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Slaying still a mystery a year later

Jeong Im’s body was found in the trunk of his burning Honda Accord in an MU parking garage.
Friday, January 6, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 5:00 a.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008

[Note: this story has been modified since its original posting.]

In the vestibule of MU’s Memorial Union between the north and south wings is a small memorial: a flickering candle, some artificial flowers and a green paperback copy of the New Testament. It serves as a reminder of Jeong Im, the semi-retired MU microbiologist whose slaying last Jan. 7 remains a mystery.

Im’s body was discovered in the trunk of his burning Honda in the Maryland Avenue parking garage. Investigators determined that the 72-year-old researcher had been stabbed repeatedly in the chest between 10:30 and 10:45 a.m.

Then, his assailant or assailants put the body in the trunk of Im’s Accord.

An hour later, police say, someone returned and poured gasoline on the trunk before igniting it.

On Jan. 8, 2005, MU police issued a composite sketch of a man who’d been spotted near the crime scene: In the drawing, most of his face was covered with a drywall or painter’s mask.

Seven hours after finding Im’s body, MU police requested the help of the Mid-Missouri Major Case Squad — 37 officers from 13 neighboring law enforcement agencies. The squad was activated for nine days, MU police Capt. Brian Weimer said.

“The primary purpose of the Major Case Squad is to put a lot of individuals on the case very quickly in the first bit of time to follow up on leads and saturate the area,” Weimer said.

Still, the case is unsolved — Columbia’s only unsolved homicide in 10 years. The chance of a homicide being solved declines drastically if the case hasn’t been solved within 72 hours, said Michael Himmel, a Major Case Squad forensic investigator.

“After a year, it usually comes down to a witness or co-defendant coming forward, or forensic information being reanalyzed,” said Himmel, a Columbia College criminal justice instructor.

MU police are hoping that the man with the drywall or painter’s mask could lead them to a solution.

The man, whom police have not called a suspect but a “person of interest,” has long been described as “a slender white male, between 6 feet and 6 feet 2 inches in height.”

Weimer says his department has been criticized more than once for the vagueness of the composite sketch released after the crime, but he says the criticism is unwarranted. He says the public isn’t thinking broadly enough about the sketch, which continues to be circulated through local media. The drawing “is very good if you look at that, perhaps, you saw that person without that mask, just prior to putting that mask on,” he said.

Weimer said that witnesses may have not seen the man with the mask on but that other descriptive features, like clothing, could help lead to his identification.

In October, MU police released additional information about the killing after consulting with the FBI and other law enforcement agencies. They elaborated on the description of their person of interest: medium-length brown hair, possibly wearing faded-blue baggy jeans, a hooded red sweatshirt and a blue winter coat. He may have been carrying a red gas can.

MU also raised to $25,000 the reward for information leading to an arrest in the Im case and tried to spur more public involvement by releasing a key piece of evidence for the first time: a description of the Old Hickory knife investigators say was used to slay Im.

The knife has an 8-inch blade with a 5-inch handle and is not sold in Columbia hardware stores but can be purchased on the Internet.

MU police also provided a fuller description of a vehicle seen in the parking garage: a reddish 1980s Ford F-10 pickup with a faded black driver’s side door, and damage to the front bumper and the rear driver’s side quarter-panel. Weimer says MU police have checked with local body shops, but they have yet to find the vehicle or its owner. He declined to say whether police have any additional leads on the vehicle.

The department’s decision to withhold some information until October, Weimer said, was necessary to maintain the integrity of the case. When police make an arrest, they’re looking for details of the crime that only the suspect would know.

“The department does as you should, meaning by that, you do not release information (about cases before they go trial), unless you absolutely have to,” Weimer said.

He referred to the recent murder trial of Ryan Ferguson, in which Ferguson’s attorneys argued that the account of the crime from the prosecution’s key witness, Charles Erickson, had been influenced by media coverage of the killing of Columbia Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt.

News stories can also lead to the destruction of evidence by perpetrators not yet in custody. “Because all of a sudden the person realizes that ‘Oh my gosh, there was a print left,’ and destroys that piece of evidence,” Weimer said.

Weimer acknowledged that bloody footprints found at the scene were made by a boot heel but declined to comment on the boot’s make or whether it has led to other information about the crime. The Columbia Tribune reported in July that according to the FBI, the boot prints were made by Timberland “Euro Hiker” boots.

In addition to the FBI and the Major Case Squad, the Columbia Police Department, the Missouri Highway Patrol and Boone County Sheriff’s Department have offered assistance.

In mid-March, MU Police Chief Jack Watring invited renowned cold-case forensic specialist Lou Eliopulos to Columbia. A senior homicide analyst for the National Criminal Investigation Service, Eliopulos reviewed the case for about six hours with MU investigators. NCIS agents normally investigate cases involving U.S. Navy personnel, but Watring says Eliopulos’ work with the MU police is independent of his NCIS work. Watring said the author of the “Death Investigator’s Handbook” still continues to assist the department. Eliopulos did not respond to a request for an interview.

A look back

Im’s wife, Tesuk Im, and one of his twin daughters, Soo Ihm, who works at Ellis Library, have consistently declined to comment on the slaying.

About three hours before Im died, Mark Foecking, a friend and colleague, spoke with him.

“He had to get his car inspected, it had failed inspection, and he was going to take the afternoon off,” Foecking said. “He seemed kind of frustrated that he had to take his car in.”

Foecking said he enjoyed talking to Im about politics and music, especially classical — “stuff like that.”

Born to a family of farmers in South Korea in 1932, Im educated himself by candlelight amidst war and poverty. After teaching at Chongju Normal School, he was awarded a full scholarship to Seoul National University where he earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and a master’s degree in physical chemistry.

After earning his doctorate in biochemistry from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill in 1967, he worked as a research fellow at Harvard Medical School. Before coming to MU in 1987, he served on a string of university faculties, including Cornell University and the University of Alabama-Birmingham.

Im began work as a research professor in the MU Department of Microbiology and Immunology in 1987. He later retired but worked part time making proteins for other MU researchers.

Not long before his death, Im was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to study in South Korea, Seungkwon You, a friend and former neighbor, said last January.

“Even at the age of 72, he still had an ambition to study and research,” You said.

Im was looked upon as a father figure by the Korean community in Columbia, he said. You remembers Im giving classical music CDs and fresh greens from his garden to You’s wife.

Henry Liu, who wrote a letter to the Columbia Tribune in February criticizing the lack of attention paid to Im’s death, said he thinks police want to solve the case but is not sure how aggressively they are investigating. A former MU civil engineering professor, Liu thinks the killing was race-related because no money was taken and because of the viciousness of the act.

“It looks like a hate crime, but no one can ever be sure,” said Liu, who is a Mid-Missouri Chapter of 80-20 Initiative board member. The 80-20 Initiative is a national group dedicated to equality and justice for Asian-Americans, Liu said.

“We don’t want to know anything that would help the murderer, but without compromising the investigation, (police) can tell us a little more,” Liu said.

Three MU police investigators continue to work on the case, and evidence collected at the crime scene is still being processed at crime labs, Weimer said.

He was unable to provide an estimate on how much time is devoted to the investigation, only that the case remains a priority. Police still receive tips prompted by the $25,000 reward, but Weimer could not estimate how many tips have been received in the last three months.

Police even looked into a conspiracy theory that hit the Internet almost immediately after Im’s death. Web sites, like www.deadscientists.blogspot.com, tie Im’s death to a worldwide campaign against microbiology researchers and other scientists. Weimer said investigators looked into the validity of the claims but have found nothing to support them. He declined to explain how the validity of such conspiracies could be checked.

In terms of the handling of the investigation, Weimer said there has not been anything identified that the department should have done differently. He said “it is still very actively investigated.”

Police are asking anyone with information pertaining to the homicide to call 573-882-7203. Callers wishing to remain anonymous may call CrimeStoppers at 573-875-TIPS.


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