A 29-year-old woman enrolled at a US high school because she was lonely and “wanted to return to a place of safety,” her lawyers have said.
Hyejeong Shin, has been accused by a grand jury of providing false documents and hindering her own prosecution – charges which could carry a five-year jail sentence.
But in pre-trial documents, her lawyer Darren Gelber painted a picture of a sad and lonely woman unable to cope with the pressures of real life.
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Born in South Korea, Hyejeong moved to the US in 2010. She attended a prestigious Massachusetts boarding school before going on to study political science and Chinese at Rutgers University in New York.
But in recent years the high-flyer's marriage broke down and she found herself $20,000 (£16,300) behind on her rent.
She appears to have suffered some kind of breakdown before altering her birth certificate and enrolling at New Brunswick High School, pretending to be a teenager.
The bizarre scheme unravelled in its first week. Teachers were immediately suspicious about the “teenager” and some of Hyejeong’s classmates thought she could be involved in human trafficking.
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Even after the deception was uncovered, Hyejeong attempted to stay in touch with some fellow-students that she had befriended.
Parents demanded an inquiry into how she had managed to deceive school officials and been able to wander the hallways, attend classes and meet with guidance counsellors for four days in January.
Aubrey A. Johnson, the superintendent of schools in New Brunswick, told reporters that the district would be be looking into improved systems for checking into “fake documentation and other things.”
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Gelber told the New York Times: “I’m no psychologist, but separated from her family and being in a different country – as well as a couple of other stressors in her life – may have caused her to act very uncharacteristically.”
He added: ”At no time was anyone or any student in danger and this entire case is more about my client wanting to return to a place of safety and welcoming and an environment that she looks back on fondly and nothing more”.
A New Brunswick Police investigation found no evidence to suggest that any sinister intentions behind the curious scam.
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In a bid to avoid jail time, Hyejeong has entered a not-guilty plea applied for a special “first-time offenders” scheme which would see her placed on probation.
Whatever the outcome, she hopes to return home to South Korea after the case concludes, Gelber said.
The case is due back in court on May 15.
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