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Mother indicted for arson and manslaughter

Jan 30,2018
The prosecution indicted on Monday a 23-year-old mother surnamed Jung for arson and manslaughter, overturning the conclusion that police had made earlier that the woman accidentally started the home fire that killed her three toddlers.

Jung was handed over to the prosecution by police on Jan. 8, under the charge of involuntary manslaughter and negligence, after she was rescued from a fire at her apartment in Buk District, Gwangju, in the early morning of Dec. 31. The fire killed her children, aged 15 months, 2 and 4.

Jung had left home around 7 p.m. the night before for drinks with friends at a karaoke parlor, returning at 1:53 a.m. in the morning. The apartment’s security camera captured her in the elevator, drunk and unable to walk properly.

The first report of fire at the apartment, which is on the 11th floor of the apartment complex, was around 2:26 a.m. Jung was rescued from the balcony of the apartment at 2:53 a.m. The father of the children, aged 22, was reported to have been at an internet cafe at the time.

Firefighters found the three children dead inside the smaller room of the apartment. Autopsy results showed they died from smoke inhalation.

Jung had initially told police the fire probably began after she forgot to turn off the gas stove after boiling water for ramen.

She changed her story after police failed to find any evidence of cooking, instead saying that she fell asleep with her 15-month-old daughter in her arms after snuffing out a cigarette on the blanket, which she said caused the fire.

“In our forensic inspection of the apartment,” a prosecution official said, “we found that the fire began inside the smaller room of the apartment, near its door, where the three children were found dead. Jung had told police that she snuffed out a cigarette on a blanket, but we found the blanket was made of synthetic wool, which would not have easily caught fire.”

When further questioned by prosecutors, Jung said, “I was playing with fire by lighting [the blanket] with a cigarette lighter, and then I let the flame grow thinking that I wanted to die with the kids in the fire.” Prosecutors said she did not admit to arson.

In its indictment, the prosecution also said that Jung’s initial testimony to police, in which she said, “I was sleeping with the kids in the smaller room and then barely escaped the fire,” was not found to be convincing because the clothes she was wearing at the time of the rescue did not have any remnants of the burned synthetic wool, nor did she carry any thermal burns on her face, a sign that authorities say would have been there if she’d been near the flames.

Prosecutors also found that Jung had sent text messages or called people numerous times from 1:51 a.m. to 2:37 a.m., again undermining her statement to police, as she said she had been asleep with the kids inside the room before the fire.

Authorities found her phone inside the smaller room, mostly unaffected by the fire.

“The fire had not really affected the main door to the apartment,” said a prosecution official. “If she wanted to escape with the kids, she could have tried to go through the main door. But it seems she spent most of her time on the balcony after the fire began.”

According to authorities, Jung had frequent arguments with the children’s father, whom she had divorced just four days before the fire, although they continued to live together. They usually fought over the issue of raising the children, including on the night of the fire.

“In addition to the fight, Jung was also involved in an online-shopping fraud case,” said a prosecution official, “which we think all made her decide to commit arson.”

BY CHOI KYUNG-HO, ESTHER CHUNG [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]