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Fairfax police suspect teen may have died in Korean exorcism

Rayoung Kim died in July 2008, four days after being found unconscious at her Centreville home. A police affidavit says that her brother said she was involved in a religious ritual just before she passed out.
Rayoung Kim died in July 2008, four days after being found unconscious at her Centreville home. A police affidavit says that her brother said she was involved in a religious ritual just before she passed out. (Courtesy Of Nbc Washington)
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By Tom Jackman
Thursday, October 22, 2009

Someone pummeled and smothered 18-year-old Rayoung Kim in a bedroom of her home in a new suburban subdivision in Fairfax County. She fell unconscious and later died.

Fairfax police think the fatal injuries occurred in July 2008 during a Korean exorcism, in which a spiritual shaman and family members try to force evil spirits to leave a possessed person.

That account is in a police affidavit filed recently in Fairfax Circuit Court, which quotes Kim's brother as saying his sister was involved in a religious ritual in the moments before she passed out. The court filing also quotes the medical examiner's report, saying Kim died from "blunt force trauma and asphyxiation."

After investigating the case for more than a year, Fairfax homicide detectives recently obtained search warrants to take DNA samples from Kim's mother and brother, whom they suspect might have participated in the ancient Korean rite of kut, in which a shaman communicates with spirits.

It is extremely rare for murder or manslaughter charges to be filed in relation to religious rituals. In the past 10 to 15 years, only a few cases have been prosecuted in the United States. But the search warrant filed in Fairfax Circuit Court in the Kim case provides a window into the sometimes dangerous practice.

Kim's father, Kyung T. Kim, said police officers had their facts wrong but declined to comment further. No one has been charged in the case.

Exorcisms have a long history in Korean theology, experts said. Missionaries introduced various forms of Christianity in Korea beginning in the late 18th century, but the kut ritual long predates that, experts said.

"Historically, the Korean culture has been very deeply shaped by shamanism," said Peter Cha, a professor of pastoral theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Ill. In Korean shamanism, a woman is typically the shaman, or mudang, and communicates with gods or spirits not only to drive out evil but also to resolve financial problems or improve a person's health.

Cha said some Koreans "believe in multiple spirits that are active and present. Whether an illness is physical or emotional, it is evil done by these spirits."

The family of Seung Hui Cho, the Korean-born man who killed 32 people and himself at Virginia Tech in 2007, considered using members of a Woodbridge church to treat their emotionally disturbed son in 2006 but ultimately did not, the pastor said. The Rev. Dong Cheol Lee of One Mind Presbyterian Church said that Cho was afflicted by "demonic power" and that his mother had approached several congregations seeking help.

"His problem needed to be solved by spiritual power," Lee said in 2007. "That's why she came to our church, because we were helping several people like him."

Rayoung Kim was a student at Centreville High School and might have had mental health issues, said law enforcement sources with knowledge of the investigation. But rather than explore psychotherapy or medication, the Kims brought in a shaman trained in the elaborate rituals of kut, said the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing. A kut can last hours or days and involves chanting, dancing, candles, incense, offerings of food and money to the spirits -- and sometimes physical force.

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