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A South Korean national, who was allegedly lured to the Atlanta area by a “religious organization” to “find God” after a traumatic experience, was found in the trunk of a car as a 70-pound decaying corpse.
Sehee Cho, 33, was allegedly killed during a brutal admission process into the “Soldiers of Christ,” a fanatic religious group led by two South Korean brothers, according to prosecutors.
Seven people – mostly family members – allegedly held Cho captive in their basement for weeks, beat her with a belt, dunked her in ice and starved her to death.
Law enforcement said they believe they have all the “soldiers” in custody since Cho’s body was found in September 2023, but fears of cult activity sent shivers up the spines of “The Seoul of the South,” a predominantly Korean community in Gwinnett County, Georgia, and a cult expert said there are more groups like this operating in the shadows across the country.
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Law enforcement in Gwinnett County, Georgia, found 33-year-old Sehee Cho in the trunk of a car outside a South Korean spa in Duluth, which is about 25 miles north of Atlanta, according to the Gwinnett County police. (Gwinnet County Police)
The “Soldiers of Christ” was officially described as a criminal street gang based on Georgia law in the Gwinnett County Police Department’s press release.
Joonho Lee, 26, who prosecutors identified as the founder of the “Soldiers of Christ,” allegedly wanted 12 disciples and tried to recruit a Korean-American Georgia State University student after Cho’s death, according to the Associated Press.
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In the four months since Cho’s body was recovered, seven people have been arrested, including the three brothers, their mother and three others. Each defendant was charged with murder, among other felonies.
Joonho said he received instructions directly from God, according to investigators, a common, disturbing trait of a cult leader, according to Dr. Steve Hassan, who escaped a Korean cult in the 1970s and became a leading expert on fanatical sects and a mental health professional.
He told Fox News Digital that the allegations in Cho’s death are more in line with cult activity than a street gang.
From left, Gawom Lee, Hyunji Lee, Joonho Lee, Juoonhyum Lee and Eric Hyun were arrested and charged with brutally murdering a woman in the Atlanta area in September 2023. (Gwinnett County Jail)
Mihee Lee, the mother of the alleged leaders of the “Soldiers for Christ,” was arrested after three of her children. (Gwinnett County Jail)
Cho was a highly susceptible target as she struggled with depression, prosecutors said, and “The Soldiers” allegedly took her to Lee’s family home to “find God” in July 2023.
During a voluntary initiation phase, Joonho was allegedly seen on video beating Cho with a belt and dunking her in ice baths while the other suspects watched, Fox 5 Atlanta reported.
Cho immediately wanted out, according to Fox 5 Atlanta.
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“There is no quitting this program,” 15-year-old Junyeoug Lee, the alleged co-leader of the group, told investigators, according to police.
All these allegations scream cult to Hassan, who told Fox News Digital, “I predict they were doing an exorcism” when Cho was allegedly murdered.
“Because the person had doubts and wanted to leave, they weren’t conforming,” Hassan said during an interview Monday.
“So the leader was like, ‘We’re going to beat the body to get the spirit out of the person, or we’re going to starve the person until the spirit leaves.'”
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The way Cho was allegedly killed, and Joonho’s alleged claims that he received revelations from God, are more disturbing traits of a cult, according to Hassan.
“And there are thousands of these groups in the United States, and they go by different names,” he said.
Dr. Steven Hassan, who escaped a Korean cult in the 1970s and became a leading expert on fanatical sects and a mental health professional, spoke to Fox News Digital about “The Soldiers of Christ.” (Carolyn Ross/Freedom of Mind)
Most of these splinter groups have less than 25 members and are run by people who were either raised in a cult and never got counseling or left to create their own cult.
“I make the analogy that it’s like a mutation,” Hassan said. “Someone who leaves a cult but doesn’t get the proper counseling could start their own version because it’s in their head.”
“Or maybe they left because they’re attracted to another cult because it’s familiar. They’re looking for something with structure, authority and black-and-white certainty.”
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Allegations that Cho was being starved is a common control tactic, according to the cult expert, along with sleep deprivation and restricting access to information and former cult members.
The idea, he said, is to “shut down critical thinking” and install an “irrational fear of questioning the leader, doctrine or policy.”
The suspects and the charges
In total, seven people were arrested in connection with Cho’s death, and each suspect was charged with murder, false imprisonment, tampering with evidence and concealing the death of another.
Joonho, 15-year-old Junyeoug Lee (who’s being tried as an adult) and Juoonhyum Lee, 22, are all brothers. Their mother, Mihee Lee, was arrested a month later in October 2023.
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The three other suspects were named as Gawom Lee, 26, a cousin of the Lee family who was visiting from South Korea; Hyunji Lee, 25, Joonho Lee’s fiancée; and 26-year-old Eric Hyun.
Hyun’s lawyer told the Associated Press that his client was recruited and tortured like Cho and would’ve been killed if he left.
Fox News Digital requested comments via a voicemail message with attorney David Whitman, who is representing Junyeoug Lee, and left emails with lawyers Scott Drake, who’s representing Joonho Lee; Jason Park, who is representing Juoonhyum Lee; John Burdges, who is representing Mihee Lee; John Kim, who’s representing Gawon Lee; and Ashley McMahan, who’s representing Hyunji Lee.
None of the lawyers immediately responded.
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Drake said he was still gathering information and couldn’t immediately comment on behalf of his client, Joonho Lee, according to the Associated Press.
McMahan, Hyunji Lee’s attorney, told the Associated Press that her client was treated like an “indentured servant” by the other defendants and was in South Korea for some of the time that Cho was allegedly held captive and didn’t know what was happening.
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And Mihee Lee’s attorney, Burdges, declined to comment for the Associated Press.
Chris Eberhart is a crime and US news reporter for Fox News Digital. Email tips to [email protected] or on Twitter @ChrisEberhart48.