Mother of Travis King, soldier charged with desertion to North Korea, says family plans to ‘fight charges hard’

Categories: ABC News

“The actions that the Army is saying that he’s doing is not Travis.”

ByMark Guarino

October 25, 2023, 5:10 AM

The mother of Travis King, a U.S. Army private charged by the Army with desertion for crossing the Demilitarized Zone into North Korea this summer, said that her family plans “to fight the charges and fight the charges hard.”

In an exclusive interview with ABC News Tuesday, Claudine Gates and Dan Jovanovic, King’s mother and stepfather, said the eight counts leveled against King last week that include desertion, possession of child pornography, assaulting fellow soldiers, and disobeying a superior officer shock them because they do not align with the “peaceful person” they know.

“The actions that the Army is saying that he’s doing is not Travis. He’s not like that. He’s a good boy,” Gates said.

Defense officials say King, 23, crossed the demilitarized zone from South Korea into North Korea in late July. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea released King in September. King is being held in pre-trial detention in El Paso, Texas.

King’s parents said they are concerned about his mental health and characterized the Army as being unhelpful in giving them answers. In a reunion with King two weeks ago in Texas, Gates described King as “very drowsy and tired.”

“I didn’t think that they were doing any harm to him or anything … But he seemed like he was still withdrawn,” said Jovanovic.

Both parents said King told them he signed paperwork that prevented him from divulging details of his detainment in North Korea and the reasons why he crossed into the country. The Army likewise would not give them details.

“He seemed very worried,” Gates said.

King has not contacted them since, they said.

King solicited a Snapchat user to take lewd photos of herself in exchange for money in early July, according to the charging document. Gates said she was “blindsided” by the accusation of King possessing child pornography and found out about the charges on the news. Jovanovic added the charge is “100 percent-plus out of character” for King.

“That’s not him, period,” Jovanovic said.

Both parents say King lost his phone in South Korea, which would have made his social media account vulnerable.

“If you got all these devices accessible or laying around and everything, God only knows how that manifested itself in there,” said Jovanovic.

Before he fled to North Korea, King had been detained in South Korea due to an incident at a Seoul nightclub in October 2022 where he allegedly punched a victim. King served 47 days in a South Korean detention facility following the altercation, according to a U.S. official. King was released in July and was set to board a return flight to the U.S. where disciplinary procedures awaited him. He failed to show up and instead joined a tour group at the Demilitarized Zone which he crossed to enter North Korea.

One of six children raised in Racine, Wisconsin, King “deplored alcohol,” especially when seeing family members “overindulging” at parties, according to his mother and stepfather. They described a young man who was often solitary, enjoyed playing video games in his room, independently read the Bible, and had good manners.

They blasted the Army for not putting him in treatment to address the drinking they say apparently started in South Korea.

“They should have given him some type of help and got him off that juice,” said Jovanovic. “Something had to be done about it so it [didn’t] escalate to being worse, which I think that’s what happened.”

The Army did not respond to requests for comment from ABC News.

Army spokesperson Kimbia Rey told ABC News last week that “to protect the privacy of Private King, the Army will not comment on the details of ongoing litigation. Private King is presumed innocent of the charges until proven guilty.”

With neither King nor the Army revealing what happened, Gates and Jovanovic say they are left grappling with a mystery that has been relatively unchanged since July when King fled to North Korea.

“He’s got to open up so we can get these matters resolved, and he can go on with his life, you know? I’m sure the military would like to see that too … I don’t really believe they want to hurt him … They just want to get the truth out there. And if they’re responsible for some of it, I think they’ll own up to it,” Jovanovic said.

As to King’s current incarceration in Texas, Gates said, “I’m afraid.”

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