The Strange Case of Cheng Lim
One of the most bizarre stories in the city's history came to a conclusion in August of 1959. Cheng Lim was a foreign exchange student from Singapore and was sponsored by the Methodist Church, to study at the University in 1952. While in Ann Arbor he attended the First Methodist Church at State and Huron.
In 1955, Lim did not apply for the fall term as he was distressed due to low grades, feeling he had failed the people that had brought him to Ann Arbor. In an attempt to fake his suicide, Lim walked down to the Huron River and threw his passport into it. Later that night he went to the First Methodist Church and climbed a ladder that led to an attic on the north side of the church. For the next four years, Lim lived in this cramped attic space. During the night he would sneak down to the kitchen for food and water.
Lim's disappearance did not go unnoticed as the pastor of the church and university officials attempted to find him. They made contact with his brother and sister, who could offer no clues as to his whereabouts. Eventually a missing person report was made with the police department.
His years of seclusion ended on August 30, 1959, when the police department received a call of a prowler at the church. Officers Norman Olmstead and Ritchie Davis (future Director of the Michigan State Police) responded to the church for the call. The officers searched the interior of the church but could not find anything suspicious.
As they walked outside they observed a fleeting glance of Lim climbing the ladder, which lead to the attic. They quickly followed and entered the attic discovering a makeshift bed, coffee jar and a box of crackers. Officer Davis then directed his flashlight down a four feet deep hole in packed insulation, where he discovered Lim rolled up into a ball, trying to hide from the officers.
Taken to the police station, Lim revealed his story about his self-imposed exile. Lim stated he would have been disgraced if he had returned home with poor grades and couldn't face his friends at the University who had given him financial aid.
During his self-imposed exile, Lim brushed his teeth with match sticks, ate once a day and skipped rope for exercise. During his stay in the attic, the temperature would often reach 100 degrees in the non-ventilated space and was bitter cold in the winter.
There were several times that Lim was almost captured during his attic stay. Church personnel did observe that food was missing during Lim's four year ordeal. Once Lim was observed in the kitchen by a female church worker, who was working late and surprised him. She screamed and Lim fled to his attic apartment and was not discovered.
The police department had received numerous prowler calls at the church during the years Lim stayed in the attic. Caretakers lived in the basement of the church and occasionally heard noises when Lim was on the first floor gathering food.
Lim was finally discovered as the church hired a security guard due to their concerns. The security guard, William Edison, heard noises in the church and phoned the police department, which lead to Lim's arrest.
Lim's story gained national publicity and it was published in newspapers across the country. Instead of ending up in jail, local businessmen created a fund to help him resume his education. The government reinstated his visa and the University permitted him to enroll again. Lim graduated from the University in 1961 and went on to obtain his master's degree.
Upon his retirement in 1990, Sgt. Olmstead recounted his arrest of Lim. “I guess I'll never forget it,” he said. “We were on midnights and got a call to go to the First Methodist Church to check out a prowler. We looked around inside the church and as we were getting ready to leave, we saw a ladder leading to an open trap door to the attic.
“When I shined my light up at the door, I spotted a hand disappearing around a edge. We climbed up there and began looking around in the dark. Richie (Officer Davis) on one side of the attic and me on the other. Suddenly Ritchie yelled, ‘I don't see anybody here,’ and the way he said it I figured he'd seen something. Then I heard him pulling his gun. I went over to where he was and Lim's appearance was just wild. He was stripped to the waist, long hair, eyes staring. He'd made a little bed among the rafters and had a few things stashed there. We took him out of there and his story came out, about the four years of hiding. The story drew lots of national attention. Lim was reinstated in the University, had his visa renewed and graduated here. He went back to Singapore and died there of a heart attack in the mid-1970's. It was an incident you don't forget.”