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Cold Case: The Itaewon Burger King murder has been made into a film - but there's still no conviction

A crime that shocked South Korea.

EIGHTEEN YEARS AGO, South Korea was gripped by the horrific murder of a young college student in the bathrooms of a Burger King restaurant in Seoul.

Over a decade later, the feelings surrounding Jo Jung-Pil’s untimely death were stirred again by a powerful movie. Examining the unsolved crime, The The Case of the Itaewon Homicide also re-established ill-will about the presence of US military bases. It reminded viewers of the main two suspects – both of whom had strong US ties – and that prosecutors said the killing was in the random “American gang style”.

Another decade on, and the case rumbles forward. This week, an American man suspected of the stabbing of Jo Jung-Pil was extradited from the US.

Arthur Patterson, 35 from California, is now expected to face trial for the murder of the young Korean student.

What happened?

On 3 April 1997, Jo Jung-Pil visited a Burger King on the first floor of a building in Itaewon, a party district popular with students.

Unknown to him, three stories up, about 20 expat teenagers were having a party. Included in the group were Patterson and his Korean-American friend Edward Lee. When that contingent came down the fast-food restaurant, they were messing around with a pocketknife as they ate.

Innocently, a 22-year-old Jung-Pil went to the bathroom, with his backpack on his back. He never reappeared and was later found dead on the bloody bathroom floor with nine stab wounds to the neck.

The investigation and trial

Patterson was just 17 years old at the time of the murder. His father was a US army contractor. Lee, 18, was the son of an American father and South Korean mother.

They were immediate suspects in the case. Both said they had seen the murder – but accused each other of carrying out the brutal attack.

Prosecutors argued that the friends dared each other to kill a man with the weapon, a pocketknife, they had been spotted using in the restaurant.

Lee was initially charged with the murder and sentenced to 20 years, while Patterson was indicted as an accomplice who destroyed evidence. He was given 18 months in prison for destruction of justice and other charges. 

The aftermath

In 1999, Patterson was released from prison as part of a country-wide amnesty to 2,000 criminals. During the same year, Lee was fully acquitted by the Supreme Court. It cited a lack of evidence for the quashing of the conviction. He returned to the US and attention turned once again to Patterson.

But he, in turn, was able to return to California because investigators failed to renew his travel ban – a mistake that sparked another storm of criticism.

Activists – who dislike US military presence in the country – claimed the investigation and trial were bungled as a direct result of the bilateral treaty (SOFA) between the country and the US.

A narrative also emerged that US military men and their offspring could commit crimes at will. The agreement meant that the courts could not compel the children of servicemen to give evidence – deemed crucial in this case.

The case reopened


Following the release of the popular movie in 2009 and a documentary by a South Korean TV crew, prosecutors reopened the case.

Patterson was formally charged in absentia with Jo’s murder in 2011, and extradition proceedings began.

Lee told a Korean newspaper in 2010 that he would cooperate with the prosecution if the US extradited Patterson.

What next?

TV footage showed a stony-faced Patterson walking through the arrival gate in Incheon airport, handcuffed and escorted by South Korean officials.

“I’m still shocked that I’m here,” Patterson told reporters, denying his involvement in the killing.

He will now be trialled for the murder.

With reporting by AFP

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