An American man, freed from North Korean labor camps with the help of President Jimmy Carter in 2010, burned to death last week in California.
Aijalon Mahli Gomes, 38, was found on fire late Friday by an off-duty police officer, who saw him running and then collapsing in a dirt lot in Mission Bay Park — all while engulfed in flames, Fox 5 San Diego reported.
Investigators ruled out the probability of homicide, saying the death likely resulted from either an accident or a suicide.
Gomes became the subject of an international controversy in 2010 after North Korean authorities arrested him for illegally entering the country from China. They sentenced him to eight years of hard labor in the communist country’s notorious work camps and fined him $700,000.
His exact motives for entering the country remain unclear, but he was teaching English in South Korea at the time and may have entered the enclosed country in support of a Korean-American human rights activist, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported.
“I was praying each and every day,” Jacqueline McCarthy, Gomes’ mother, told the Union-Tribune on Tuesday, recalling the 2010 events. “They would not let me talk to him.”
McCarthy claimed her son attempted several suicide attempts while in custody, including cutting his wrists and starving himself.
Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter helped negotiate Gomes’ freedom and he was released in August 2010. “At the request of President Carter, and for humanitarian purposes, Mr. Gomes was granted amnesty by the chairman of the National Defense Commission, Kim Jong-Il,” the Carter Center said in a statement at the time.
McCarthy told the Union-Tribune that following his return to the U.S., her son had problems coping with the ordeal. She said it left him with post-traumatic stress disorder and he began “isolating from the family.”
Marshalette Wise, who claims to have been a friend of Gomes, wrote a Facebook post recalling the times she spend with him and suggested he suffered from mental health issues.
“I say all of this to say that we should move away from mental health issues being such a stigma in our community. If you need help or your mood isn’t what you feel it should be, don’t be embarrassed to seek help and if you know someone who may be suffering, offer them a kind word as it just may make all the difference,” Wise wrote.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.