LEBANON, Pa. — Chung Hwan Park and his wife, Ae Suk Ko, had worked only a few weeks at the church retreat center in Frederick County, Md., when a woman arrived to drop off her 30-year-old son.
“My son is unhappy,” Ko, 57, recalled the woman saying. “Can you please take care of him?”
Ko took the request to heart. After all, Song Su Kim was only a few years younger than Ko’s sons, who stayed in South Korea when she and Park sold their belongings and traveled to the United States at the end of June.
At the Anna Prayer Counseling and Retreat Center, about an hour north of Washington, Park and Ko hoped to continue a lifetime of missionary work, cooking and cleaning as they had at Korean churches for the past 20 years.
She made ramen for Kim when he was hungry and encouraged him to help himself from the retreat center’s fridge any time.
Ko saw no reason to be suspicious when, on July 26, five days after his arrival, Kim walked into the center’s kitchen while she was working. Nor was she worried when he showed up for a small evening prayer service a few hours later and headed toward Park, his arms folded across his chest.
It turned out he was hiding a kitchen knife, Ko said.
“He began stabbing my husband,” Ko said in an interview at her sister’s home in this small Pennsylvania city. “Then he started stabbing me.”
Park, 62, was fatally injured, stabbed 11 times, police said. Ko, who tried to stop the attack, was also stabbed multiple times and seriously hurt.
The couple had “planned to move to America and stay here,” said their older son, Myung Kil, 36. “But it’s a broken plan now.”
Kim, who has been charged with murder and attempted murder, has a history of mental illness and violence stretching back at least a decade, according to records obtained in Fairfax County Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court.
After the stabbing, he told authorities that he had long felt disrepected by fellow Koreans and that he had hit a breaking point, according to police and court documents. He is being held without bond at the Frederick County Adult Detention Center.
In the court records, Kim is described as a Korean-born U.S. citizen who moved to America as a child with his mother, Youn Che, and dropped out of high school in the 11th grade, later earning a GED diploma.
The records also show that in 2006, at age 21, he was charged with destroying his mother’s household furnishings and, in a separate incident, assaulting her. He pleaded guilty to both charges and spent at least a month at Western State Hospital, a state-run psychiatric institution in Virginia.
Five years later, Kim was arrested again and charged with assaulting his mother. His court-appointed attorney, Seema D. Ruchandani, requested a mental competency evaluation.
Kim was readmitted to Western State with “a history of schizophrenia,” according to court records, which said the young man had been prescribed psychiatric medication but was not taking it. An admissions form described Kim as “pleasant and cooperative,” but it stated that he had “trouble staying on topic in conversations. . . . He was consistently observed talking and laughing to himself.”
Doctors’ notes entered into the court record stated that they were trying to find a medicine that “addresses symptoms without side effects” and that his “clinical condition is not stable.”
In May of 2012, Kim appeared before Janine M. Saxe, a Fairfax Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court judge, who found him guilty of misdemeanor assault and sentenced him to 90 days, with credit for time served. He was given a one-year probation and ordered to comply with all mental health treatment. He was also ordered to have no contact with his mother unless she initiated it.
A letter in the court record indicates that Kim successfully completed his probation in May of 2013. At some point, he became homeless, staying at a shelter for at least two months in Fairfax County and receiving Social Security income.
Reached by phone last week, Che confirmed that Kim was her son but declined to comment further. Korean media outlets quoted her as saying that she brought her son to the Frederick retreat center because she thought being there would help him.
Kim fled to the dirt road outside the center after the attack and called 911, according to police and court documents. He told authorities that he was “waiting to be arrested,” and that he needed an ambulance because he had stabbed two people.
Ko was airlifted to Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore for surgery. She spent four days in the hospital and was discharged in time to travel to New York for her husband’s funeral. “He loved America, so he’s buried here,” Ko said.
She and Park met more than 35 years ago. Initially, Ko explained in Korean, she was attracted by his good looks. But ultimately she fell in love with his generous personality. “He was a truly honest person,” Ko said.
In the mid-1990s, they moved into Mercy Seat Church in Suwon, about 19 miles south of Seoul, to work and raise their two sons. Ko cooked for the church’s 2,000-plus parishioners, and Park helped take care of the grounds. In 2010, they moved to another church in the city, where Ko continued to clean and cook and Park drove the church bus, among other odd jobs.
Park worked constantly, going to bed after midnight and rising at 4 a.m. to open the church for the early service, Ko said. She and her husband believed their long hours and humble work “made God happy.”
Outside of the church, Park was equally generous, treating family visitors to pork dinners at local restaurants. When his niece Lisa Peiffer visited from the United States, Park took time off from work to show her around the country, even driving out to the mountains.
“He took me everywhere, he did everything that I asked to do,” Peiffer remembered. “He drove me all over Korea.”
Through a pastor whom Park knew in New York, Park and Ko began to travel to the United States for missionary trips in 2011, helping out at the Hyo Shin Bible Presbyterian Church in Queens on a travel visa for a few months at a time.
They applied for visas that would let them live in the United States permanently.
Ko said the Hyo Shin pastor, Suk Ho Moon, sometimes mentioned another U.S. church he was involved with that might also need help: a secluded, wooded retreat in Maryland called Anna Prayer Counseling and Retreat Center. (Moon did not respond to a request for comment.)
The visas arrived in April, after a four-year wait. Park and Ko sold their belongings, paid the visa fees and booked a flight for June 25.
After her husband’s funeral, Ko came to this quiet neighborhood of side-shingled houses and drowsy, sloping hills to recuperate from her injuries.
She is staying at the home of her sister’s ex-husband, but she often spends the day at her sister’s house, where hints of the family’s religious devotion abound.
A red-covered Bible sits on the coffee table, and a metal cross on the wall is engraved with the words for hope, faith and love in English and Korean. A side table is stacked with sympathy cards in a wash of soothing blues and purples.
“Thinking of you,” one reads. “With sympathy in your time of loss,” reads another. “There is no grief which time does not lessen.”
Ko moves slowly through the house, easing her way down the steps, one at a time. In quiet moments, she closes her eyes and cradles her right arm, which she cannot move without feeling excruciating pain. The medication she takes to quell the pain can make her feel dizzy and her heart beat slowly, so she rations its use.
Although she hopes to stay in the United States and carry on her husband’s dream, Ko speaks no English and has little money. The state of Maryland is helping to cover Park’s funeral expenses and her hospital bills.
A friend from the Frederick retreat center has lent them a car and ferries the medication that Ko is prescribed from Baltimore. Peiffer has started raising money online for her aunt.
Both of her sons came from Korea to help her, but Myoung Ki, the younger one, is returning home this week to his job as a pastor. His brother, Myung Kil, hopes to stay in the United States, but his wife in Korea does not have a green card and would have to wait for a visa to join him.
Ko said she is comforted by the thought that her husband is in heaven. But she added that she wishes she could have followed him.
“If he [the attacker] had killed me too, I think I might have been happy,” she said, as Myoung Ki, 35, leaned over to wipe away her tears.
Tom Jackman contributed to this report.