Sitting in a nearly empty courtroom, Connie Park looked at the woman who had killed Park’s mother.
“Do you remember?” she asked 56-year-old Rita Sanders-Campfield.
She did not.
The exchange, in a Maryland murder case in which both families knew well the vexations of mental-health struggles, laid bare a shared pain. The women had been roommates for about a year in a housing program designed to help those with psychiatric disabilities integrate into society.
“Rita is sick, not evil, just as my mother was,” another of the dead woman’s daughters, Laureen Park, told a judge about the homicide that left her 67-year-old churchgoing mother, Chong Hee Park, dead from 84 slashing and stab wounds.
Sanders-Campfield, who suffered from schizophrenia and depression, and apparently had quit taking her medication, used scissors and two knives, leaving one lodged in the back of the woman she errantly concluded was turning toward witchcraft and had become evil. Park was found in their apartment, beside the white purse and in the same clothes she had worn to a dinner with some of her family on the last night they saw her in 2014.
The case concluded last week when a judge in Montgomery County found Sanders-Campfield guilty of murder and committed her to a high-security psychiatric hospital.
For Connie Park, the outcome was anticipated and felt like the only one that made sense, and yet, was unsatisfying.
“For a long time,” she told Sanders-Campfield in court, “I wanted to hear any and all details about what happened, hoping that I could — even in my imagination — be there with my mother. I wanted to look into your eyes. I wanted to hear it from your mouth what happened in that apartment. But I can’t have that.”
Connie and Laureen Park had a perspective both insightful and tragic — and struggled even so with the convergence of mental illness and homicide.
“In a lot of ways these cases are more difficult,” said Russell Butler, the longtime executive director for the Maryland Crime Victims’ Resource Center. “It’s a struggle for a lot of people. It’s so complex.”
Some see the killer working one more scheme, aimed at staying out of harsh prisons. Others want the killer to get better, but to what end: So doctors will release the person?
Chong Park saw tragedy early in life while growing up in Korea. Her father regularly beat her mother, and her parents died when she was a teenager.
Chong Park married and by 1977 immigrated to Maryland, settling in Silver Spring.
Within months, a car crash left her husband a paraplegic, and Park went to work: at a fast-food chicken outlet and cleaning houses before saving enough to open a small store of her own in the lobby of an office building.
As her children moved out, her undiagnosed bipolar disorder and anxieties surfaced with ferocity.
Never a smoker, she went quickly to a three-pack-a-day habit, dragging on menthol cigarettes, always inside a parked car with the windows closed, according to Connie Park. She spent time in and out of hospitals.
Sanders-Campfield was born in Ohio, moved to Maryland, graduated from Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School and graduated from Duke University with a degree in zoology, according to Barry Helfand, her attorney, and officials at Duke.
She married and had two children but struggled with mental illness. When her husband died in 1999, Sanders-Campfield’s mental health deteriorated, sending her to a hospital for more than a year.
In 2005, according to Maryland court records, she was convicted on misdemeanor theft counts in Montgomery County and spent two months in jail. The records show no other arrests, and nothing violent.
“It took a lot of work to get myself to a better place,” Sanders-Campfield said in 2014, speaking at an annual “Welcome Home” dinner for Housing Unlimited, the nonprofit that provided her apartment.
Her speech laid out what then was her success story.
“Luck isn’t what matters. It is perseverance,” she said. “Today, I live in a lovely, beautiful home in North Bethesda with my roommate Chong Park.”
By 2014, Chong Park had been taking medication steadily for 10 years and settled into a stable life.
She was active in the Maryland Central Korean Church, where she showed up in fancy, furry hats to services and helped distribute food to the homeless.
“She was very kind,” Pastor Namyong Kim said in an interview. “She loved to laugh.”
Her daughters, who lived in New York, stayed in touch by phone and visited about five times a year.
On Friday, Nov. 28, 2014, Connie Park, her husband, and their children were on hand to take Park to dinner, and as they waited in the living room they talked with Sanders-Campfield.
Polite and welcoming a year earlier--she had even offered Park the larger bedroom as she moved in--, Sanders-Campfield now seemed to have an edge, Connie Park recalled. Sanders-Campfield stressed how she’d bought a Korean Bible for Connie Park’s mother. When Connie Park told her that her mother already had one, Sanders-Campfield held it out to Connie Park while asking about her family’s salvation.
“Why do you not seek to be perfected?” she asked, Connie Park recalled in court.
As the family left for dinner, Connie’s husband, Marc Vesci, glanced at Sanders-Campfield and later told his wife: “That woman just gave me a terrifying look.”
But given their earlier experiences with Sanders-Campfield, it wasn’t a look that portended violence.
At evening’s end, Laureen Park dropped her mom outside the apartment building and watched her walk to the exterior door. The next day and for two days after that, the family couldn’t reach Chong Park on her phone.
Connie Park sent an email to Housing Unlimited staff asking them to check on her mother.
From the time Sanders-Campfield was arrested and transferred to a secure psychiatric hospital, her mental illness was evident. She seemed to respond to auditory hallucinations, walked in a daze and showed bouts of paranoia.
For two days, she didn’t eat or drink, according to court records.Doctors forcibly medicated her, a process she fought in Maryland courts. “I’m not mentally ill,” she declared at one point to a medical panel.
But the forced medications started to take effect, and she eventually was deemed fit to stand trial.
Even as lucidity returned, Sanders-Campfield maintained she had no memories of a four-day stretch in 2014: between 2 p.m. on the Friday when her roommate left for dinner and 10 a.m. Tuesday when a police officer came into Sanders-Campfield’s bedroom. She had spent the days alone with a dead person on the other side of her locked bedroom door.
“She — according to everyone — has no memory of this event. None,” said Helfand, her attorney. “The whole thing has been bizarre.”
No evidence suggested anyone else had come into the apartment. Sanders-Campfield’s DNA was on one murder weapon. The blouse she’d been wearing, soaked in the victim’s blood, was found neatly hung in a closet.
Earlier this year, prosecutors told Helfand they would concede that Sanders-Campfield was not criminally responsible at the time of the killing, meaning she didn’t understand her conduct was a crime, or lacked the capacity “to conform that conduct to the requirements of the law.”
What remained in dispute was whether Sanders-Campfield committed first-degree, premeditated murder or a lesser form of homicide. That generated last week’s trial, held before Circuit Judge Sharon Burrell.
Assistant State’s Attorney Jessica Zarrella showed Burrell the journal kept by Sanders-Campfield, with a reference to witchcraft and Sanders-Campfield’s belief Chong Park was her oppressor. Later, when Chong Park’s family spurned Sanders-Campfield’s effort to redeem their souls, her frustrations grew.
“The defendant stewed about these thoughts of witchcraft and evilness and sinfulness, and these thoughts intensified when Chong came home,” Zarrella said.
Crime scene evidence pointed to an immediate attack: Chong Park would be found wearing the clothes she’d had on at dinner.
At some point, while Chong Park was out or after her killing, Sanders-Campfield removed photographs of Chong Park’s daughters from frames, tore each into four pieces, and threw them into a trash can.
But Sanders-Campfield’s attorney, Helfand, told the judge that establishing a motive or details to the crime required prosecutors to make too many assumptions. “They want you to be a playwright, and fill in all these blanks,” he said, arguing that if his client was guilty, it was to a lesser charge such as second-degree murder or manslaughter.
Connie and Laureen Park were hoping the strongest conviction would equate to the strongest chance Sanders-Campfield would not be released any time soon. After the second day of the trial, they walked with prosecutors and asked about the legal question: Was there enough circumstantial evidence in the case to convict a legally insane person of first-degree, premeditated murder?
At prosecutors’ offices, Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy, who has dealt with the insanity defense in murder cases for more than 20 years, stopped in to speak to the sisters. He said direct-evidence cases — based on eyewitness accounts, for example — can have their own problems. “Truly good circumstantial cases are often better,” he said.
As he spoke, McCarthy knew the sisters — sharp and insightful as they were about mental illness — were still on a learning curve about insanity cases.
“These women understand the uncertainties of what they’re facing,” McCarthy said in an interview afterward. “They are decent and sympathetic, but that does not mean they think this woman should ever be walking the streets again.”
An investigation by McCarthy’s office had revealed Sanders-Campfield had quit taking medication in the months before the homicide. That possibility presented Park’s family with another nagging fear: If Sanders-Campfield is treated for years, gets better and appears to pose no threat, could she be freed? And what then could happen if she stops her medication?
On July 19, Burrell ruled Sanders-Campfield was guilty of second-degree murder. There was not enough evidence, the judge said, that Sanders-Campfield had thought through the crime before she committed it to find her guilty on the higher charge. The judge committed Sanders-Campfield to a maximum-security psychiatric hospital. Any release would be based in large part on the opinions of doctors.
Burrell allowed Chong Park’s daughters to speak.
“My mourning comes over me at unexpected times — in waves, coming out of nowhere,” Connie Park said.
She paused, cried, and continued speaking as she looked at Sanders-Campfield. She told her that they both were daughters, sisters and mothers.
“I don’t know how I feel toward you,” Connie Park said. “Even though I may hate you at times, and I can be very angry, I do hope you get better.”