Land of Trials: How two foreigners were extorted in Thailand
Logan Hesse and Urica Lopez’s international blog and donation page

May
26

Hi all, thanks for the support. Our new fundraising portal is realitycharity.com but they’re still getting their system ready. I’ve sent an email to them requesting an update and will post the reply as soon as I get one.

May
21

So apparently there’s a lot more involved with receiving donations through paypal than we thought so the original link I posted isn’t going to work. Basically because we’re individuals instead of a full-on charity organization we’re not eligible for non-profit status. I guess I should have known that but this is my first time doing this. In the future we’d like to set up a charity to help out people in trouble abroad but we need to try to recoup Urica’s tuition at the moment. 

Anyway, we’re setting up a new page at realitycharity.com. Unfortunately they’re upgrading their system and I can’t set up the page today, but watch this space.

May
20

Our story was featured on the home page of it’s website on 20 May, 2009. Here is the link:

http://www.theage.com.au/travel/travel-news/return-to-phuket-turns-into-holiday-from-hell-20090519-be71.html

 

We were also featured on the second page of the Phuket Post, an English language publication:

http://phuket-post.com/article/phuket-local-news/tourist-couple-burned-by-13m-baht-fire-fine/

May
20

In case anyone is on facebook and is interested in joining the group, here’s the link:  http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=84150295814&ref=share
We’re planning on having some kind of event here so watch the group for any updates.

May
19

The Accused

May
19

We have already established a fundraising website at giveforward.org/uricaandlogan but it is only set up to recieve payments from American credit cards. 

Since many of our donors are overseas we have set up this page and a paypal account to allow people to donate from anywhere in the world.

I’m still getting used to using this and I’m not sure how to put the button itself on the page but here’s a link for now:

https://www.paypal.com/cgi-bin/webscr?cmd=_s-xclick&hosted_button_id=5544374

Copy and paste it into your browser and you should come to a page that will allow you to donate. Our paypal account will be ready to accept donations from Friday, the 22nd of May.

Our goal is 45,000 US dollars. At the moment we’ve raised about 10,000 US on giveforward so we’re almost a quarter of the way there.

On a personal note,we are in such an awkward position and it breaks my heart to ask for your help. One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned from this whole ordeal is that I can’t do everything on my own. The few times we’ve been brought to tears have not been for fear of our safety, frustration and disbelief at the inconsideration we were shown, or the reality of it all, but rather by our friends and family who pulled us through this. I’m terrified to think what would have happened if we were alone. And I am so grateful and feel so fortunate for everyone who has helped us. 

Logan & Urica

May
19

On May 27th, 2007 we left the house we were renting in Phuket to have dinner with some friends. At midnight our landlord called to tell us our house was on fire. We rushed back to find everything we owned a smoking ruin.  We lost everything, including passports.

During the police investigation the cause, I was interrogated twice and my partner once. After a few weeks, we were informed that the cause had been determined: accidental electrical fire, probably as a result of the air conditioning unit.

Regardless of the first, we had already been planning to leave the county – we had bought our tickets and put in our 2 months notices at work – so we asked them if we were cleared to leave. They said we were, and without any problems we were stamped out of the country.

A month after we left and unbeknownst to us, the original investigator on the case was transferred and the new investigator changed his conclusion, blaming the fire on a lit cigarette and holding us responsible. Though we had given all of our contact information and the police station was just a short drive up the road from my partner’s previous employer, no effort was made to contact us – no phone call, email, written notification in 21 months.

On April 9, along with our friend and my partner’s sister, we arrived in Bangkok for a two-week holiday. When our passports were scanned into the system at immigration a flashing red light went off above our heads and we were taken aside by immigration officers. After twenty minutes or so an officer informed us that we were wanted in Phuket. Of course we asked for details but apparently there was not a single immigration officer who spoke decent English. Eventually an officer called his girlfriend and she told us via his mobile that we were being detained in connection with the house fire and for fleeing the country.

Our passports were taken immediately and we were detained in an office while the immigration police called Phuket to find out more information. We were informed that we would have to be escorted to Phuket and that we would have to pay for the plane ticket for the officer to escort us, which cost 7,000 Baht. That was to be the smallest expense of the whole affair. 

Upon our arrival in Phuket we were met by Phuket Provincial police officers in plain clothes and taken directly to Phuket Town Police Station.  There we were once again not provided with a translator and not given any means of securing our own. In broken English we were told that we were being charged as criminals; though we were not told specifically what we were being charged with.

After witnessing conversations between several officers, none of which gave us any information, police told us they would have to “control us”, meaning lock us up in a holding cell and set bail at 100,000 Baht each.

At that moment we demanded to speak to the US Embassy. They told us that we were welcome to call the embassy on our phone, which, having been arrested within half an hour of arriving, we didn’t have. They refused to allow us to use their phone to make any phone calls. We were alone.

Demanding again to call the embassy, they said they would call for us. The officer quickly spoke to the duty officer in Thai then hung up – we were not allowed to speak to our embassy. After that we were put into jail cells. I was being held with two other cellmates while my partner was being held alone. The cells were dirty, hot and disgusting – infested with bugs and feces spread on the wall.

After an hour we managed to get the attention of the guard and with great difficulty we were able to make him understand that we wanted to make bail. About two hours later, a lawyer appeared, claiming he had been sent by the US Embassy. The lawyer said he would bail us out and charge us 20,000 Baht for his 10% service fee. Once we were released, we were to transfer 220,000 Baht to him immediately.

Luckily, we were bailed Friday, the day before Songkran, the Thai New Year, which meant that the entire legal system would be shut down for 5 days, leaving us in jail.

Since no effort was made by the Thai authorities to make the situation clear to us we were forced to fall back on our own resources to figure out what was going on. We found out that the charges against us were originating from our former landlord so we arranged to meet with him on the Friday, 17 April, one week after we had been detained. We also arranged a translator, who had worked with a friend of ours.

During that meeting he claimed he didn’t want anything from us. Confused but relieved we agreed to go to the police station so that the situation could be cleared up. However, once we were all at the station, the landlord reversed his position. He demanded that we pay him 1.5 million baht to cover the cost of repairing the house. Despite the fact that he is very successful and well-to-do business owner and my partner and I are just students, he was adamant that we pay.

After hours of attempts to negotiate and plead our desperation and lack of money, we were only able to get him to agree to 1.3 million Baht, or 37,000 US Dollars. Until we paid this, we would not be given our passports.

During this meeting we also found out that our first lawyer had been trying to rob us. His first falsehood was that he had been sent by the embassy. Though the US Embassy told us that they do not send lawyers; they only send a list. The second lie that he told us was that we would only get our 200,000 Baht in bail back if we fought the case in court and won. When we told the police that they laughed in our faces. The only thing the police needed for us to be bailed was a signature from a lawyer. But who contacted the lawyer in the first place? The police.  

We went to the lawyer’s office and demanded our money back. At first he tried to intimidate us, yelling and throwing things around the office but my partner held firm and he eventually gave us back our money though this cancelled his bail for us. This means we were to go back to jail unless we had a Thai person to sign for us.

Our translator volunteered, entrusting us with her livelihood. If anything had happened – if we had tried to skip the country, even if we had gotten in an accident – she would have been held responsible. 

At this point we found a new lawyer to help us get through this mess, and these were our options:

A) In all seriousness, have the landlord killed

B) Flee the country – impossible because of the effect it would have had on our translator

C) Fight this in court – the two problems with that were the amount of time it would have taken (4-6 years) and our doubts that we would receive a fair trial. In fact, it would be likely that we’d still have to pay the 1.3 million Baht even after we fought it. Fighting it out in court also meant, we could not leave Thailand, losing everything in Australia including student loans and visas. We also wouldn’t be allowed to work in Thailand. Finally, though we had demanded ourselves and through our lawyers that we had copies of all the documents related to the case, we were not allowed to have them, according to the police. We’ll never be able to see how these charges came to be.

that left us with D) Pay the landlord what he wanted.

Even though we agreed to pay him, we weren’t out of the woods yet. We were still considered criminals and would still have to appear in court.

We had to pay our lawyer 230,000 baht for his fees as well as the under the table payments that had to be made to the judges, the public prosecutor, everyone down to the bailifs in the court.  

With the large amounts each individual sector required, our lawyer managed to get us a court date on the 28th of April where we were found guilty of criminal negligence and fined 10,000 baht. We were finally given our passports and allowed to leave on the 7th of May.

As a final note, our embassy told us they could not get in legal affairs and this is why we had to resolve the issue ourselves. In the end, we used the money for our university tuition to pay. 

During the entire time we lived in Thailand we were always conscious of that fact that we were guests and tried to behave as such. We have always been respectful of the Thai people and their culture and so this entire experience has made the both of us feel incredibly betrayed. Instead of two weeks of seeing old friends and relaxing, we were cynically and blatantly extorted.

We’ve set up this blog both as a fundraising avenue and as a place to gather all of the horrendous and ludicrous stories like ours that have been coming out of Thailand recently. We love Thailand and hope that publicizing the excesses of its corrupt legal system will put pressure on the Thai government to finally crack down on the systemic corruption and establish the rule of law and fair treatment of the foreigners who help keep the economy running.