American's death in Seoul puzzles family
Stars and Stripes May 27, 2003
SEOUL — The family of Matthew Sellers, a former U.S. servicemember who died suddenly here last month, has ordered a second autopsy in hopes of finding definitively what caused the 35-year-old’s death.
“Matthew was a really good person,” said Oliver Sellers, his brother. “He deserves answers. We deserve answers.”
By his family’s accounts, Matthew Justin Sellers was a strong, bright and healthy man who loved South Korea enough to stay and teach after a two-year U.S. Army stint there.
But the Birmingham, Ala., native had recently told relatives the country’s demonstrations of anti-American sentiment made him fear for his safety. He purchased a ticket home April 19, said his sister, Lee Love, who lives in Birmingham.
He died one day later after behavior Seoul officials characterized as indicating mental illness.
But his family said accounts of his bizarre behavior were counter to the Matthew Sellers they knew. He so liked Korea, they said, he stayed there for 10 years after a 1991-92 tour in Taegu as a U.S. Army photojournalist.
“He became disenchanted the last three weeks” of his life, Love said. “He felt more and more he had to defend himself for being an American.”
On the morning of April 19, Sellers inexplicably climbed into the back of a taxi, said Song Jin-ho of the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency’s foreign affairs division. The driver took him to the Kangnam Police Station, where, Love said, police did not charge him with any crime but did detain him from about 7:30 a.m. until about 3:30 p.m. After Sellers exhibited strange behavior, Song said, police transferred him to the Seoul Metropolitan Eunpyong Hospital, a psychiatric hospital.
The police also called the U.S. Embassy, said Consul General Bernie Alter. They communicated there was a problem with Sellers, Alter said.
The embassy had no jurisdiction in the matter, Alter said, but encouraged “the police take him to a hospital for a trained doctor to have a look.”
Kangnam police called the embassy when Sellers was transferred to the hospital. He spent the night there, said Park Chong-ik, head of the hospital’s psychiatry division, and exhibited behavior indicating a mental problem: He shouted, said he heard voices and said someone was trying to kill him.
Sellers had no mental problems, family members said.
The next day, Sellers showed problems breathing, apparently unrelated to any behavior problems, Park said. Sellers died while being transferred to Kangbuk Samsung Hospital, Love said.
His cause of death was unknown although heart failure was suspected, said Lee Won-tae, chief medical examiner for the National Institute of Scientific Investigation, which conducts all autopsies in Seoul.
The family is upset the U.S. Embassy sent no one to check on Sellers, Oliver Sellers said.
Alter said embassy personnel talked with Sellers’ friends and doctors during the two days but a representative didn’t meet Sellers. “We knew he was medicated and the idea was we would wait to see him until the situation had calmed, and his condition was clearer,” Alter said.