Fairfax teen may have died in Korean exorcism, police say

Tom Jackman, Washington Post, Thursday, October 22, 2009

Someone pummeled and smothered 18-year-old Rayoung Kim in a bedroom of her home in a new suburban subdivision in Fairfax County. She fell unconscious and later died.

Fairfax police think the fatal injuries occurred in July 2008 during a Korean exorcism, in which a spiritual shaman and family members try to force evil spirits to leave a possessed person.

That account is in a police affidavit filed recently in Fairfax Circuit Court, which quotes Kim’s brother as saying his sister was involved in a religious ritual in the moments before she passed out. The court filing also quotes the medical examiner’s report, saying Kim died from “blunt force trauma and asphyxiation.”

After investigating the case for more than a year, Fairfax homicide detectives recently obtained search warrants to take DNA samples from Kim’s mother and brother, whom they suspect might have participated in the ancient Korean rite of kut, in which a shaman communicates with spirits.

It is extremely rare for murder or manslaughter charges to be filed in relation to religious rituals. In the past 10 to 15 years, only a few cases have been prosecuted in the United States. But the search warrant filed in Fairfax Circuit Court in the Kim case provides a window into the sometimes dangerous practice.

Kim’s father, Kyung T. Kim, said police officers had their facts wrong but declined to comment further. No one has been charged in the case.

Exorcisms have a long history in Korean theology, experts said. Missionaries introduced various forms of Christianity in Korea beginning in the late 18th century, but the kut ritual long predates that, experts said.

“Historically, the Korean culture has been very deeply shaped by shamanism,” said Peter Cha, a professor of pastoral theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Ill. In Korean shamanism, a woman is typically the shaman, or mudang, and communicates with gods or spirits not only to drive out evil but also to resolve financial problems or improve a person’s health.

Cha said some Koreans “believe in multiple spirits that are active and present. Whether an illness is physical or emotional, it is evil done by these spirits.”

The family of Seung Hui Cho, the Korean-born man who killed 32 people and himself at Virginia Tech in 2007, considered using members of a Woodbridge church to treat their emotionally disturbed son in 2006 but ultimately did not, the pastor said. The Rev. Dong Cheol Lee of One Mind Presbyterian Church said that Cho was afflicted by “demonic power” and that his mother had approached several congregations seeking help.

“His problem needed to be solved by spiritual power,” Lee said in 2007. “That’s why she came to our church, because we were helping several people like him.”

Rayoung Kim was a student at Centreville High School and might have had mental health issues, said law enforcement sources with knowledge of the investigation. But rather than explore psychotherapy or medication, the Kims brought in a shaman trained in the elaborate rituals of kut, said the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing. A kut can last hours or days and involves chanting, dancing, candles, incense, offerings of food and money to the spirits — and sometimes physical force.

Leaders in Northern Virginia’s Korean community said exorcisms are unusual in the area. “This is not common,” said Michael Kwon of the Korean-American Association of Northern Virginia. “I’ve been very involved in the Korean American community for many years, and I don’t know of anybody using mudangs,” he said, although he said he was familiar with the practice in Korea.

John Goulde, director of the Asian studies program at Sweet Briar College in Sweet Briar, Va., said he had watched a number of kuts in South Korea. He said they involve holding the person down while the evil spirits are pushed out of the stomach and forced out through the throat. In a 1996 case in California, a woman who died during a Korean exorcism had suffered 16 broken ribs and a crushed heart.

The mudang typically enters an altered state of consciousness in which spirits enter her body during the ceremony and can transmit positive power, withhold their harmful presence or communicate important messages, author John A. Grim wrote in the book “Asian Folklore Studies.” Money is usually involved as payment to the spirits, and spirit power must be “correctly solicited and purchased,” Grim wrote.

Goulde said some highly educated people use mudangs rather than more modern approaches. The shaman can sometimes be connected to a Pentecostal or charismatic church, and “it’s a highly emotion-packed form of religion,” Goulde said. “It’s very cathartic. It makes them feel good and generates support.”

Fairfax police wouldn’t discuss the specifics of what happened to Rayoung Kim last year. A search warrant affidavit written by homicide Detective Robert A. Bond that was recently filed in Circuit Court quotes the medical examiner’s report, saying that “unidentified DNA” was found at Kim’s house on Old Mill Road, just off Route 28 in Centreville.

When Bond interviewed Kim’s mother, she said she had been speaking with her daughter when she collapsed. The mother later made a second statement, saying that she found her daughter in her room, unresponsive. The mother denied having a role in her daughter’s death, Bond wrote.

Kim’s teenage brother told police that he, his mother and two other people “were performing a religious ritual on the victim prior to her becoming unresponsive,” the affidavit says.

On July 26, 2008, someone in the house summoned an ambulance for the unconscious girl. She was taken to Inova Fair Oaks Hospital, then to the intensive care unit at Inova Fairfax Hospital.

Police dominated the quiet street for hours, neighbors said. But virtually none of the neighbors had any relationship with the Kims, and no one knew what might have been going on in their house. Some said they didn’t even know a teenage girl lived there.

Kim died July 30, 2008. Officer Don Gotthardt, a Fairfax police spokesman, said the investigation was continuing. “Homicide detectives are still waiting for some forensic results, and it’s still an active, ongoing investigation.”

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