In the aftermath of the horrific murder of a nine-year-old girl in Kandal province’s Tomloup Kpos Cheung village, questions remain unanswered
Sitting beneath her stilt home in Kandal province’s Tomloup Kpos Cheung village this week, Sorn Phors appeared more angry than sad. Only days earlier, her 9-year-old daughter, Keat Seavly, had been found strangled to death in a rice paddy nearby.
After police arrested her neighbour Oeurn Sopheap, 16, the teenager admitted to killing the girl for her gold earrings and a ring, which she sold at a nearby market for $28.
“When I think about her doing that to my daughter, I want to kill her,” Phors, 32, spat, her two-year-old son nuzzling at her side, whining for attention. “But I cannot do it because I need to respect the law.
“At the same time, if the police didn’t come on time to arrest her, maybe my family and the other villagers would have tortured her to death.”
According to police, Seavly went missing last Friday afternoon. Sopheap even helped with the search, but after the little girl’s body was found about 7pm the next day, she hid in a field. She was found and arrested later that night.
With a confession and an obvious motive identified, it seems like case closed. And yet the larger question of how an apparently ordinary young woman could commit such a horrific act for such a petty reason remains largely unanswered.
According to village chief Yong Sieng, 71, crime had never been an issue before in Tomloup Kpos Cheung, located just west of Phnom Penh off National Highway 4, an area where, despite the semi-rural setting, the majority of women work in nearby garment factories and the men in construction. The village is neither particularly rich nor particularly poor.
“In the morning, the villagers go to work and come back in the evening,” Sieng said, her voice nearly drowned out by workers putting up a solid metal fence around her yard. “They never get jealous with each other, because if they want something, they just save up for it. This is the first murder ever in the village that I know of.”
Parents in Tomloup Kpos Cheung never thought twice about letting their children wear relatively expensive jewellery.
“They just like to give their children gifts like that, especially the girls,” Sieng said.
The 71-year-old had heard about crime in other places, and worried that it would come to her village, but she never expected something like this to happen.
“I think the crime is generally because of drugs or alcohol that leads to violence, but the murder case in my village had nothing to do with that.”
Sopheap had never shown signs of being a troublemaker, she said.
“She never stole or committed crime,” she said. “When she was a kid, she always played with other kids and never made problems for anyone.”
A few doors down from Sorn Phors, the accused murderer’s mother was a picture of heartache and confusion. Surrounded by sombre family members, her eyes moist and red-rimmed, Peach Phoeun, 45, described the horror she felt on hearing her daughter confess to the crime.
“When I talk about it, I can’t stop the tears,” Phoeun said. “When I sleep, I can’t stop thinking about it: how could my daughter kill her?”
She too believed that Sopheap was “normal”, but there were some signs of trouble recently.
Earlier in the year, Sopheap had lost her job as a garment worker because she didn’t have a required identity card and had broken up with her boyfriend, with whom she had had an unofficial “marriage”, after miscarrying.
Phoeun said she noticed her daughter acting strangely since – more aggressive and short-tempered – but still didn’t understand how she had come to kill someone.
Lacking real answers, she turned to the supernatural.
“Two months ago, there was a fortune-teller who came to this village,” she said. “I talked with him about my family, and he said that I should bring my daughter to be blessed at the pagoda last month to remove her bad luck. I didn’t have the money, so I didn’t take her. I didn’t think that it was that serious.”
When asked what may have led to the killing, James McCabe, director of operations at the Child Protection Unit (CPU), which assisted in the investigation, said the crime was “incomprehensible”.
“I can’t put it down to anything,” he said.
“She knew the child and helped with the search. The child trusted her. They were part of the same community. I’ve got absolutely no idea why she would take that step. She could have stolen from the child and denied it.
“But to callously strangle and drown her? I don’t know. Perhaps she’s seen what others had and wants it but had no other means to get it. Greed is always a motivation for crime, and that may have simply been the case here.”
If Sopheap is found guilty, it will be the second case this year in the Kingdom of a juvenile girl killing another younger girl.
In January, at Kraing Svay village, not far away in Kampong Speu province, a girl who was 12 years old at the time killed 4-year-old Heak Kimchheng for a pair of earrings, then sold them for $20.50 to buy a $19 mobile phone.
Chhim Rithy, a judge at Kampong Speu Court, said the girl had been placed in the care of an NGO for an indeterminate period.
“She cannot be at her home because the family is afraid that she might hurt someone else,” he said. “As I know, the 12-year-old girl used drugs with other people according to a urine sample.”
The killer’s family still lives in the village – a place as nondescript and ordinary as Tomloup Kpos Cheung – and while the relationship between them and the family of the victim is still tense – their houses are within eyesight of each other – they ignore each other if they meet in the street or pagoda.
Hol Sat, the 58-year-old grandmother of the four-year-old victim, this week told Post Weekend that the child who murdered Kimchheng had seemed normal, like Sopheap.
“When the authorities checked her urine, they said she used drugs,” she said. “I never saw her using it, and I am not sure whether it is true or not.”
Sat was more interested in being properly financially compensated; the family had received $2,000, she said, but it was not enough.
“I told the court ‘I won’t accept even $10,000 for compensation because it could not buy her life back’ when I was really angry, but now I don’t want to make problems, so if they pay us $10,000, I will accept it.”
She said the family now didn’t even care whether the girl was locked up or not.
“It doesn’t matter whether she’s in jail or not – we just want compensation. If they release her, the murderer can do whatever she wants to,” she said.
Homicides by females are “relatively rare”, said Roderic Broadhurst, a professor of criminology at the Australian National University and co-author of Violence and the Civilizing Process in Cambodia.
“I can recall similar cases – but very few – from our research, but young females are more often victims,” he said in an email. “The cases you refer to are unlikely to signal a trend . Generally, homicide rates are ‘aperiodic’ – that is, they can vary about from year to year – but seldom does a spike lead to a confirmed trend, or if so, several years must past. Three swallows do not make a summer.”
Broadhurst cautioned against concluding that murders were in “cold blood” – meaning intended or planned – just from a reading of the events themselves.
“One usually could not rule out some mental illness or perhaps some organic problems,” he said. “It is not unusual for teens to have hormone imbalances that can precipitate violent conduct. The person’s background, circumstances and so on are all relevant.
“The idea of ‘born killers’ has not been supported by extensive research, although in some cases evidence of poor conditioning responses [is] implicated in some serious offending – ie, psychopathy – but this is rather controversial; there is no murder/violence gene, per se.”
While in the West a posse of psychologists and criminologists would be deployed to try and get to the bottom of the bigger “whys” in cases such as Sopheap’s, in Cambodia, questions like that are rarely going to be a priority – especially when the families involved are poor.
Back at Tomloup Kpos Cheung village, Peach Phoeun, said she had not seen her daughter since she was charged with “intentional murder with aggravating circumstances in relation to victims” and sent to the Kandal provincial prison.
“I haven’t had the time or money to find a lawyer for her because I am poor and I have no idea how to deal with this case,” she said.
“I just know that if I have money, I would only go to visit her in the prison to bring her some food.
“That’s all I can do.“The dead girl’s family lost their daughter, but my daughter is still alive, so she should be in jail to compensate the other family.”
Killer children in the western world
Carol Anne Davis, the British author of the book Children Who Kill, said most murder cases she had researched involved children who had been abused who replicated the abuse on another child or adult. “Interestingly, very few dared to kill their abuser, choosing weaker targets instead,” she said via email. She said the poorer the abused child, the more likely they were to kill for personal gain. “We’ve had instances in Britain of kids who are killed for their trainers [shoes] in impoverished areas.” Girls were much less likely than boys to kill; they tended to turn their pain inwards and descend into depression and self-harm. “The girls that I’ve profiled who killed were very, very brutally abused and – though they also displayed signs of depression – ultimately got in touch with their rage and discharged it, albeit sometimes onto innocent targets.” It was very difficult for a child to have a normal life after they had become a murderer. “They are often further brutalised – or, at least emotionally hardened – by the juvenile delinquency system, which has more than its fair share of pedophile staff. They are also often taught by older delinquents to become career criminals. That said, it’s not impossible – Mary Bell, who killed at age 11, has gone on to become a mother and lead a normal life.”