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Suspect Convictions Episode 5: How Did Misook Become A Killer?

Misook and Christina
Illinois Department of Corrections/Family Photo
Misook (Wang) Nowlin, left, and Christina McNeil, the 3-year-old Bloomington girl who was killed in 1998.

GLT is partnering with the true crime podcast Suspect Convictions to explore the 1998 murder of 3-year-old Bloomington girl Christina McNeil.

New episodes air Fridays on GLT’s Sound Ideas. You can also subscribe to the podcast.

Soon after his 3-year-old daughter was murdered, Barton McNeil told Bloomington police that he thought his ex-girlfriend, Misook (Wang) Nowlin, was the real killer. Authorities didn’t believe him, and McNeil himself was convicted of the crime.

Fourteen years later, police arrested Nowlin for murder—a different murder. McNeil claims that’s an obvious sign she was capable of killing his daughter, Christina McNeil, back in 1998.

Nowlin was convicted of the 2012 murder of her mother-in-law, Linda Tyda, who she lured to Bloomington, killed her, and moved her body to a shallow grove in Will County. Nowlin, now 52, is currently serving her 55-year prison sentence at Logan Correctional Center in Lincoln.

Episode 5 of Suspect Convictions explores Nowlin’s troubled background, including interviews with her ex-husband, her biological daughter, and an expert at Northwestern University. Nowlin herself could not be reached for comment in prison.

Nowlin was born and raised in South Korea. Her mother died from tuberculosis when she was young, and as a child she bounced between living with her father and her aunt and uncle, relatives say.

At age 18 or 19, she married a much older Korean man—someone closer to her father’s age. Her father disapproved. She got pregnant, but the child was taken from her without her consent, relatives said. At some point, her father was so upset with her pregnancy and relationship with the older man that he cut off her hair, relatives said. That’s a fairly common shaming exercise in more conservative segments of Korean and other cultures, said Northwestern University history professor Ji-Yeon Yuh, who authored the book, “Beyond the Shadow of Camptown: Korean Military Brides in America.”

Nowlin didn’t meet that child—who was adopted and taken to Holland—until later in life. The child, Ja Ram Van Acke, is now 31 and living in Holland. When she was in her 20s, she traveled to Korea and then to the United States in search of her birth mother. When they finally met, Nowlin told her biological daughter about the traumatic experience of the pregnancy and adoption.

Marriage and Moving To The U.S.

Still living in Korea in the late 1980s, Nowlin met an American serviceman from Heyworth, Andy Nowlin, who was stationed near the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. They married, and they moved together to Heyworth, a small community just south of Bloomington. Sixteen months later, she became pregnant with their daughter, Michelle Nowlin. (Misook would later be accused of abusing Michelle when she was a child.)

“There’s a good side to her. There’s more to it than just somebody who snapped that had a bad childhood and killed an elderly lady. She did have a good heart,” Andy Nowlin said.

That said, Nowlin said his new wife became controlling and materialistic as soon as she arrived in the U.S. Andy Nowlin said she only allowed him to live on $1 a day to control the family’s budget.

“When she came to America, she got Americanized,” Andy Nowlin said.

In the mid-1990s, McNeil met Misook Nowlin while they were both working at a Red Lobster in Bloomington-Normal. Both were married; they had an affair. McNeil’s wife was nine-months pregnant with Christina at the time.

McNeil and Nowlin were in a relationship for three years. It ended shortly before Christina’s murder. Andy and Misook divorced.

Misook Nowlin’s life in Korea is similar to the stories of the many Korean women who married American service members, said Yuh, the Northwestern University professor. Nearly 100,000 Korean women have married American servicemen since 1950.

Many of those Korean brides came from rural or small towns near American military bases, typically from working-class or lower middle-class backgrounds, Yuh said. And many have a history of abuse or trauma in their past life, usually related to men, she said.

“Often what that means is that the women feel that either men are not trustworthy, or Korean men aren’t trustworthy, or that they’re no longer suitable for marriage in South Korea,” Yuh said.

Andy’s current wife, Dawn Nowlin, is not so sanguine about her husband’s ex.

“I think she’s a narcissist. If you look up the definition of a narcissist, it sounds like her. I’m not sure about Christina. But in my heart of hearts, I think Misook is a serial killer,” she said.

On Next Week's Episode: Suspect Convictions talks over the unfolding case so far with Rabia Chaudry, the attorney who championed Adnan Syed's innocence on the hit true crime podcast Serial, as well as Charlie Worrell, host of the podcast In Sight.

Listen to Episode 5 of Suspect Convictions:

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Willis is a Bloomington, IL, native. During his senior year at Bloomington High School, he finished third in the "Radio Speaking" division of the state speech contest, the only year he competed.