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

The story so far…

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.


9 Responses to “The story so far…”

  1. Man, that sounds so rough!! I won’t be stepping foot onto Thai soil anytime soon.

  2. Just this week an Aussie mother was arrested for allegedly stealing a bar mat. According to her, her friends put the mat in her handbag as a prank. Her friends even confessed to the prank later. Nonetheless she got arrested, had her passport confiscated, spent 4 scary days in jail, and was told that it could be 14 weeks before her case came to court. The breaking news is that she has been fined $30 in court, given a 6 month suspended sentence, and released, thanks to the intervention of the Governor of Phuket.

    Nevertheless, shame, Thailand! Can’t you see this is very damaging to your reputation as a tourist destination.

    Corollary: Be very careful of your belongings in a Thai bar. Besides the usual dangers of theft, etc, if someone has a grudge against you, all they need to send you into the clink is to plant something on you, so it seems.

    You can read the story at the SMH here, where this blog was linked from:

  3. Good on you for publicising this case. I hope you are able to get justice eventually. Perhaps even get your money back.

    At the end of the day, the individuals involved face a huge loss of face (and possibly other trouble) if their names are publicised…. everyone from corrupt police to corrupt lawyers to the landlord.

    Yes, there is often a sense of betrayal when this kind of thing happens.

  4. Terrible story and Thailand should be ashamed at this treatment.
    Should we boycott holidaying in Thailand?
    Is it safe?

    • It’s not a matter of safety; it’s a matter of corruption – and that’s the saddest part. We lived there for 2 and 3 years, always knowing we were guests, doing our best to be polite, contributing to the community. It’s a beautiful country with beautiful people, it’s such a shame that there are those who will take advantage of their position.

  5. What a nightmare! And sad too, since honest tourism operators in Thailand will suffer more than the corrupt people who are responsible. Do you think it be of any use if “concerned citizens” wrote letters to relevant Thai officials?

  6. Actually, I think the US Embassy also let you down. According to their own website,

    “A consular officer will do whatever he/she can to protect your legitimate interests and ensure that you are not discriminated against under local law.”
    “They will also try to get relief if you are held under inhumane or unhealthful conditions or are treated less equitably than others in the same situation.”

    I would have thought that you had legitimate interests not to be extorted and subjected to an unfair trial. Plus I think you were being discriminated against on the basis of being “rich foreigners”, i.e. the police, lawyer and landlord wouldn’t have tried to pull this trick on locals.

    Anyway, it may be too late to do anything about it, but I’d be pissed off at the Embassy too.

  7. This story scares me! I may be going there for the internship this summer, and now I know I need to make sure everything is cleared before I even set my foot on their ground. Wish you better luck in the future!

  8. I am sorry for the trials that you have had to endure. My 2 friends were recently in Thailand, and 1 has not and will not ever return. She was poisoned (as well as another female). The government is not wanting to release information, and , unbeknown to us, her body could not be flown back to her country- it had to be cremated. So, whats that mean? That means you take the THAI governments WORD for it of what she died of.

    You couldnt pay me enough money to go to Thailand. I know some people love it, but I am sorry… not a chance.

    As a US citizen living abroad, you have to oblige by the country in which you live in laws. So, Annie @ May 20, 5:55 pm… you may think the Embassy let these 2 down, but reality is: when you are in a foreign land, you do as done by that lands law first. You exhaust all options. And, not every country lets the US embassy even know whats happening…

    Its quick to criticize. One should not. Good luck to both of you in the tragic event.

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