‘48 Hours’ examines 1988 murder in South Korea and reported ties to a WWU adviser

WWU’s Huxley Undergraduate Advisor and Admissions Specialist Kathryn Patrick, left, speaks with reporter Peter Van Sant in January at her office on Western’s campus. CBS’s “48 Hours” investigative series on Saturday examines a 30-year-old murder of an American teacher in South Korea and how an advisor at Western Washington University may be linked to the crime.
WWU’s Huxley Undergraduate Advisor and Admissions Specialist Kathryn Patrick, left, speaks with reporter Peter Van Sant in January at her office on Western’s campus. CBS’s “48 Hours” investigative series on Saturday examines a 30-year-old murder of an American teacher in South Korea and how an advisor at Western Washington University may be linked to the crime. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

Nine out of 10 times when he and a film crew approach a potential interview subject without a scheduled appointment for a “48 Hours” investigation, CBS correspondent Peter Van Sant says the subject refuses to answer any questions.

But Kathryn Patrick, an undergraduate adviser and admissions specialist for Western Washington University’s Huxley College of the Environment, was the one out of 10 who did respond when Van Sant showed up asking questions in mid-January at her office on the Bellingham campus. She actually answered five questions before breaking off the interview, Van Sant told The Bellingham Herald.

According to a CBS press release, it’s the first time in 30 years Patrick has spoken publicly about an incident that occurred in December of 1988 in South Korea when Patrick’s close friend and teaching colleague Carolyn Abel was stabbed multiple times and found dead on a bed in her Seoul apartment.

On Saturday, Van Sant and “48 Hours” delve into the murder, talking to Abel’s friends and family and some of the investigators involved in the case that to this day has gone mostly unprosecuted. The “Out of Reach” episode, which debuts at 10 p.m. Saturday on CBS, also will examine frustration over a loophole in U.S. laws that means the person investigators told Van Sant they suspect of committing the crime may never face trial.

According to the release, Van Sant asks Patrick during the interview in her office what she had to say to investigators in two countries suspecting her of Abel’s murder.

“I have to say that I’m innocent,” Patrick said, according to the release.

According to an email from WWU spokesperson Paul Cocke, Patrick has worked at the school since 2000.

“During her 18 years of service at Western, the university has had no concerns,” Cocke told The Bellingham Herald. “The university asks that her privacy as a Western employee be respected. An assessment by university officials shows no evidence of a current threat to Western students, faculty or staff. University officials will continue to monitor the situation.”

And that’s what Van Sant said he hopes everyone who watches Saturday’s episode will do.

“I’m hoping that people will watch the show and take it all in and sort out for themselves what they believe should happen,” Van Sant told The Herald. “Everyone who watches our investigation and hears these officials and the investigators and her friends that spoke to us, they need to decide for themselves what should happen.”

A teacher murdered

According to a Dec. 21, 1988, Associated Press story on Abel’s murder, the 26-year-old from Lafayette, Ind., was found Dec. 20 with her throat slashed in her 15th-floor apartment after she failed to show for work at English Language Services, a private school in southern Seoul where she was one of about 25 English-language teachers.

Officials said there were signs of a struggle, according to the AP story, and that it had looked like Abel had resisted her attacker, as there were multiple cuts on her body including on her face and arms. Police also reported at the time that it appeared several items had been removed from Abel’s apartment.

Abel had last been seen the night before, and her roommate was on vacation in the United States at the time of the attack, according to police in the AP story.

A follow-up AP story on July 14, 1989, said Sandra Ames, a 27-year-old teacher from Newberg, Ore., was charged with the destruction of evidence and concealment of a felony in Abel’s murder.

But the actual murderer has never been charged, according to the CBS release.

‘Significant investigation’

Van Sant said he was first drawn to Abel’s murder, while he was investigating another murder of a U.S. citizen in Panama for another “48 Hours” episode.

“It was about an American killing an American in Panama,” Van Sant said. “It turned out they got tried in the U.S., and why? It was because of a law that was passed in 1994 at the urging of Carolyn Abel’s family.”

Van Sant said that spurred him to learn more about Abel’s murder and how nobody had been tried for it, and that started him on a three-year investigation and “100s of hours of work” that all led to Saturday’s episode. For comparison, Van Sant said he had one other “48 Hours” investigation that he spent more time researching.

“This was a significant investigation,” he said.

Getting a tip

During his research, Van Sant spoke to John Boatwright, a chief of detectives from the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division, who was brought in to help South Korean investigators shortly after the murder.

According to the CBS release, Boatwright was tipped to talk to the two American teachers who had found Abel — Ames and Patrick, who were roommates.

Though Ames was still in South Korea at the time, the release said Patrick had returned home to Washington state before investigators questioned her.

In Boatwright’s interview of Ames, she said that on the night of the murder, Patrick had returned to their home and confessed to killing Abel, according to the release. The two women reportedly returned to the scene to make it look like a robbery — crimes that Ames eventually pleaded guilty to.

Van Sant said Patrick accepted an invitation to answer questions in Seattle by Assistant U.S. District Attorney Stephen Schroeder, and Boatwright said he watched that deposition.

“Who do you believe held the knife and murdered Carolyn Abel?” Van Sant asks Boatwright in Saturday’s episode, according to the release.

“Kathy Patrick,” Boatwright responded.

The need for answers

South Korean law enforcement officials issued a warrant for Patrick’s arrest in the summer of 1989, according to the release, but because the two countries didn’t have an extradition treaty at the time, U.S. officials could not enforce it.

At the time, there also were not laws in place that would allow for an American citizen accused of killing another American on foreign soil to be charged and tried in a U.S. court, Van Sant said.

Even if a trial were possible today, Van Sant said Abel’s family has been told South Korean investigators no longer have the case files on the murder, as the statute of limitations in that country for murder in 1988 was 15 years.

Van Sant said he and “48 Hours” producers reached out to Patrick several times for an interview but were never were granted one. So they decided to show up at her office, unscheduled, in mid-January, instead.

“We felt with the information we were able to gather, it was important to hear her side of the story,” Van Sant said. “There were too many issues raised that needed to be answered.”

‘It just kind of got lost’

Producer Chris O’Connell told The Herald the story kind of got lost in 1988 because it happened a day before the world became fixated on the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, that resulted in the death of all 243 passengers and 16 crew members.

“This happened in the pre-internet era, when news didn’t spread as fast,” O’Connell said. “It’s a story that stayed in Korea and didn’t get much play. ... It just kind of got lost.”

But Van Sant said he hopes Saturday’s episode will bring the case back to the forefront.

“Once we got to know Carolyn Abel’s family and friends, this became an important story to us and one we felt needed to be told,” Van Sant told The Herald. “I think both sides need to be heard and considered because this is an important story.”

The Herald asked Patrick for comment via her WWU email address and received only an automatic reply regarding registration.

David Rasbach joined The Bellingham Herald in 2005 and now covers breaking news. He has been an editor and writer in several western states since 1994.