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February 9th, 2005 Janine Robben | News Stories
 

The Panty Thief

The prosecutor thinks Sung Koo Kim could have abducted Brooke Wilberger. But he can't prove it.

     
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Sung Koo Kim sits in dorm 14 at Multnomah County's Inverness Jail. Except for an occasional game of chess, the 30-year-old keeps to himself. When he gets visits from his parents and younger sister, he asks them whether the family dog's teeth are brushed.

According to law-enforcement officials in four counties, Kim is one of the most sexually perverted and potentially dangerous men they have ever encountered. They are also convinced he is someone with the potential to have abducted Brooke Wilberger.

Eight months later, "he is still a person of interest," Benton County Deputy District Attorney John Haroldson told WW on Monday. "His status has not changed."

The problem is, Kim has a seemingly perfect alibi.

And no one can find the body.

That's why, also on Monday, a different officer of the court, Multnomah County Judge Frank Bearden, said, "It is now known that [Kim] is not a suspect" in the Wilberger case.

Welcome to one of the most perplexing criminal mysteries in recent Oregon history.

You'd have to have been out of the country to have missed the story of Wilberger, a heartbreakingly beautiful 19-year-old Brigham Young University coed. In May of last year, Wilberger, who grew up near Eugene, had just started a summer job at an apartment complex across the street from the Oregon State University campus in Corvallis.

The national media was attracted to the story of her disappearance like ants to a picnic blanket. It had all the necessary ingredients. A wholesome girl who wrote her boyfriend—serving a two-year church mission in Venezuela—every week. A loving family, with five siblings.

The backdrop, as well, was compelling: A midsize college town whose low crime rate gives the appearance of safety, but which three serial killers had prowled for victims in years past.

An immaculate crime: Wilberger had disappeared in the middle of a Monday morning—with no witnesses—from a busy parking lot.

The spooky physical evidence: just a pair of flip flops, left askew, and some cleaning supplies found abandoned in the parking lot.

The community support: Within days, hundreds of people, many of them members of Wilberger's church, were fighting their way through poison oak and blackberries in a wooded area on the bank of the Marys River, near where she was last seen.

By Wednesday, Wilberger's

parents had already appeared on Good Morning America and the Today show.

Said Ron Noble, the Corvallis police lieutenant who was the public face of the investigation: "From a law-enforcement standpoint, we knew it was going to be a big, big, big thing."

Only days after Wilberger's disappearance, Lt. Noble, 45, thought he'd gotten lucky.

The Los Angeles native has been at the Corvallis Police Department for 17 years, working his way up from streets to detectives to, in 2002, a position in the chief's office.

On May 24, the day Wilberger disappeared, Noble was pulling double duty as both the department's public-information officer and the day shift's "watch" commander.

Noble knows how unsolved mysteries can haunt a town for years. Cases like that of Ann Ellenwood, a 14-year-old girl who vanished, in April 1978, while taking part in Corvallis' March of Dimes Walk-A-Thon and was never seen again.

Which is why Noble and the Corvallis Police Department's spirits lifted a few days after Wilberger disappeared when the Oregon State Police contacted them about a separate case they were working on in Newberg involving a very intriguing man.

His name?

Sung Koo Kim.

Kim's parents emigrated from Seoul, South Korea, with their two young children in 1978. They settled in the Beaverton area because, Kim's father, Joo Wook Kim, told WW, a business magazine had rated it first among places to live in the United States.

Like many of the 25,000 or so Portland-area Koreans, the Kims struggled to assimilate while at the same time maintaining the values they brought from Korea, where tightly knit families are all-important.

The Kims bought a house in a tidy, middle-class and largely white neighborhood, sent Sung to Beaverton High School, and joined one of the area's 60-some churches that cater to Koreans.

Jeremy Ward, a classmate of Kim's at Beaverton High, remembers him as a pretty nice guy. "Above-average intelligence, pretty gentle-natured, dry sense of humor," says Ward. "Violence didn't seem to be part of his nature."

Kim went on to get an associate's degree in computers from Portland Community College and a BS in genetics and cellular biology from Washington State University in 2001.

It was a good pedigree, on paper. But by 2004, Kim was 30, was still living at home and apparently had held only one job: a one-year stint at Intel before he attended WSU. He had, as far as his family knew, spent the three years since he had returned home from college trading stocks on his computer and attempting to find work.

His mother, Dong On Kim, spent much of those three years caring for her sick aunt in Korea. But, she told WW, "My son—I know him—is not a violent, dangerous man. He is gentle and considerate."

On April 18 of last year, a student at George Fox University, a small Quaker college in Newberg, told police she had seen an Asian male in the laundry room of her all-women's dorm, squatting in front of a dryer and sorting through its contents.

Four days later, another George Fox student noticed a "suspicious-acting" Asian male following a group of women students into the same dorm. She discreetly followed the man when he left campus a short time later, wrote down the make, model and license plate of his car and contacted authorities.

The car, a black 1991 Honda Accord, was Sung Kim's.

Three weeks later, on May 13, Newberg Detective Todd Baltzell, with a search warrant in hand, went to the Kims' residence in Tigard, where the family had moved in 1993. The police were looking for a George Fox jersey, some Victoria's Secret underwear and several other items that George Fox students had reported missing.

Kim was at home.

Detective Baltzell, a baby-faced, soft-spoken veteran of five years in Newberg PD's Special Investigations Unit, has been around. Nonetheless, as he later told a Multnomah County judge, he was stunned by what he and his fellow searchers found.

In Kim's bedroom closet and dresser, inside more than two dozen suitcases, backpacks, cardboard boxes and plastic bags, were some 3,400 pairs of women's panties—many of them soiled—and bras.

Kim didn't just collect underwear: The officers also found used toilet paper, tampon applicators, bloody panty liners, dryer lint and human hair.

On the labels of many of the pieces of underwear were handwritten dates, women's names, and references or apparent references to more than a half-dozen Willamette Valley colleges and universities.

According to Baltzell, the searchers also found two automatic handguns and at least three semi-automatic rifles in Kim's room. The officers didn't seize the weapons because they hadn't been listed on the search warrant. But they did arrest Kim for theft and burglary charges.

And, when Kim told Baltzell he'd purchased the underwear via the Internet, Baltzell seized his computer.

The investigators found disturbing evidence:

  • Over 40,000 images of women being tortured, raped, eviscerated and mutilated. Links to websites like asphyxiation2, strangling_whores, necrofeat, realcorpsephotos, femalestrangulation, facesofdeathfanclub and corpseoftheweek.
  • A surreptitiously made video of two women volleyball players from Portland's Concordia University doing their laundry, and information—obtained from the university's website—about when the women were born, their parents' names and where they'd gone to high school.
  • A computer document, entitled "OSU," that Benton County Deputy DA Haroldson later called "a list of horrific torture steps that lead to murder, followed by a list of supplies to bring along." The document, according to Haroldson, was prepared in March 2004, two months before Wilberger disappeared.
  • Computerized searches relating to a female OSU swim-team member who hung out at the Oak Park Apartments, where Wilberger was last seen, and who, said Haroldson, bore a striking physical resemblance to Wilberger.
  • Underwear labeled as coming from the "OSU swim apts," with the name of the woman who resembled Wilberger and the date 4/15.
  • Eleven pairs of panties that had been stolen from another swim-team member and Oak Park resident sometime between April and May 13.

To Benton County DA Scott Heiser, Kim's collection of images was "among the most graphic and violent I have seen in my 15 years as a prosecutor, in many cases worse than actual homicide-scene photos because of the degree of torture to the victim that is depicted.

"I cannot recall another case," Heiser said in a court pleading, "where a sexual fetish burglar has ever amassed such a collection of violent images, or has had such a fixation on sexually torturing women."

On May 18, five days after Kim had been arrested and lodged in the Yamhill County Jail, his mother, who had returned from Korea following her son's arrest, posted bail, and he went home.

Six days later, Brooke Wilberger disappeared.

It didn't take police long after Wilberger's disappearance to realize they wanted a second look at Kim's house, his computer and—for the first time—his car. So, on May 29, just five days after Wilberger disappeared, the Oregon State Police, with another warrant in hand, went back to the house. This time, the cops went in the middle of the night, with enough force that it was as if they expected to find Wilberger held captive in the attic.

"The front door was blown open with an explosive device, and an assault team entered our home," says Dong Kim. "A flash-bang device was thrown into [our daughter's] room, and the entire family was handcuffed with plastic devices."

By the time the search was over, the police apparently hadn't found much new. But they took Kim back into custody.

The next day, Noble's colleague, Corvallis Police Capt. Robert Deutsch, was calling Kim "a party of high interest, high priority." But later that day, his parents again bailed him out of jail.

On June 2, he was arraigned on additional charges and rejailed. Kim's parents bailed him out of jail one more time.

Then, on June 21, prosecutors called him a "suspect" in Wilberger's disappearance. Multnomah County filed charges against him for the theft of panties from laundry rooms at Concordia and Lewis & Clark College in fall 2003 and the University of Portland in February 2004. And Kim was taken back into custody for the third and final time, with bail in Multnomah County set at $10 million. This time, he was lodged at Inverness Jail.

Frank Colistro is a Portland forensic psychologist and criminal profiler who has not examined Kim personally. But, he says, "It's not rocket science to figure out where he [Kim] likes to go, in reality and fantasy. And these are bad places.

"If you spend countless hours rehearsing raping, torturing and killing," says Colistro, "you get to the point where imagining doing it and really doing it is a very small jump to make."

In Colistro's view, Kim has a number of what he calls "risk factors" for violent behavior, including his vast collection of sexually violent images, his weapons and what Colistro calls signs of "major arrested social development."

According to Colistro, Kim's apparent lack of romantic relationships, the fact that he still lives at home at age 30, and his failure to get a job are problematic.

"These people tend to be underemployed or unemployed," he says of men who prowl for victims. "Because you can't really do that and work. Stalking is their job."

Colistro's theories aside, there are a number of authorities who have looked at the evidence and called Kim a suspect.

"There is significant evidence tending to connect the defendant with the disappearance of Brooke Wilberger," said Multnomah County's chief deputy district attorney, Norm Frink, early in the investigation.

And the man who would prosecute Kim if he were charged in Wilberger's disappearance, Benton County Deputy DA Haroldson, said Monday, "He's still a suspect."

At the same time, no charges have been filed in connection with Wilberger.

"We have run out of leads on him," says Corvallis police Lt. Noble. "So unless something comes up, he's no longer a person of interest."

In the past few decades, Oregon prosecutors have been able to obtain murder convictions when no body was ever found. But it's extremely difficult to do so without other compelling evidence, such as an eyewitness or a confession.

To make matters even more difficult, Kim has an unusually good alibi.

According to the Corvallis Police Department, Wilberger was last seen at approximately 10:50 am by her sister, who manages the apartment complex.

But Kim's parents and his sister, Jung Won Kim, who also lives at the family residence, swear that Kim was with them that morning at their house on Southwest Bouneff Street in Tigard, which is more than 70 miles from Corvallis.

To support that claim, the family points out that at 11:14 am, a stock trade was made on Sung Kim's Ameritrade account.

Since Kim's desktop computer had been seized by police on May 13, the transaction apparently was done on either his mother's desktop computer or his sister's laptop.

Kim's mother, while acknowledging doing a little Ameritrade trading herself, told a defense investigator that she didn't have the logins, passwords or stock account numbers necessary to trade on her son's account. His sister and father also denied having done the trade.

Family members do, of course, sometimes lie to protect one of their own. And Kim could have taken the laptop with him and done the trade himself.

But a friend of Kim's sister, Jamie Williams, has phone records showing she called the Kims' residence at 12:11 pm, one hour and 20 minutes after Wilberger disappeared more than 70 miles away. Williams told a defense investigator the phone was answered by Sung Kim.

And, perhaps, the best part of Kim's alibi is that a Tigard Circuit City employee told a defense investigator that at 1:11 pm, both Sung Kim and his father were in the store, shopping for a laptop computer. The clerk also told the investigator that there would be a store video showing the two doing the transaction, the time for which was established by a store receipt.

Of course, it's not impossible that Wilberger was abducted at 10:50 am by someone who would be able to purchase a computer two hours later at a store 70 miles away.

But eight months after her disappearance, the investigation appears to be stalled.

"I've had very close friends come to me and say, 'It looks like you've solved the case," says Noble. "It's really important not to give the impression that it's solved until it is solved."

What do investigators and prosecutors do when they think someone has been murdered, but there's no body, no hard evidence, and one of their chief suspects is a scary guy with a pretty good alibi?

You don't rush out and charge him with murder because, if he is acquitted, you cannot try him again later if better evidence turns up. You don't want to take your only bite of the apple too soon.

Besides, with no statute of limitations on murder, you don't have to rush to charge him.

Instead, you do what you can to break the case and protect the public.

In the case of Ward Weaver, who ultimately pleaded guilty to the murders of two Oregon City girls, authorities conducted surveillance, trying—unsuccessfully, as it turns out—to keep him from committing another crime until the body of the first victim had been found.

In Sung Kim's case, authorities appear to have piled on the charges they believe they can prove to try to keep him off the streets as long as they can. As Yamhill County DA Brad Berry put it in a June 8 email to his Multnomah County counterpart, Michael Schrunk, "Kim may never be fully tied to the Wilberger abduction, and all involved agree that we need to do all we can to get as many burglaries on him as possible to get him off the streets."

By holding separate bail hearings in each of the four counties in which Kim is charged, prosecutors were able to get his bail set at a total of more than $15 million, an unheard-of amount for someone charged with burglary, theft and possession of child pornography.

Kim's family has remained devoted to him. They believe, as Dong Kim told WW, that if he did commit the panty thefts, they are the outcome of depression and a childhood in which he was doubly isolated by his restrictive Jehovah's Witness faith and his race.

Dong Kim concedes that the contents of her son's computer are "very scary."

"I understand that," says Dong Kim, who says she actually fainted when her daughter called her, in Korea, to tell her about Sung's May 13 arrest. "I'm trying to see it from the public's point of view. I, too, was very, very shocked."

But Dong Kim insists that her son has nothing to do with Wilberger and asks the public to try to put aside its fears and wait for his burglary trials, the first of which is set to begin May 31 in Yamhill County. "Our story," she promises, "will be totally different [from the prosecutors']."

According to Dong Kim, they have obtained money from relatives to pay a series of ever-more high-powered teams of defense attorneys. She has depleted her life savings. And they have taken their case to the media in a series of interviews.

Kim has also received support from the Korean community, which has been posting handmade signs around Portland that say "Free Sung Koo Kim" and "Reduce Sung Koo Kim's bail." A petition is circulating urging that Sung Kim "should be treated in a manner that is unbiased, fair and not prejudicial or discriminatory."

The petition's signatories include state representative (and former state senator) John Lim, as well as Joon "Jay" Choi, The Korea Times' Portland correspondent, who says he meets with Sung Kim's parents regularly and was present during WW's interview with them.

"Even people who kill don't have bail set that high," Choi told WW. "The whole Korean community is following this case."

More than eight months after Brooke's disappearance, her parents hold out hope.

"With the extensive searching that they did, typically they would have found some clue," says Brooke's mother, Cammy Wilberger, a third-grade teacher who lives with her husband of over 30 years, Greg Wilberger, in Veneta, near Eugene.

"You have to live in that realm of hope," she says. "I had a little girl—one of my students—come up to me and say, 'My mom thinks she's dead, but I don't.' I totally understand how her mother could think that, statistically, but as parents, you're in a different situation."

The Wilbergers have received support from the parents of Elizabeth Smart, fellow Mormons whose 15-year-old daughter was found alive nine months after she was kidnapped.

According to Cammy Wilberger, she and her husband are not following Sung Kim's case.

"We have not envisioned any person, or dealt with that at all" she says. "We have no feelings of hatred. It would take too much energy. It takes all the energy we have just to go forward."

KIM'S Bail REDUCED

Since last spring, Sung Koo Kim has been sitting in jail, in large part because bail was set at $10 million in Multnomah County (one of four counties in which he's facing criminal charges for panty stealing). The abnormally high bail for burglary charges was clearly because authorities believed Kim may be guilty of more than just burglary and wanted to keep him in jail. This week, Multnomah County Judge Frank Bearden reduced his bail to $800,000, which he said was a more reasonable amount. If Kim's parents raise the 10 percent, or $80,000, necessary to release him in Multnomah County, he will still remain in custody on the charges that have been filed against him in three other counties, where his bail still totals about $5 million. —JR


In May 2000, another resident of Sung Koo Kim's dormitory at Washington State University complained that Kim had brought an assault rifle and 40-caliber handgun into the dorm.

Kim is charged with a total of 29 burglaries allegedly committed at seven colleges or universities in four counties between September 2002 and May 2004.

Among the thousands of pairs of women's panties allegedly found in Wazzu grad Kim's residence were multiple pairs labeled "Cougar Marching Band."

Kim reportedly burglarized the laundry room of a dorm at the University of Portland in February 2004—almost three years after security supposedly was tightened in the wake of student Catherine "Kate" Johnson's dorm-room murder.

Kim allegedly committed a burglary at Oregon State University's Sackett Hall, where serial killer Jerome Brudos admitted he once prowled for victims while wearing women's underpants.

Computer searches for countries that do not extradite to the United States reportedly were found on both Kim's and his mother's computers.

If Kim is convicted of all pending burglary charges and receives consecutive sentences, he could spend the rest of his life in prison.

 
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