A True Crime Obsession Leads to Murder
Sources that criticize our cultural obsession with true crime, or the media coverage that feeds it, tend to focus on a few key points. One, it can retraumatize the victims and their families. Two, it can make people who’ve done horrific things seem cool or attractive. Three, it can shape our view of the world into a dark, dangerous place and, if consumed to excess, impact our mental health. Rarely do critics express concern that true crime is likely to turn consumers into criminals.
But this is precisely what a South Korean killer claims. For months before she murdered her victim, she binge-watched true crime shows and obsessively read true crime books. And the more murder media she consumed, the more she wanted to try it herself. On May 26, 2023, she did.
The Murder Plot
On Friday, June 2, 2023, twenty-three-year-old Jung Yoo-jung was indicted for the first-degree murder of a young female college student with a side gig as a freelance tutor. The evidence clearly shows that this was no spur-of-the-moment decision. Yoo-jung took some time to come up with her murder plot. As she gorged on true crime content, she began researching ways to commit a murder. For three months, she searched for tips on practical, crime-related topics such as “how to hide a dead body.”
Yoo-jung trolled for a victim online on Everytime, an internet site that matched tutors with parents looking for them. From what has been reported, this app does an excellent job of screening the credentials of tutors who apply but doesn’t check out the validity of the identities of students or parents.
Yoo-jung took advantage of this. She posed as a parent looking for a tutor for her ninth-grade daughter, writing that she was looking for someone to teach her daughter to speak English. She specifically asked if her daughter could come to the tutor’s house for her lessons. The opportunity to make money without leaving home would appeal to just about anyone. Who would suspect a young girl of nefarious intentions?
She found who she was looking for; a young twenty-something living alone. She had all the credentials that would impress a mom; she even attended a prestigious university. Yoo-jung hired her on May 24 and set up an appointment for her “daughter “to come for a consultation two days later.
She then transformed herself into a teen girl who needed tutoring. She bought a schoolgirl’s outfit; apparently, Yoo-jung is short and could pass as a high schooler, especially in her disguise. On May 26, she went to the tutor’s house and knifed her to death.
What Happened After the Murder
After killing the tutor, Soo-jung went to a store to buy bleach and trash bags before returning to dismember the body. Authorities say that because Soo-jung didn’t drive, she called a taxi and took some of the victim’s body parts in a suitcase to a remote woodland area by the Nakdong River. The taxi driver became suspicious about Jung carrying a bloody suitcase late at night into the bushes. After dropping her off at home, he contacted the police. Police went to the spot where Soo-jung had been and retrieved the case. They found bloody clothes inside.
The police brought her in for questions. Jung Soo-jung allegedly told a spate of lies that changed during the interview. She first said she had nothing to do with the murder and that someone else must have done it. She then admitted to killing her victim but said it was an accident during an argument. Finally, at her family’s urging, she came clean. She said she had planned the murder for months, selected a specific victim, and then carried out her plan.
When police searched Soo-jung’s home, they found a goldmine of compromising evidence at Soo-jung’s house, including human remains. They also found her victim’s phone, ID card, and wallet. It is unclear whether she took these items to make it look like the young tutor had voluntarily disappeared or to keep “trophies” as a remembrance of her crime. Not surprisingly, police tend to embrace the practical cover-up motive, while a South Korean forensic psychologist who weighed in suggested more psychological explanations.
How Do We Explain This?
Police said that, since graduating from high school five years earlier, Soo-jung had been “a longer and a recluse” who lived with her parents and was unemployed. She spent hours every day watching true crime shows on tv and reading true crime books she had borrowed from the library. Police believe that, at some point, Soo-jung’s true crime fetish turned into research, and she began to plot the “perfect murder.”
South Korean forensic psychology professor Lee Soo-jung says he suspects Soo-jung’s victim choice of a woman about her own age may have had to do with envy: “I think we can say that Jung wanted to have what the tutor had, such as her social status and academic background, and that is why she chose the victim,” Lee said, pointing out that Jung possessed the victim’s ID card even after dumping the dead body.
But why murder anyone? Soo-jung insists curiosity motivated her murder. But curiosity alone is not a sufficient motive for murder. I, too, am curious about the criminal mind and the motivations behind premeditated murder; I’ve spent my professional life studying them. I’ve talked to hundreds of murderers, trying to understand the dark fantasies or intense emotions that drive them. Yet I’ve never been tempted to join them.
As far as true crime turning a consumer into a criminal, let’s just say that, if that were true, I would have run amok years ago.
Could This Murder Be Due to Mental Illness?
In her first court appearance on June 2, 2023, Jung Soo-jung told reporters she feels “ really sorry for the victim’s family.” When asked why she did it, she replied, “I must have been out of my mind.” Given that she made this statement just a week after she committed murder, what does this mean?
If she is setting the stage for an insanity plea, she has a long and bumpy road ahead. Trial judges in Korea have the power to mitigate the punishment of a criminal (from what I understand, up to half of the sentence) if the defendant has an intellectual disability or cannot remember committing the crime due to a mental disorder. Police said Soo-jung has never been diagnosed or treated for a psychiatric condition. Based on the little we know, there’s not much evidence that she was psychotic when she committed the murder. If she had been, in her terms, “out of her mind” on May 26, it’s hard to imagine what would have snapped her back into it in a week.
And there’s evidence to suggest just the opposite. The murder and dismemberment were carefully planned and executed. South Korean forensic psychology professor Lee Soo-jung called the accused’s attitude “very unusual.” He added. “A person normally panics and becomes terrified when they kill someone, even if they are a criminal, but the scene [of Jung going to her home to get a suitcase to carry the dead body] shows no sign of panic or horror.”
Clearly, there was something amiss in Soo-jung. Why did her life essentially stop after high school? Why didn’t she have any friends? What prevented her from getting a job? We may or may not get the answer to these questions as the court process goes forward.
I suspect that Soo-jung had a void in her life that she was desperate to fill. I wonder who she blamed for that void. Alone, isolated, bored, and depressed, she spent her time escaping into fantasies that became increasingly dark and disturbed. And, over time, those fantasies morphed into research, planning, and murder.
It would be interesting to hear the perspective of people who knew her. Is this someone who, at some point, had the capacity for empathy and a moral compass? Police aren’t relying on friends and family, though; South Korean police have publicly said they already have plans to have her evaluated to see if she is a “psychopath.”
The Bottom Line
Individuals already struggling with negative emotions and living in a fantasy world to escape an unhappy reality may be attracted to true crime content for different reasons than most true crime consumers. Can it flame violent fantasies or give them ideas about how to commit a crime? I would say yes.
But this doesn’t apply to the vast majority of us. There are valid and ethical reasons to think carefully about our consumption of true crime. But a fear that it will turn us from well-adjusted fans into murderous fiends should not be one of them.
Thanks for reading this issue of the Mind Detective. Please share it with your true crime friends. If there’s a case you’d like me to cover, please let me know.