Three-month investigative feature for Three Wise Monkeys, October 20, 2012.
Charles Jeong woke up quietly on the morning of Sunday, July 15. Nobody noticed anything strange about him. The 49-year-old tour guide had slept peacefully among expats half his age on the communal minbak floor, woken only by the hazy late morning sun. Over his scrawny frame, he pulled on a loose-fitting white t-shirt and tightened his beach shorts, slipped on his glasses, and threw on the kind of cheap baseball cap he’d often used to hide the early stages of a receding hairline.
It was the last day of the Boryeong Mud Festival, an annual beach party famous among Western expats for being as messy with mud as with alcohol, and Jeong had, true to character, consumed enough soju that weekend to intoxicate a small village. This was not a trip he’d been keen to make. An avid hiker and distance runner with an encyclopedic knowledge of the country’s mountains and wildlife, Jeong created his grassroots travel group, Lovable Busan, for expats to explore Korea’s off-the-beaten-track side. Jeong “did NOT like the Mudfest trip at all,” Gregory Reilly, a friend who traveled with Jeong to the festival in 2010, later wrote to me, adding that “so many people request it from him that he would just do it.” But in public, few could have known: in a podcast interview from March 2010, Jeong called the expat-heavy festival one of the best in Korea. By 2012, his Boryeong trip grew so popular that he had to hire two chartered buses. He rarely complained, and, as with all his trips, never denied expats the chance to join. “Being picky is not my style of life,” he once wrote on Facebook.
He stepped out of the Sharon Minbak under the overcast sky sometime between 10 and 11 o’clock, touched by the drizzle from a high-up fog. A handful of his tour-goers sat on a nearby patio, awaiting instruction. “Come back at 3:30,” he told them. The buses would leave then, sharp. His friends rolled their eyes, knowing that Jeong rarely left anywhere “sharp”, whether by his own miscalculations or some curse overhanging him. (The most recent example: the group arrived at Boryeong 12 hours behind schedule. The buses had been held up by a severe highway accident on Friday night, Jeong told them, then got lost for two more hours on Saturday morning. According to Mitchell, a Lovable Busan member who preferred to remain anonymous, “Generally, with Charles, things don’t run as planned.”)
Jeong was invited to a nearby beach workout before lunch, but declined. Geoff, a friend who also requested anonymity, saw him sitting alone by a bench. He approached Jeong and asked what was wrong, but Jeong shrugged it off. “He wasn’t happy,” Geoff later recalled to me. “You could tell.”
Jeong instead joined five expats for lunch. They walked to a nearby seafood restaurant, where he ordered a few bottles of soju for himself and more shellfish than the table could finish, even though he “didn’t eat anything but maybe one bite,” one companion noted. By the end, he collected a confusing total of 110,000 won to pay for everything—50,000 from one expat, a personal friend of Jeong’s, who was leaving Korea later that week. Jeong promised him that he would pay him back soon, and the friend, like everyone, trusted Jeong with money.
Indeed, on this trip, Jeong had done the math. Seventy-thousand won, multiplied by roughly 75 guests, would easily cover the approximately five million owed to the minbak owners and bus drivers. Jeong personally would have walked away with little, if any, extra cash for his work, a common situation for a man who’d often publicly express that he didn’t run Lovable Busan for the money.
Back at the pension, some expats tossed a frisbee or did yoga stretches on the beach. “At 3:29, approximately, I’m walking up to the pension,” Mitchell recalled. “Charles was coming right out into the street, away from the pension, towards the mud venue. And he sees me, and he’s like, ‘Oh, good. You’re here. Great.’ And then he just walked off.”
Three-thirty came and passed. Jeong briefly reappeared, roughly 15 minutes later, assuring a few expats that they’d be on the road in 10 minutes. He flashed a familiar apologetic smile, distinctly tilted up to the left as if caught by a fishhook, and walked away.
Ten minutes passed. Twenty. Thirty.
“We saw him one moment,” recalled Sam, a veteran Lovable Busan member who also wished to remain anonymous. “And then the next moment, we didn’t see him anymore. And what went through our mind is, ‘Oh, he must be taking care of something. He’ll be back.’”
After 4 o’clock, one of the bus drivers, a good-humored Daegu native, approached a group of expats. He was visibly upset, and began speaking in terse Korean to Westerners who could only make out a few words: “Money”, “don’t have”, “friend”, “where?” The pension owners, too, suddenly chimed in. Apparently, nobody had yet to see even a thousand-won note from Jeong.
The expats tried to explain that Jeong definitely had their money. It was mandatory for everyone to have transferred their 70,000 won in advance. But the Koreans’ message was clear: “Your friend needs to pay us.”
Mitchell and two other expats formed a search party. They sped down the main street for a half-hour, jumping in and out of convenience stores and cafes. But when they doubled back to the festival concert, a loud beachside party swarming with hundreds of people, they gave up.
They returned to a now-hysterical pension grandmother screaming at the only Korean girl on the trip. The grandmother would not be calmed. When a police car cruised past, she furiously tapped on its window, flagging it down. She explained the situation to the officers, who then scoured the city—banks, hospitals, roads (Boryeong’s only got 100,000 people, they figured; he can’t have gone far)—but came up with nothing. Supposing he’d gone to withdraw four million in cash, they scanned CCTV tapes near ATMs for any recording of a thin Korean man with wispy black hair and graying sideburns. Again, nothing. Stranger than Jeong’s disappearance was the quizzical fact that he seemed to simply vanish into ether.
“This can’t be happening,” Mitchell recalled thinking. “It’s Charles… Charles was cool, he was our friend.” Despite friends’ protests, police wrote up the case as “fraud committed against foreigners,” because Jeong, even if by coincidence, had just under eight million won of tour-goers’ money when he disappeared—roughly five million from the mud festival, and the rest from advance payments for upcoming trips to Seorak Mountain and Jeju Island, according to claims later written on Facebook’s “Loveable Busan refund group.”
Sam stood with those who stood up for Jeong. They explained to police that Jeong had, if anything, been losing money on Lovable Busan trips for the past six years, as expats dropped out last-minute. He rarely made any extra. For him to be a con-man was inconceivable: “It’s not in his nature to do something like that,” Sam later told me. “He’s always been there. You send him an email or a message, and he’ll always respond to you.”
As the Boryeong sky blackened into night, the expats agreed to each pay an extra 30,000 won for the bus drivers to return them without Jeong, but not before an hour-long paperwork stopover at a Boryeong police station. They finally began to leave the city at around 8 o’clock. Despite the pension owner screaming to the police that “they can’t leave until I get paid!,” she never was.
The bus ride home was long, made longer by anxiety and bathroom breaks demanded by the evening’s heavier drinkers. After a half-hour on the road, most expats had dozed off, but Mitchell couldn’t sleep. Jeong’s disappearance was on more minds than anyone spoke of, and an eerie silence hovered them. “That is so strange,” Mitchell muttered to himself. “So strange.”
If you’ve ever met Charles Jeong, odds are you liked him. He is gabby and gregarious, popular among expats for his exuberant kindness: he once invited a girl to stay with him and his family for three weeks before she left Korea, feeding her every day and helping her pack the 22 boxes she kept in their crowded apartment. Gregory Reilly remains grateful to him for treating his visiting mother to a hike and lunch while he was stuck at work. On weekend nights, he could often be spotted clutching a bottle of soju around Kyungsung University in his typically-Korean hiking sweaters of azure blue and lime green, and if you approached him, he’d probably offer you a drink. One tour-goer described him as “always everywhere, seems to hardly sleep, endless energy, generally drunk.”
Jeong began traveling seriously in the late 1980s, when he visited Japan as a college freshman. The travel bug gnawed hard, and he joined the ranks of Korea’s first generation of globetrotters, setting foot in over a dozen different countries. By the 1990s, he left his longterm girlfriend, Myeong-son, to work in Hong Kong. She began to date another man, but, after nearly a year, gave him an ultimatum: either he return to Korea and marry her, or she’d marry this other guy. He immediately quit his job; their wedding quickly followed.
By 2000, he’d settled back down in South Korea with Myeong-son and began planning a family, including the son, daughter and dog they would soon raise. His love of international travel became mostly a vicarious one. He became a de facto travel advisor, inspired by a life-changing trip he’d made the previous year, crossing all of Chile, top-down, in 20 days, aided by ground-level hospitality he’d never before witnessed.
Tourists began asking him for sightseeing recommendations, and he began introducing them to hikes and temples often overlooked in travel guides. It thrilled him to share his home country with travelers, whom he perhaps saw as younger versions of his 37-year-old self. “It’s a modest return for my overseas adventure travels,” he wrote on the group’s Facebook wall.
Jeong’s uniquely rustic trips spread mostly by word-of-mouth. He never created an official website or special bank account (they always used Myeong-son’s), never registered it federally as an official business. The most concrete manifestation would be the Facebook group he created in 2006 that would, over the next seven years, garner more than 1,000 members at its peak.
By 2012, Jeong was organizing new Facebook events almost every weekend. These are trips that have, at best, been described as “wild” and “spontaneous”; at worst, “disorganized”, like his winter weekend at a remote island off of Geoje in early 2012, where he and three others wound up having to each pay an extra 30,000 won to bribe a fisherman to illegally sail them back to shore across stormy waters in his rickety wooden fishing boat before the coastguard woke up at 6 a.m.
This, to expats, is what put the “lovable” in Lovable Busan: Jeong embodied a pure sense of adventure lacking in the staleness of most organized tours. “We sit down with Charles, especially sit down with that sip of makgeolli or a sip of soju, and listen to what he has to say,” Sam told me. “It’s breathtaking. It’s different from a typical Korean.”
His reputation stood strong until his disappearance. On July 17, two days after the mud festival, word broke and damning allegations began to spread. A rumor quickly surfaced that police had captured him in Busan, which was proven false (Busan police didn’t even know yet), and accusations of fraud soon followed.
Geoff sent him several urgent Facebook messages: “We need to talk. This is getting out of hand.” He tried calling all the numbers Jeong had given him, but found his cell phone disconnected. (Indeed, one of Jeong’s last Facebook wall posts, written July 2, is about losing his cell; friends thought nothing of it at the time because of how frequently he would lose or break phones. “It’s sort of like a running joke,” Mitchell wrote me.) The Sharon Minbak grandmother, too, had tried calling his home phone, but no one picked up.
Geoff witnessed Lovable Busan’s Facebook page explode with arguments, pleas and condemnations: “To all of you who are still putting your trust in him, good luck,” one member wrote, “but you’ve been warned.”
But Geoff had spent years studying and working with criminal justice and fraud cases, and still refuses to believe that Jeong is a deliberate con-man. “He would be the dumbest con artist in the world,” he told me. “You don’t have somebody that intentionally went out to screw us. It just was one thing piled on top of another, on top of another, and then the social media just expanded it that much more.”
Online, Jeong’s longer-term friends defended him unflinchingly. “Ignorance truly screams when the blind begin to bitch,” one wrote, while many others disregarded his accusers as Korean “newbies.” Few of his close friends wanted to comment on-the-record for this story, for fear that any publication would damage his reputation; one simply wrote that “Charles is the person that I trusted the most in Korea,” while another publicly called him “one of the best and most loyal friends I’ve had.”
But Jeong, as much a man of secrets as of kindness, had hit a uniquely turbulent point in his life. He confided to be “in a bit of money trouble” to one Lovable Busan member, and said he had been feeling more and more tired lately, ostensibly because of the slowing economy and need to work longer hours. (Few of Jeong’s friends know precisely what his day job was, only that it involved traveling. “Organizing big meetings and such in Busan” is Mitchell’s best guess, who then added: “…whatever that entails.”)
But the pinnacle of Jeong’s misfortune was almost certainly his recent cancer scare. He visited a doctor on June 13 for the first time in three years, posting on Facebook, “Yucky endoscopy and 4 liters of water in the morning to check [unconfirmed] colon cancer and stomach cancer… Who will treat me a bottle of soju tonight ”
“His drinking and health issues were worsening,” another member wrote on the Facebook group’s wall in a peace plea, before penning a borderline-conspiracy theory: Did he fall into money problems and borrow millions from the mob? Other concerned friends painted similarly outlandish scenes: Jeong left for dead by a mugger who glimpsed him withdrawing over four million from a Boryeong ATM; Jeong struck by a fugue state, left wandering the 250-kilometer stretch back to Busan in a daze. Virtually anything seemed likelier than a transparent family man running away with the equivalent of 6,700 American bucks. As one friend described it, “He’s got nothing to gain and everything to lose.”
Dan Gray quietly watched the mess unfold from behind his computer screen. Gray is a straight-talking 31-year-old English teacher with intense eyes and a neatly trimmed goatee, now into his third year in Korea. He’s never met Jeong, but advanced him 100,000 won for Lovable’s Chuseok weekend trip to Jeju Island. He joined roughly 40 other expats on Facebook’s “Loveable Busan refund group” (the number would eventually grow to over 70), typed up his owings and waited.
“I got suspicious the day after [Boryeong],” Gray told me over tea one night. “I mean, I’m from Atlanta, so I know what it’s like when you get swindled. Like, somebody punked you, clearly. My thing is, this man lied to the pension owners, lied to the bus drivers… and then disappears 15 minutes later. That—for me—seals the deal.” After hitting the same dead ends trying to call and email Jeong, Gray decided it was time to inform the police.
On the recommendation of a fellow expat, he phoned up Detective Oh Young-hun, a 43-year-old homicide detective with a buoyant disposition and budding reputation for helping foreigners. They met on a humid Thursday evening at an Angel-in-us in Seomyeon. Gray paid for the drinks, which impressed the detective, who immediately flexed his English muscles in idle chit-chat before getting down to business—business which, it turns out, wasn’t any of Oh’s business in the first place. “He told me that first day,” Gray recalled. “He was like, ‘Look, this isn’t my department. I’ll help you out as much as I can.’”
Detective Oh asked Gray all the usual questions: How many victims were there? What’s Jeong’s bank account number? Phone number? A well-built, cleanly-shaven man, Oh is also a thorough cop and patient listener, and advised Gray against filing any claims until some preliminary investigation happened first. Oh returned to his office the next day, made a few calls, and the following day sent Gray a lengthy email greenlighting the plan.
On the afternoon of Saturday, August 4, a handful expats met at Busan Station to file a collective fraud claim at the Dongbu Police Station. They were immediately disappointed that so few of the 70-member-strong Facebook group had bothered to show up, and walked through the parking lot security at around 2:30.
They would leave five hours later.
Filing a claim is an exhausting process. For foreigners, at least, it includes fingerprint scans, repeated interviews and Korean-language paperwork (here multiplied by seven people), all while smiling through gritted teeth at questions like “Where are you from?” and “How do you like Korea?” At one point, Gray grew so frustrated with how slow the process was that he called Detective Oh, who was on vacation visiting his wife’s sister in Seoul at the time, to help translate.
Only one expat present had actually met Jeong. Carolyn O’Donnell, a Jinju resident, had printed out pixelated Facebook photos of him, and offered to log onto a station computer to download more. She was anxious to help in any way she could, because she’s still owed 200,000 won from Jeong—a lot of money to someone thousands of dollars in tuition debt back in the United States (“I’ll be paying them off for 30 years,” she says), and whose sole reason for moving to Korea was saving money.
It was only after all the paperwork had been filled in, the afternoon long dead after five hours indoors, that the officers informed the group that if Jeong ever does reappear, the police personally couldn’t retrieve their money, and that Korean law dictates people in their situation to sue the accused in a criminal court to legally receive their dues. It would probably take months.
“I didn’t even follow up with them,” he later told me in the cafe. As soon as everyone walked out of the building, he said, “We just kind of looked at each other, like, ‘Man, all right. We did it, y’know?’… At this point, unless the police ask me for more cooperation, I’m not gonna do anything else.” He threw up his arms behind his head and leaned back, exhausted by the thought of it alone. “I’m done.”
Detective Oh Young-hun doesn’t normally deal with white-collar crime. In fact, he doesn’t particularly like it. If you ask him, he’ll tell you that cases like this are too complicated, obscured by too many truths. Blue-collar stuff, in his words, is “easy”: black and white, good versus evil. He stopped working the white-collar division years ago, when he moved to the kind of cases he was dealing with before Charles Jeong entered his life: a complex multiple-homicide involving a taxi driver who’d only recently confessed to murders dating back five years. Good versus evil. As Detective Oh describes the breadth of it, a proud smile leaps out from his face, as if he were telling a fascinating dinner party story.
The 12-year detective, leader of a five-man police team, spends most of his days on the first floor of the architecturally depressing red-brick Geumjeong police headquarters, a block east of the murky brown Oncheonjang River in Busan’s northernmost district. He was sitting at the head of his team’s rectangular green desk in the detectives’ absurdly over-air conditioned office when Dan Gray first called him.
Detective Oh doesn’t know why he specifically was recommended, but he does remember the expats he’s helped—a man whose scooter was stolen in Geumjeong-gu several months ago, a woman who lost her passport after that. Oh made clear to them, as he did to me, that he feels “shameful” when his country impresses poorly upon foreigners, and interprets his job as a cross between policeman and ambassador.
So Detective Oh was eager to meet with Gray in Seomyeon on July 26, sitting down with a pen and notepad. A law school graduate, Oh immediately suspected Jeong as a “bad guy,” but knew that they’d need actual research before reaching a verdict.
He began the next day by calling Officer Jo Ho-yeon of the Boryeong Police Department, who had been investigating Jeong on behalf of the pension grandmother and bus drivers since July 15. As Jo began firing off the details, Detective Oh grabbed a nearby thick black pen and began quickly scribbling the facts on a sheet of blank white paper.
Jeong, it turns out, had been investigated by police twice before: once in Jinhae, in 2008, and once in Boryeong during September 2011, under his Korean birth name, Jeong Chang-il. The particular details of either case cannot be revealed under Korean privacy laws, but Oh stressed that both involved charges of swindling similar to what he’s been accused of this year, adding that he’s been legally wanted by police in Boryeong since 2011. Oh requested that Jeong’s name be made as public as possible, to prevent further swindles.
Jeong also raised eyebrows for never holding legal residence in Busan. The apartment expats knew as his—to which he often invited them to make kimchi, eat dinner or even live for three weeks—is legally registered under his wife’s name. Jeong is properly a citizen of Jinhae-gu, a coastal district of western city neighbor Changwon, known for its cherry blossom festival each April. Between his misleading lease and the fact that foreigners always paid Lovable Busan fees to Myeong-son’s bank account, Jeong has, perhaps by accident, made himself extremely difficult for officials to locate. Detective Oh called Korea’s immigration office to confirm that he hasn’t left the country; beyond that, he could be anywhere in Korea.
Oh shared all this with me in a colorful coffee shop across the street from his office. When I asked him why he thought Jeong would have kept a high profile in Busan for 10 months after being pursued in Boryeong last September, he paused, his searching eyes flickering back and forth, as if following a row of cars. “I don’t know,” he said, reanimating with a small laugh and a spoonful of green tea bingsu. “After we arrest him, we will ask him.”
On a late summer day, Detective Song Chan-geun in Jinhae knocked on the door he believed Jeong Chang-il was behind. Chang-il’s father answered. Song withdrew his badge and asked if Chang-il still lived there, and the father, perhaps taken aback, informed the detective that he hadn’t spoken to his son in a long time, and that he lived alone. That residence is the only legal record of where Jeong might have been; when Jeong’s father opened the door, a larger one closed.
From September until January 2013, in a separate and much larger political move, all Korean police departments have been instructed to crack down on the federal wanted list. This includes finding Jeong, even though the relatively small sum that earned him a spot on the list probably also keeps him near its bottom. Detective Oh estimates there is a 50-50 chance Jeong will face jail time if captured; depending on his story, he may only be fined three or four million won.
The largest unknown piece in all this is Jeong’s wife, Myeong-son. Virtually no expats have Jeong’s home phone number, and Detective Oh has decidedly not contacted her, worried that she would claim ignorance and run away herself to join her husband in another city.
In mid-September, Oh and his partner drove down to visit Myeong-son’s home. After pulling into the dark parking lot of the towering apartment complexes in Jurye-dong, Oh spoke with both building security guards. He withdrew a printed-out black-and-white photograph of Jeong and Myeong-son in eveningwear, smiling and drinking wine. They look completely happy. The security guards confirmed that Jeong used to often visit four or five times a week, but they hadn’t seen him in over a month. Jeong’s friend Gregory Reilly later wrote to me, “I’m pretty sure he’s gone for good.”
Then, on September 3, a female English teacher was walking near Dongnae’s main intersection and suddenly froze. Improbably, there he was: thin-framed, clad in hiking gear and a backpack, waiting for an eastbound bus amongst a crowd of older Korean men. He wasn’t wearing his glasses, which made her do a double-take. She later wrote that she’s “99 percent sure” it was Charles Jeong. She’d only met him once or twice, though, and didn’t know about the police investigation, or the expats’ money problems. When Oh found out days later, he was disappointed: “We could have arrested the guy, if she had called to the police.” But instead she kept her mouth shut and walked away, leaving Jeong to glance up at the approaching bus, step inside and disappear into the night.