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Man Confesses to Brutal Killings That Terrorized South Korea, Police Say

SEOUL, South Korea — A 56-year-old man has confessed to raping and murdering 14 women more than two decades ago, the South Korean police said on Wednesday, as they closed in on the man that they believe is the culprit in the country’s most infamous serial killings.

Lee Chun-jae emerged as a prime suspect in the killings after the police revealed last month that his DNA matched samples taken from at least four of nine killings that took place in Hwaseong, south of Seoul, between 1986 and 1991.

Mr. Lee has since confessed to investigators that he committed not only all nine murders but also raped and killed five other women in Hwaseong and nearby cities, Ban Gi-soo, a senior police investigator, said during a news conference on Wednesday. Separately, Mr. Lee also confessed to committing 30 rapes or attempted rapes, Mr. Ban said.

For decades, the Hwaseong serial murders have spawned such fear among South Koreans that they became the best-known cold cases in the country. The victims, ranging in age from 14 to 71, were strangled to death after their mouths were stuffed with their stockings, bras or socks. Some of the bodies were mutilated with umbrellas, forks or razor blades.

A total of two million police officers were mobilized to hunt for the killer over the years, and more than 21,000 men were interrogated in the case. The killings also inspired the 2003 blockbuster movie “Memories of Murder.”

Although the 15-year statute of limitations on the last of the Hwaseong killings expired in 2006, the police refused to close their files, continuing to collect tips and analyze evidence collected from murder scenes. Recent advances in DNA analysis allowed them to extract DNA samples from evidence, which was not possible at the time of the killings.

That evidence finally led the officers to Mr. Lee, who was serving a life sentence in prison in Busan, a port city on the southeastern tip of South Korea, for raping and killing his 20-year-old sister-in-law in 1994. The 1994 killing is not among the 14 that the police said Mr. Lee had admitted to.

Mr. Lee went on a rape and killing spree after he returned home to Hwaseong in 1986 following his mandatory military service, Mr. Ban said.

Mr. Ban said that the investigation of the crime spree is continuing, with officers trying to verify Mr. Lee’s confessions. But investigators have become increasingly confident about the authenticity of Mr. Lee’s confessions because he cooperated voluntarily, offering hand-drawn maps of some of the crime sites.

But Mr. Lee cannot be prosecuted for the killings because the statute of limitations on the cases has already expired.

In the Busan prison, Mr. Lee has been a model inmate who became eligible to apply for parole. With his chances of parole having evaporated after the DNA evidence linked him to at least four killings, Mr. Lee, still safe from fresh indictment, may have decided to confess to the other crimes, police said.

“He had a change of heart starting last week after criminal profiling experts developed a rapport with him after nine visits to his prison,” Mr. Ban said. “But we are still trying to resolve gaps in his old memories about exact dates, places and acts.”

Mr. Lee, a construction company employee, was briefly interrogated as a possible suspect in the rape and murder of a 29-year-old woman in Hwaseong in 1987, the police said. But he was released for lack of evidence.

Mr. Lee married in 1991 and had a son soon after, the police said. His family moved to Cheongju, his wife’s hometown, in 1993 but his wife soon left him. By the time he murdered his sister-in-law in 1994, the police had begun using DNA analysis for unsolved crimes.

The police found bloodstains in his bathroom and determined, through DNA analysis, that they came from the sister-in-law.

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