A 38-year-old man who died shortly after being found on fire not far from Fiesta Island last week has been identified as a former teacher who was held captive in North Korea for months in 2010.
Investigators suspect the death of Aijalon Gomes on Friday night was either an accident or a suicide, San Diego police said Tuesday.
An off-duty California Highway Patrol officer was driving west on Pacific Highway near Sea World Drive about 11:30 p.m. when he saw Gomes running then collapsing, engulfed in flames, homicide Lt. Todd Griffin said.
The officer stopped to help, but the man died before he could be taken to a hospital.
Gomes had recently moved to the San Diego area from Boston, Griffin said, but it is unclear exactly where Gomes was residing.
The Massachusetts man made international headlines in 2010 when he illegally crossed into North Korea from China by walking across a frozen stretch of the Tumen River, and was soon after apprehended by border guards. He was sentenced to eight years of hard labor and fined $700,000.
“I was praying each and every day,” Jacqueline McCarthy, Gomes’ mother, said Tuesday when reached by phone at her Massachusetts home. “They would not let me talk to him.”
Gomes, who had been teaching English in South Korea at the time, appeared to have entered North Korea in support of Robert Park, a Korean-American human rights activist. Park walked into the country in December 2009 in an attempt to bring attention to Pyongyang’s human rights abuses. He also crossed into the country over the frozen Tumen River.
Gomes’ incarceration was at one point used as leverage after an international investigation determined a North Korean torpedo was responsible for the sinking of a South Korean warship.
North Korean officials rejected the finding, and accused the United States of manipulating the investigation, according to media reports. Officials threatened to impose a much harsher sentence on Gomes if the United States didn’t moderate its position.
McCarthy said Gomes tried to commit suicide several times while in custody — including slitting his wrists and attempted starvation — before former U.S. president Jimmy Carter helped negotiate his release in August 2010.
“When he got off the plane, he got on his knees and was very thankful he was home,” she said of her son.
But in the years that followed, she said, he began “isolating from the family,” talking more by text than in person. She said the incarceration left her son with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I know it affected him,” McCarthy said.
Following his release, Gomes wrote a book about his experience. According to a description of the novel on Amazon.com, he reveals his faith and a “sense of universal equality” moved him to cross into North Korea. The book also “graphically details the psychological torment of interrogation and confinement,” the description read.
McCarthy said news of his death left her shocked and heartbroken — “I couldn’t picture my son doing that to himself.” Her mother, Gomes’ grandmother, is also taking the news “very hard.”
McCarthy said her son was “raised in the church” and that theirs is a close-knit family. In the time before he’d gone to Korea, she said, her son had left a teaching job to care for his great-grandparents.
“He was a beautiful person,” McCarthy said. She later added, “He was selfless. He was always giving his last to everyone.”
San Diego detectives called to investigate don’t believe Gomes’s death was a homicide, but the Medical Examiner’s Office will determine the official cause of death.
4:50 p.m. This story was updated with additional details. It was originally published at 11:05 a.m.