SEOUL, South Korea (AP) -- An American soldier accused of fleeing a fatal traffic accident was in the custody of local authorities in the first case under a new deal that gives South Korea greater authority over U.S. troops accused of committing crimes here, officials said Monday.
Sgt. Jerry S. Onken, 33 of Onamia, Minn., is accused of leaving the scene of a collision near the capital Seoul that killed a 22-year-old Korean woman in November. He had been held in U.S. custody but was sent to a South Korean detention center in Seoul last week, U.S. Eighth Army spokesman Lt. Col. Steven Boylan said.
Onken, who was off-duty at the time of the accident, is the first U.S. soldier to be handed over to South Korean authorities for custody before trial. Surrendering troops to South Korean courts for pretrial jailing was part of a 2001 revision of the Status of Forces Agreement, Boylan said.
Under the new agreement, which covers the 37,000 U.S. soldiers stationed in South Korea, Seoul kept primary jurisdiction over U.S. soldiers accused of certain crimes committed when off duty. But South Korea was also granted permission to take U.S. troops into pretrial custody before indictment for 12 serious offenses, including murder, arson, rape, and fleeing a deadly traffic accident.
The U.S. military maintains jurisdiction over troops who commit crimes while on duty.
Onken is the first suspect to fall within the agreement since it was revised, Boylan said.
Last month, a South Korean court issued an arrest warrant for Onken, who is a member of the 1-43 Air Defense Artillery Battalion based in Suwon.
South Korean prosecutors believe Onken was driving a car involved in the Nov. 28 collision. Details of the accident were unclear, but a South Korean prosecution official has said Onken was drunk at the time.
It was not immediately clear what kind of sentence Onken would get if convicted, but he will be tried under South Korean law. A court official said a trial date has not yet been fixed.
The conduct of U.S. soldiers is a sensitive matter in South Korea, which has played host to tens of thousands of American troops since the Korean War ended with an armistice in 1953. In the past, accidents and alleged crimes involving U.S. soldiers have provoked demonstrations against their presence.
Last year, there were huge protests across the country after U.S. military trials acquitted two American soldiers of negligent homicide in the deaths of two 13-year-old South Korean girls.
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