S. Korea takes custody of soldier accused in fatal accident
January 2, 2004
UIWANG, South Korea — A U.S. soldier quietly was turned over Tuesday to South Korean authorities in connection with a fatal drunken driving accident last month.
Sgt. Jerry Onken of 1st Battalion, 43rd Air Defense Artillery Regiment, is the first soldier to be held by South Korea in pre-trial custody. Revisions to the status of forces agreement in 2001 allow for South Korea to claim custody before the trial of a U.S. servicemember accused of any among a dozen specified serious crimes, such as rape and murder.
About 1 p.m. Tuesday, a black, U.S. Army-plated vehicle drove through the main gate of Seoul Detention Center, a fenced facility with guard towers an hour’s drive south of Seoul. A few Korean journalists awaited Onken’s arrival but were not allowed to see the soldier leave the car.
South Korean prosecutors have one day to charge Onken after he is in custody. The U.S. military already has charged the soldier with one count of leaving the scene of a fatal accident.
South Korean officials agreed to hold Onken at the Seoul Detention Center after military officials complained about poor conditions at a Suwon facility, said prosecutor Kwon Jung-hun. The facility at Suwon, near Osan Air Base, would have been the closest to the accident scene.
Previously, the SOFA allowed for soldiers accused of crimes to be held in U.S. military custody until after the trial and appeals process was exhausted — a measure many South Koreans called unfair. Because Onken was off duty, the case falls under South Korean jurisdiction. A routine U.S. request for jurisdiction was denied.
Civic groups who have called the SOFA’s prosecution and custody provisions unfair are watching the Onken case closely. U.S. Forces Korea officials have maintained that of all such SOFAs between the United States and nations hosting U.S. forces, the pact with South Korea is among the most fine-tuned.
Authorities have said Onken’s car struck a compact car just after midnight Nov. 28 near the Suwon exit of Highway 1, killing 22-year old Ki Kyong-sun. The woman was riding in the compact’s back seat; four other passengers in the vehicle were treated for injuries.
A blood alcohol test taken six hours after the crash showed Onken at 0.06 percent, above the legal limit of 0.05 percent, South Korean police said, adding that the U.S. military got the same result. U.S. military officials would not confirm the result.
Choe Song-won contributed to this report.