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Killer’s confession is key to Cheongju murders

Oct 08,2019
Police may have solved two more murders that took place in Cheongju, North Chungcheong, in the 1990s, after verifying a confession by Lee Choon-jae, the suspected serial killer behind at least nine killings in Hwaseong, Gyeonggi, three decades ago.

Lee, who is serving a life sentence at the Busan Penitentiary for killing his ex-wife’s sister in 1994, last month confessed to a total of 15 murders, which include 10 women ranging from the ages of 13 to 72 in Hwaseong from 1986 to 1991 and two other previously unattributed murders that occurred in Cheongju in 1991 and 1992.

Upon further investigations, police found that the latter two murder cases in Cheongju exhibited signature characteristics similar to the Hwaseong killings, in that the victims were often found bound, raped and asphyxiated to death.

The first of the Cheongju murders was discovered on Jan. 27, 1991, when a 17-year-old female factory worker surnamed Park was found dead at a construction site, tied up and gagged with her undergarments.

A 19-year-old man was arrested by police in connection with the crime at the time but was subsequently released after a court ruled the evidence was insufficient.

Over a year later, on June 24, 1992, a 28-year-old housewife was found strangled to death with a phone cord at her home.

A witness later testified to the police that he or she had seen a man in his 20s at the scene, but the case also went cold after no further leads were found.

In addition to the murders in Hwaseong, Lee voluntarily told police about the murder of both women in Cheongju, claiming his killing spree continued well after the murders in Hwaseong.

According to the criminal profilers and investigators who grilled Lee through nine rounds of questioning before he confessed, Lee worked as a crane forklift operator at a variety of construction sites, including the one where Park was found dead inside a concrete pillar.

Police at the time also received testimony from a witness who was robbed at the same site who said she was robbed by a man in his 30s with a height of around 170 centimeters (5.6 feet) - a profile that matched Lee at the time.

Both Cheongju murders also took place very close to Lee’s home at the time, to where he had relocated from Hwaseong in 1991. This was also the home where Lee committed his last murder in January 1994, that of his sister-in-law, whom he raped before strangling her to death. He was convicted and given a life sentence for that crime.

While Lee’s confession may lead to the resolution of these cold cases in Cheongju, it also rocked the single case that police had closed during the 80s murder spree.

A 22-year-old man surnamed Yoon was convicted of strangling a 13-year-old girl to death in Hwaseong in 1988, which police said was a copycat case of the nine other murders.

He was sentenced to life in prison, though he continued to maintain his innocence. He was released on parole around 2009.

At the time of the murder, police pinned Yoon as the likely murderer due to his confession - which he later claimed was forced through torture by police - and forensic tests matching pubic hair found at the crime scene to his.

Retired police officers who were responsible for nabbing Yoon continue to insist their methods were reliable and are accusing Lee of lying about this particular murder.

None of the new DNA evidence has linked Lee to this case, and police are investigating the reliability of his claim.

Police added that they are continuing to verify the veracity of Lee’s remaining murder claims, as well as the 30 or so counts of rape and attempted rape he admitted to in his confession.

BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]