When Soon Kim, a Korean national working at Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah, disappeared during a boating trip on Lake Powell with his roommate in 1985, the subsequent investigation turned up more questions than answers — about both his life and death.
The roommate told authorities that Kim had been thrown out of their boat when it bounced over the wake of another boat, recounts Brian O'Dea, special agent for the National Park Service (NPS) in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area (NRA). But the body was never found.
Drownings are not uncommon on Lake Powell, which averages more than one a month, and neither are missing bodies. Many parts of the sprawling lake are extremely deep, more than 500 feet, and bodies can sink to the bottom or get caught between temperature zones, becoming suspended in the water for long periods of time, then later floating back to the surface.
Details of the missing man's life, however, raised eyebrows among NPS law enforcement officials, prompting them to take a close look at the case. The roommate reported Kim always had lots of cash, and the emergency contact listed on his employment application was for a person who claimed to have never heard of Kim. A check of records at the university the missing man claimed to have graduated from listed no one by the name of Soon Kim.
"There was speculation that he may have been involved in crime or been hiding out from someone," says Lex Newcomb, GIS coordinator, Paleontology Program manager and crime scene mapper for the NPS in Glen Canyon NRA. Part of the investigation showed Kim had moved around from lodge to lodge and stored money in several locations. It was also revealed that Kim had used many aliases and was in possession of several different ID cards.
The lies he told in life only made his disappearance that much more intriguing. But with no body recovered, the case eventually faded from memory — until May 2005. That's when hikers enjoying a day on Lake Powell's shores made a gruesome discovery. They found bones with remnants of flesh and tatters of clothing scattered just above the water line in an area of the lake that had been exposed only recently due to falling water levels caused by a multi-year drought in Colorado.
NPS law enforcement officials and local county officers arrived at the scene that same day. Very quickly they realized two things. First, the remains could be those of the Korean national missing for 20 years or possibly those of one of two other people reported missing in the same area. And second, the site where the body parts rested — a potential crime scene — would become submerged again, perhaps within hours, due to the spring runoff into Lake Powell.
"The water level can rise more than a foot a day during the spring," says Newcomb. Officials decided to use GIS and recently-purchased photo mapping software called GPS-Photo Link from GeoSpatial Experts of Thornton, Colorado. This package would allow them to quickly map the locations of body parts and personal effects for use later in the investigation, if needed.The mystery deepens
The Park Service operates a sophisticated GIS at the Glen Canyon NRA headquarters in Page, Arizona, and uses the system for crime scene analysis and mapping. Although typically called into service for more traditional applications, the Glen Canyon NRA was one of the first to successfully use crime scene mapping and analysis in court.
From line-of-site analysis to the tracking of kidnappers and cop killers, the GIS system — developed with software from ESRI Inc. of Redlands, California — has been used extensively to bring criminals to justice and help investigators solve crimes and mysteries alike. It contains numerous data layers, including satellite imagery and aerial photography, covering several NPS properties in southern Utah and northern Arizona.