine unsolved rape cases. He confessed to 30 rape and attempted rape cases – providing detailed accounts of the crimes and locations. He even drew a map and marked the spots where he had left the bodies of his murder victims. A note, on the map, was scribbled by Lee:
“Murder 12+2, rape 19 and attempted 15.”
He corrected interrogators if they got the facts wrong and remembered landmarks, the way they were at the time of the murders. He said he usually committed the crimes between 9-10pm, after work, on his way home.
With the new information, the question arose: was Yoon Sung-yeo, the crippled man who was convicted of 14-year-old Park-Sang-hee’s murder in her bedroom innocent? He was released on bail in 2009, after spending 19 and a half years in prison, and always maintained that he was innocent. When Lee Choon Jae confessed to Park Sang-hee’s murder, Yoon Sung-yeo applied for a retrial to clear his name.
In November 2019, police stated that Lee’s detailed description of the crime scene and the victim convinced them that he was indeed Park Sang-hee’s killer. The district prosecutor’s office confirmed that Yoon was the victim of police brutality and that the forensic evidence against him was fabricated. Because of this, eight of the investigators involved in the case were charged with abuse of power, illegal detention of Yoon, coercing a confession and falsifying evidence.
In November 2020, at Yoon’s retrial, Lee came forward as a witness, confessing to the murder of 14-year-old Park Sang-hee. When asked why he killed her, he plainly stated that it was an ‘impulsive act’.
Lee also admitted that he was one of the 21,000 people questioned by police with regards to the serial murders. In fact, when they questioned him, he had a watch of one of his victim’s in his pocket. The officer only asked for identification, and that was all he showed. He said that he was surprised he was not caught sooner.
"I didn't think the crimes would be buried forever… I still don't understand (why I wasn't a suspect). Crimes happened around me and I didn't try hard to hide things so I thought I would get caught easily. There were hundreds of police. I bumped into detectives all the time, but they always asked me about people around me."
A psychopathic serial-killer very often turns out to be someone hiding in plain sight. Because they do not feel remorse of empathy, it does not take much for them to lie. A psychopath can also appear like they ‘have it together’. Lee was someone with a job and a family – all the social trimmings that placed him above suspicion.
It looked like he had a good life, but somehow, his insatiable need to kill always got the better of him. When asked if he had planned the murders, he said…
“I didn’t do it with any plan of forethought. I committed the crimes just as a moth chases a flame…. It was a natural process. If I stopped myself, it was rape. But when I continued, it was murder.”
The film Memories of Murder is a somewhat dark and farcical look into the investigation. When the investigator from Seoul arrives and wants to ask a woman for directions, she runs away and trips over, rolling down an embankment. The policeman helps her up and she screams. Lead investigator Park Doo-man handcuffs the man, and the woman runs away. He calls for the ‘victim’ to make a statement. Seo Tae-Yoon then introduces himself as a colleague and explains he was only asking for directions. It’s all done tongue-in-cheek, but it certainly conveys the panic of the time.
Bong Joon-ho, who also directed Oscar-winning film, Parasite, made Memories of Murder in 2002 with the goal of reigniting interest in the case. The final shot of the film is unconventional and has become an iconic cinematic moment. The lead investigator looks straight into the camera, quietly staring, challenging the killer to come forward. The film was huge in South Korea and the likelihood the murderer saw it, was strong.
During press conferences for Memories of Murder, Bong said:
“To remember is to punish.”
When Boon learnt that police had matched DNA evidence to Lee Choon Jae, he admitted he felt confused. But his sympathy was with the people involved with the case.
“… no matter how complicated I feel, I don’t think it can compare to the people who were actually involved in the case – the families of the victims, detectives who struggled to catch the killer, and the suspects who were misunderstood to be the killer and were interrogated. [What I feel…] it’s only a fraction of how much they feel.”
Korea’s most prolific serial killer had been identified, and although people were relieved. They could not help but wonder if they’d ever know the full extent of his crimes: he was a burglar, a rapist and a killer. Lee’s mother visited him in prison, way back when he was convicted of killing his sister-in-law. He reportedly asked her to burn everything in his house, even down to the rugs. This curious request made investigators wonder, in hindsight, if he was hiding evidence of even more murders inside his home.
Today, Lee Choon-Jae is still in prison serving his life sentence. In light of the evidence in the Hwaseong case, the possibility of parole has been revoked. Although it took him nearly 30 years to come clean, Lee claims he is remorseful.
"I heard that many people had been investigated and wrongfully suffered. I'd like to apologise to all those people. I came and testified and described the crimes in hopes for (the victims and their families) to find some comfort when the truth is revealed. I'll live my life with repent.”
Of course, that does not make it right. The victims were taken from their families and suffered brutal and unforgiving murders. Yoon, who was at the cusp of adulthood, had raised himself from poverty, but spent his best years behind bars – time he’ll never get back. He too, became a victim of Lee’s senseless crimes. Naming Lee as the Hwaseong serial killer definitely brought an end to the mystery, but he never stood trail or received punishment for the murders. Justice will never be served for the victims who were taken from their loved ones, senselessly, simply because a brutal man felt he lacked purpose…
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