A U.S. citizen who survived imprisonment in North Korea died in a fire in San Diego, authorities said Tuesday.
The victim was identified as 38-year-old Aijalon Mahli Gomes, who had recently moved to the city from Boston.
According to a police press statement, an off-duty police officer spotted Gomes engulfed in flames in a dirt field at 11.30pm on November 17. He stopped to provide aid and called firefighters, who eventually pronounced the man dead at the scene.
An investigation into the incident to establish the origin and cause of the fire is ongoing, but initial findings suggest Gomes’s death was not a homicide.
“The preliminary investigation indicates the death is not a homicide but rather an accidental death or suicide," the police said. "A final determination cannot be made until the Medical Examiner completes their investigation.”
According to Gomes's mother Jacqueline McCarthy, Gomes was still suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder as a consequence of his imprisonment in North Korea. “I know it affected him,” she told The San Diego Union-Tribune.
Gomes was living in South Korea and working as an English teacher when he was arrested in January 2010 for crossing a frozen river from China into North Korea, about a month after his friend, American-Korean activist Robert Park, was arrested for the same reason on Christmas Eve 2009.
North Korean authorities condemned Gomes to eight years of hard labor and fined him $700,000. Gomes’s mental health quickly deteriorated and he attempted suicide while in detention. He was finally freed in August 2010, after former President Jimmy Carter traveled to Pyongyang to negotiate his release.
Park was released after 43 days in jail and experienced mental health issues after returning to the U.S. as a consequence of the beating, torture and sexual abuse he said he suffered while in detention in Pyongyang.
Gomes published a book titled Violence and Humanity about his experiences as a North Korean prisoner in 2015. “He graphically details the psychological torment of interrogation and confinement as well as his surprising alliances in prison and during hospitalization,” read a book description on the self-publishing website BookBaby.
The website describes Gomes as "an educator and active member of the queer community," who promoted equality and volunteered at The Home for Little Wanderers, a private non-profit child and family service agency in his native Massachusetts.
According to the biography, he spent the five years between his release and the book publication “working on his recovery from the injuries sustained while being incarcerated in North Korea.”
Writing the book forming part of that process of recovery. “Although this autobiography is highly personal and graphic,” he was quoted as saying, “I pray some good will come from sharing it.”
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