Aijalon Gomes stepped on the world stage eight years ago when he walked across a frozen river into North Korea.
Months later, he again made headlines when a former president secured his release from the communist nation.
His death Friday also drew attention, when an off-duty officer found him engulfed in flames in a dirt field not far from San Diego’s Fiesta Island. He was 38.
An off-duty California Highway Patrol officer was driving west on Pacific Highway near Sea World Drive about 11:30 p.m. when he saw Gomes on fire, running then collapsing, homicide Lt. Todd Griffin said.
Gomes had recently moved to the San Diego area from Boston, Griffin said, but it is unclear exactly where he was residing.
Then 30 years old, Gomes made international headlines in 2010 when he illegally crossed into North Korea from China by walking across a frozen stretch of the Tumen River, and was soon after apprehended by border guards. He was sentenced to eight years of hard labor and fined $700,000.
“I was praying each and every day,” Jacqueline McCarthy, Gomes’ mother, said Tuesday when reached by phone at her Massachusetts home. “They would not let me talk to him.”
Gomes, who had been teaching English in South Korea at the time, may have entered North Korea in support of Robert Park, a Korean American human rights activist, according to some media accounts.
Park walked into the country in December 2009 in an attempt to bring attention to Pyongyang’s human rights abuses. He, too, crossed into the country over the frozen Tumen River.
At one point, Gomes’ incarceration was used as leverage by the North Korean government after an international investigation determined that a torpedo from that country was responsible for the sinking of a South Korean warship.
North Korean officials rejected the finding, and accused the United States of manipulating the investigation, according to media reports. Officials threatened to impose a much harsher sentence on Gomes if the United States didn’t moderate its position.
McCarthy said Gomes tried to commit suicide several times while in custody — including slitting his wrists and attempting to starve himself — before former President Carter helped negotiate his release in August 2010.
“When he got off the plane, he got on his knees and was very thankful he was home,” she said of her son.
Gomes was one of four American prisoners to be accused of entering the country illegally between 2009 and 2010, including Park and two American journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee. All were released within months.
In the years that followed his return home, his mother said, Gomes began “isolating from the family,” talking more by text than in person. She said the incarceration left her son with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I know it affected him,” McCarthy said.
Following his release, Gomes wrote a book about his experience. According to a description of the novel on Amazon.com, he reveals that his faith and a “sense of universal equality” moved him to cross into North Korea. The book also “graphically details the psychological torment of interrogation and confinement,” the description reads.
McCarthy said news of his death left her shocked and heartbroken.
“I couldn’t picture my son doing that to himself,” she said, adding that her mother, Gomes’ grandmother, is also taking the news “very hard.”
McCarthy said her son was “raised in the church” and that theirs is a close-knit family. When he was in his 20s, before he’d gone to Korea, she said, her son had left a teaching job to care for his great-grandparents.
“He was a beautiful person,” McCarthy said. She later added, “He was selfless. He was always giving his last to everyone.”
She said the family is working on creating an online fundraising page to help cover her son’s final expenses.
San Diego detectives don’t believe Gomes’ death was a homicide, but the medical examiner’s office will determine the official cause of death.