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Suspect in Jinju slayings was dangerous but constantly overlooked

Apr 26,2019
After a shocking arson and stabbing spree that killed five and wounded six in the city of Jinju, South Gyeongsang, last week, Korea’s police chief vowed that officers across the nation would make extra efforts to prevent a repeat.

Commissioner General Min Gap-ryong promised his forces would track down mentally unstable offenders and get them care. Min was tacitly admitting that the disturbed individual accused of the April 17 killings in Jinju had slipped through the cracks of the mental health system. He was a ticking time bomb that everyone knew would someday go off - including welfare workers who had treated him and wondered why he was allowed to be out on his own.

Neighbors of the suspect, Ahn In-deuk, 42, say he had been threatening and following them for months. Their calls to the police, however, were mostly ignored.

Ahn’s neighbors reported him to the police a total of six times, mainly from last summer. Five calls were from neighbors living above him in his apartment building and one was from neighbors living in an adjoining building. Most of the complaints were about Ahn throwing his own feces or soy sauce at their doors, or cursing them for no reason. Five cases were closed without Ahn being charged. After one complaint, police charged Ahn with property damage after he threw soy sauce on the front door of the people living above him on March 12; that case is still pending.

Ahn has a history of mental health problems. He was officially diagnosed with schizophrenia in 2010, after he was criminally charged with slashing a college student he didn’t know in the face with a knife in downtown Jinju. He was convicted of assault, sentenced to two years in prison with a three-year probation and sent to the National Forensic Psychiatry Hospital in Gongju, South Chungcheong, a mental hospital run by the Ministry of Justice.

After Ahn was discharged, his family forced him into a psychiatric hospital in Jinju in late 2011 for six months. Through July 2016, he received outpatient treatment from the Jinju hospital. Ahn has not taken medication since.

For about a month earlier this year, Ahn received psychological therapy at a “self-reliance center” run by a local government office to help him get back to work. A worker there said she was shocked to learn Ahn was allowed to roam freely after punching two of her colleagues.

According to the welfare worker, who spoke with the JoongAng Ilbo recently on condition of anonymity, two of her colleagues were punched by Ahn after they served him coffee one day last January. Ahn said there was something wrong with the coffee - he claimed it gave him a skin condition. Ahn was booked on a charge of assault without physical detention, fined and released soon afterward.

By law, Jinju police had the authority to hospitalize Ahn, but didn’t. Out of the six complaints from his neighbors, police checked his medical history twice, but in neither case did they ask local health authorities to get involved. Ahn’s neighbors say they should have - and now partly blame the Jinju police for the murders.

Korea has a core infrastructure for people with psychological disorders: a nationwide network of mental health centers, 16 in major cities and provinces and an additional 227 in smaller cities, counties and districts. Some 73, or about 30 percent of the total, are directly controlled by community health centers, while the rest are connected to hospitals or other social welfare facilities.

The local mental health centers are responsible for helping troubled people find treatment, counseling services or get back into society through various socializing programs. In Jinju, those are the duties of the Jinju Mental Health Center.

Yet the Jinju Mental Health Center was completely unaware of Ahn even after he was diagnosed with schizophrenia by a Gongju mental hospital in 2010, was hospitalized there for nine months from 2010 to 2011, hospitalized again in a Jinju mental hospital for six months from late 2011 to early 2012 and received outpatient treatment from the Jinju hospital through July 2016.

Under domestic law, the Jinju Mental Health Center didn’t need to track Ahn.

Even if Ahn had been on the radar of the Jinju Mental Health Center, it is not a certainty that would have helped.

Four staffers at the Jinju Mental Health Center are assigned to look after locals in the area with mental disorders. All women, they usually work in teams of two when they have to accompany police officers to scenes involving mentally unstable people. Sometimes, they go out alone.

Recently, the center received a call that a person was out on the streets, naked, throwing a stone jar lid. Two workers were dispatched with police and helped restrain him.

Working at the mental health center often means you have to endure helping violent patients, some who punch employees or pull their hair.

According to data from 2017, the most recent year available, only one out of every four people who work at mental health centers are full-time workers, although some contract workers have job security until retirement. The rest are short-term contract workers.

Experts say local governments consider mental health centers as backwaters, which is why so many employees suffer from job insecurity and leave.

Due to a lack of manpower, mental health centers in small cities, counties and districts can’t even think about handling incoming calls made late at night or on holidays. In metropolitan cities, they work late-night shifts and on holidays, but only for phone counseling.

BY SHIN SUNG-SIK, LEE SEUNG-HO, KIM YOUN-HO AND LEE EUN-JI [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]