How “48 Hours” discovered the forgotten case of an American teacher murdered abroad

Producer Chris O’Connell describes how he and the "48 Hours team uncovered the story of Carolyn Abel’s murder, after discovering a rarely-used law in a previous story

Carolyn Abel murder: How "48 Hours" discovered the case
Carolyn Abel murder: How "48 Hours" discovere... 01:26

By Chris O'Connell 

As a producer at "48 Hours," I inevitably get asked one question over and over when I tell people what I do for a living: "How do you find your stories?" It's a question with many answers.

Sometimes we do stories because they are obvious, and everybody is talking about them, whether it be the Jody Arias trial or Amanda Knox's years long struggle to get out of an Italian prison. Other times detectives, lawyers or other sources we have interviewed in the past call or write us with a tip. And then, there are the rare instances like in this week's episode "Out of Reach" about the 30-year-old murder case of Carolyn Abel, where while digging through court records and just kind of going to down an Internet wormhole we stumble upon a truly compelling story that has almost been lost to time because the world has moved on.

Three years ago, I was covering the story of Yvonne Baldelli, a California woman who was murdered by her boyfriend Brian Brimager who then hid her body on the Panamanian island of Careneros. Brimager then returned to the San Diego area under a cloud of suspicion and married a woman, all while detectives in two countries were investigating him. 

Devil's Island 42:58

When it became clear that Panamanian prosecutors might not ever request that Brimager be extradited to Panama to face murder charges, Federal prosecutors in San Diego made the decision to charge him with a rarely used American law: Foreign Murder of a U.S. National.

Out of curiosity, I began to research the history of the law and found something that surprised me: it had only been passed as a minute part of the massive 1994 anti-crime bill spearheaded by the Clinton Administration. That revelation got me wondering why the foreign murder of a U.S. citizen was such an issue in 1994, and what about similar cases that came before then?

Looking into the Congressional Record for testimony on the Senate floor in the leading up to the passage of the law, I found that South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond kept on referencing a young woman who was murdered in South Korea in 1988. I was intrigued enough to dig further and then found the name that sparked this story: Carolyn Abel. From there it was a matter of finding all the people connected to Carolyn who have never forgotten her tragic death and are still waiting for some kind of answer as to what happened to her on the night of Dec. 20, 1988.   

That one line mentioning a brutal murder in South Korea in the Congressional Record started us off on a three-year "48 Hours" investigation that took us on a journey to Denver, Bellingham, Washington, South Korea and Japan, and allowed us to bring viewers this truly unbelievable story of a family's tireless 30-year struggle for justice.