Many of Jeong Im’s friends and co-workers still talk about him in the present tense, as if he might show up any minute at the laboratory where he worked or at a neighbor’s doorstep, vegetables from his garden in hand.
They remember him as a kind and thoughtful man with a sense of humor that reflected his intellect, a hard worker with a passion for science and a respected elder in Columbia’s tightknit circle of Korean immigrants.
Those who mention his death say he must have been a random target because he was not the type to make enemies.
“I can’t think of anyone here that would feel badly toward him,” said Mark Foecking, a senior research specialist who worked with Im in MU’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology.
Police have followed more than 100 leads since Im’s body was discovered Friday afternoon. He was found stabbed in the trunk of his burning car in an MU parking garage.
Investigators have not identified any suspects or a motive, but they are seeking a “person of interest” — a man between 6 feet and 6 feet 2 inches tall, dressed in painter’s pants and a dark-blue hooded sweatshirt, with what appeared to be a painter’s mask or drywall mask covering his face. He was carrying a gas can.
Foecking saw Im about 9 a.m. Friday, roughly 3½ hours before MU Police received a call about a burning car on the third level of the Maryland Avenue parking garage. Foecking said that he didn’t know when Im left his office on the sixth floor of MU’s Medical Science Building but that he was usually gone by noon and would sometimes return later in the day.
Foecking worked closely with Im in the lab and said he considered Im a friend.
“He liked culture. He liked classical music, he admired good public speakers, good administrators, people who were able to say phrases that meant more than just the meaning of the words,” Foecking said. “He also had quite a sense of humor.”John Cannon, an associate professor in the department, said Im wasn’t a joke-teller; he preferred irony and intellectual humor.
“He would frequently say something contrary, just to see what you had to say about it,” Cannon said.
Foecking said that Im was “too dignified to appear terribly passionate” but that Im liked to engage his co-workers in friendly debate.
“One of the nice things about working with him was that we could joke and talk and even argue about things like politics and religion,” he said.
Im came to MU in 1987, working in the Department of Pharmacology. He received a doctorate in biochemistry from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill in 1967 after immigrating to the UnitedStates from South Korea, where he had trained to be a teacher and earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and a master’s degree in physical chemistry.
Seungkwon You, a friend and former neighbor, said Im had recently been awarded a Fulbright scholarship to study in South Korea. Im synthesized proteins, the building blocks of most cells, for use in a number of research projects.
“Even at the age of 72, he still had ambition to study and research,” he said.
Im kept a vegetable garden, and would often bring You fresh greens. You’s wife shared Im’s love of classical music, and Im would bring her CDs he thought she would enjoy. You said members of Columbia’s Korean community looked to him as a father figure. Most of Im’s social interaction took place within this small circle.
“My relationship with him was only here,” Foecking said. “I never met his family, and my understanding is that they kept pretty much within their own little Korean community.”
Im’s family declined to comment. His funeral is today.
MU Police Capt. Brian Weimer, MU Campus Facilities Director Phil Shocklee and MU spokesman Christian Basi all declined to comment on any construction near the garage. A large project appears to be under way between the garage and the Medical Sciences Building, where Im worked, but Construction Project Manager Steve Otto could not be reached for comment.
Work is also being done just a few doors down from his department’s main office. No drywall appears to be involved in that project, but concrete walls do appear to have fresh coats of white paint.
Police are asking anyone with information to call MU Police at 882-7203 or CrimeStoppers at 875-TIPS.