Written By: JEH
Edited By: Grave Reviews Staff
Lee Choon-jae, also known as the Korean Zodiac Killer, is a South Korean serial killer who murdered his sister-in-law and 14 other people from 1986 to 1994. Lee also confessed to being the man behind the unsolved Hwaseong serial murders.
His crimes are considered to be the most infamous in South Korea’s modern history and served as an inspiration for the critically-acclaimed 2003 film Memories of Murder.
Life Before the Crimes
Lee Choon-jae was born on January 31, 1963, in Hwaseong, Gyeonggi, where he lived for 30 years. For reasons still unknown, his sister drowned, greatly affecting Lee. In addition to the traumatic death of his sister, an older sibling also sexually assaulted young Lee.
After graduating from high school in February 1983, Lee signed up to the Republic of Korea Army and served as a tank pilot. However, he was discharged on January 23, 1986.
Robbery and Violence
Lee’s first recorded crime was robbery and violence. On September 26, 1989, Lee broke into a house in Gwangju, Suwon, Gyeonggi Province, with weapons and gloves. However, the landlord caught him and immediately alerted the police.
Lee was sentenced to one year and six months in prison in the first trial in February 1990 for the charges of robbery and violence. He filed an appeal claiming that an unknown assailant chased him and he entered the house to protect himself.
After the second trial, the court suspended his sentence to two years of probation, and he was released in mid-April of 1990.
To start his life anew, he decided to work for an electric parts company before getting a job as an unlicensed fork lane driver in Cheongpa, Yongsan District. The following year, he was transferred to Cheongwon, Chungcheongbuk to work as a fork rain driver.
In April 1992, he married a bookkeeper.
A Murderer’s Accidental Confession
Lee’s wife left him in 1993 due to unknown reasons.
On January 13, 1994, he invited over his sister-in-law. Then, he drugged, raped, and killed the 18-year-old victim. The victim was reported missing, and Lee offered to help his father-in-law search for her.
A few days later, authorities arrested Lee. As per police reports, after repeated questioning, Lee asked, “How many years do you serve in prison for rape and murder?” In May 1994, Lee was convicted and sentenced to death and his conviction was upheld in September of the same year.
In 1995, The Supreme Court of South Korea reviewed the case and reduced Lee’s sentence to a life sentence with the possibility of parole after 20 years.
An Unexpected Break in the Hwaseong Serial Murders
The Hwaseong serial murders were a series of rapes and murders that occurred in the city of Hwaseong between September 15, 1986, and April 3, 1991. The M.O. of the murders include a woman bound, gagged, raped, and strangled to death with their clothes still on.
The murders started one of the largest criminal case investigations in South Korea. A total of 21,000 suspects were questioned regarding the case.
On July 27, 1989, authorities arrested 22-year-old Yoon Sang-yeo for the murder of 14-year-old Park Sang-hee, who was determined to be the eighth victim of the Hwaseong serial killer. Yoon claimed that he was tortured into giving a false confession. However, he was still sentenced to 19.5 years in jail.
On September 18, 2019, Lee was identified as the real Hwaseong serial murderer. Lee’s DNA matched with vital evidence that eventually led to his DNA being linked with the rest of the murders.
Lee, who was serving a life sentence at a prison in Busan, denied the accusations. However, he later changed his statement and confessed to killing 14 people and raping at least 30 women.
On November 15, 2019, investigators reached a conclusion pinning Lee as the man responsible for 10 Hwaseong murders. Some of the victims were identified as:
1. Lee Wan-im, 71
2. Park Hyun-sook, 25
3. Kwon Jung-bon, 25
4. Lee Kye-sook, 23
5. Hong Jin-young, 19
6. Park Eun-joo, 29
7. Ahn Gi-soon, 54
8. Park Sang-hee, 14
9. Kim Mi-jung, 14
10. Kwon Soon-sang, 69
Authorities did not release the identity of four more victims.
An “Innocent” Man Jailed?
After Lee’s confession, Yoon immediately filed for a re-trial of his case on November 13, 2019. This raised concerns that police had charged an innocent man. However, updates on Yoon’s re-trial are not yet available.
Where is Lee Choon-jae Now?
Despite the DNA evidence and Lee’s confession, officials cannot prosecute the suspect for the other murders because the statute of limitations had expired. But since he is already jailed for the murder of his sister-in-law, authorities may just use his crimes as a reason to deny parole.
Lee Choon-jae in Media
Lee’s infamous story inspired numerous movies and T.V. shows, including:
• Memories of Murder (2003)
• Confession of Murder (2012)
• Gap-dong (2014)
• Signal (2016)
• Tunnel (2017)
• Criminal Minds (2017)
• Partners for Justice (2018)
• Signal (2018)
• Unknown Number (2019)
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