Three men were charged Monday with murder in the death last week of a South Korean woman who was beaten during an exorcism ritual in Century City.
An autopsy determined that Kyung Jae Chung, 53, was killed by “multiple blunt force trauma,” Craig Harvey, chief of investigations for the Los Angeles County coroner, announced Monday.
“We are certifying the death as a homicide,” Harvey said.
Chung died Thursday after an exorcism involving her husband, Jae Whoa Chung, 49; Jin Hyun Choi, 46, a deacon at Glendale Korean Presbyterian Church; and Sung Soo Choi, 41, a missionary in China who was visiting Los Angeles.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Hank Goldberg recommended that the suspects’ bail be set at $1 million. They were scheduled to be arraigned Monday afternoon, but the hearing was delayed because of the difficulty of locating Korean language interpreters. The men now are scheduled to be arraigned this afternoon before Los Angeles Municipal Judge Rosemary Shumsky in West Los Angeles Branch Court.
The victim and her husband, both of whom have U.S. residency permits, were Methodist missionaries who had been living in Bangladesh and were on their way to a missionaries conference in Chicago.
Korean American Christian leaders in Los Angeles said Monday that the use of exorcism is almost unheard of in their community.
“This is definitely not cultural,” said the Rev. Jung-Nam Lee, pastor of Valley Park Korean Baptist Church. “And what happened does not fit a Western concept of exorcism, either. What it appears to be is a Christian religious activity similar to what is sometimes referred to as ‘the laying of hands.’ ”
Father Thomas Rauch, chairman of the theology department at Loyola Marymount University, said the Catholic Church has a ritual for exorcism, but it is rarely used.
Before it can be done, there has to be physical and psychological examination to look for other possible explanations for the person’s condition, he said. “An exorcism can be performed by a priest with a special permission from the bishop. I have not heard of an exorcism being performed in recent history,” Rauch said.
The exorcism began Wednesday in Koreatown after Sung Soo Choi told the couple that he was experienced in performing such rituals, police said.
The victim apparently consented to the ritual and the men used their bare hands and feet to force “evil spirits” from her body, police said.
After a break, the ritual resumed at midnight in a borrowed Century City condominium. One of the participants became worried and called 911 early Thursday morning. Paramedics took the victim to Century City Hospital, where she died several hours later.
Police have not elaborated on most specifics of the ritual or whether it was affiliated with a particular religious faith.
Defense attorney Christopher Lee, who represents the victim’s husband, said Monday that murder is not an appropriate charge.
“At the most, we have voluntary manslaughter,” Lee said. “There is nothing to substantiate malice.”
The missionary work of Sung Soo Choi, who is not related to Jin Hyun Choi, was supported by a Koreatown mission and the Glendale church.
“He was a passionate man with a heart of gold, who’d take off his shirt and give it to someone who needed it,” said Hun Chung, a childhood friend who came to the courthouse Monday with Choi’s younger brother.
Sung Soo Choi, who is a U.S. citizen, immigrated to the United States 18 years ago and built a successful electrical business, Hun Chung said. As Choi became more religious over the years, he began taking short missionary trips to China, Hun Chung said. Two years ago, he dissolved his business, moved to China with his wife and two daughters, ages 9 and 11, and became involved with missionary work full time.
“He felt the calling of God to work in China,” said Hun Chung, a deacon at Los Angeles World Evangelical Church in Koreatown. “I believe he became involved [in the ritual] because he believed it was God’s will and he wanted to help. They were fellow missionaries and they had asked for help.”