A man held captive in a North Korean prison in 2010 and freed with the help of former U.S. President Jimmy Carter died in San Diego over the weekend after being found ablaze in a field.
Aijalon M. Gomes, 38, had recently relocated to San Diego from Boston. On Friday night, around 11:30 p.m., an off-duty California Highway Patrol officer was driving westbound on Pacific Highway near SeaWorld Drive when he spotted a man on fire in a field adjacent to the roadway.
That man has now been identified by investigators as Gomes.
The officer stopped to try to help Gomes while crews from the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department (SDFD) arrived. Gomes' injuries were too severe and firefighters pronounced him dead at the scene.
At first, investigators did not know how or why he had been on fire, so they deemed Gomes’ death suspicious and the San Diego Metro Arson Strike Team (MAST) looked into the case. SDPD’s Homicide Unit also aided in the preliminary investigation.
On Tuesday, police said the preliminary investigation indicates Gomes’ death was not a homicide but rather possibly an accidental death or suicide. His manner and cause of death will not be confirmed until the San Diego County Medical Examiner's Office completes its investigation and files a report.
NBC 7 spoke with Gomes' mother, Jacqueline McCarthy, who said her son had just moved to San Diego. She also confirmed his ordeal in North Korea.
"My son was a very good human being," she said. "He loved people. He loved his family."
McCarthy is asking for privacy and said she plans to set up an online fundraising page to help cover the costs of her son's funeral.
According to NBC News, Gomes was imprisoned and sentenced to eight years of hard labor in North Korea on Jan. 25, 2010, after he crossed into North Korea from China for unknown reasons. Gomes had been teaching English in South Korea at the time of his arrest.
That year, Carter flew to the country to negotiate Gomes’ freedom. North Korea agreed to free him if Carter went to get him. He was ultimately released to Carter and able to return home to his family in Boston.
NBC News at the time reported that Gomes had grown up in the Boston neighborhood of Mattapan. He graduated high school in 1997 and went on to attend Bowdoin College in Maine before moving to South Korea to teach English several years after graduating.
The investigation into his death in San Diego is ongoing. Anyone with information on this case can reach out to the SDPD’s Homicide Unit at (619) 531-2293 or Crime Stoppers at (888) 580-8477.