Some things in life get under your skin and simply stay there. As odd as it sounds, for me, it was the rape and murder of British backpacker Kirsty Jones in Chiang Mai, back in August 2000. Long term readers will know that solving this murder of has been a bit of a personal crusade of mine all these years. As a naive 27-year-old, hired as a fixer and translator by the international press, I was deeply involved in this case (you can read my detailed accounts in CityNews).
Over the years I have stayed in touch with Sue Jones, Kirsty’s mother, and while I’m as clueless as the next person as to the identity of the murderer, I still maintain some hope that one day, in spite of the utter incompetence of the local police, the incredibly dodgy characters surrounding the case and the lack of viable suspects, we will find him.
With that in mind, I decided to attend a sentencing yesterday at the Provincial Court. Former policeman Uthai Dechawiwat, who was already serving a 25 year sentence for beating his pregnant 19-year-old wife to death in late 2008, was to receive his sentence for the murder of Canadian Leo Del Pinto and the attempted murder of his friend Carly Reisig, in an incident that happened in Pai in early 2008.
The last time I sat around in the sun waiting for a prison van to arrive, then watching shave-headed men in shackles awkwardly shuffle past, was when a short-time suspect of Jones’s murder, British Andy Gill, was brought to court 13 years ago. I felt uncomfortable then, as I did now. As prisoners filed past, some ignoring we media, a couple staring arrogantly and aggressively at us, while others offered timid smiles, I felt like a dirty voyeur, smug in my freedom to witness the humiliation _ warranted or not _ of these men.
Inside the tiny courtroom, two small rows of seats on one side of the aisle were filled with Del Pinto’s family and support group. On the other side were we three journos, the now guilty-pled murderer and his obviously bored guard. In spite of the heavy shroud of atmosphere in the room, after I nudged CityNews editor James Austin Farrell to sit properly, lest we were scolded by the court (as I have been before), the previously solemn judge started giggling in a rather disconcerting manner as he virtually winked at us in inappropriate humour. There was no movement from Uthai, less than a foot away from me, as he stared ahead, posture police-perfect, listening to his sentencing _ 37 and a half years to be served consecutively to his previous sentence.
Waves of empathy were coursing through me as I wondered what he was thinking. Regret? Shame? Guilt? Anger? Despair? In spite of the lack of any evidence, surely there must have been some emotion in there somewhere, and I was determined to project my own heightened and confused feelings upon him. But he didn’t apologise to the father of the man he had killed, nor even acknowledged his existence; in fact, the first thing he did was to ask the court for all documents to review for his appeal. As he walked out of the room to spend a long, long time behind bars, head held high, eyes forward, I turned around and saw Leo Del Pinto’s father, Ernie, wearing a look of utter devastation. My empathy took an about-turn.
I had heard that Ernie Del Pinto had also been following Kirsty Jones’s murder case over the years, as I knew that Sue Jones had been following the Del Pinto case. That was actually the reason I went yesterday, just so I could go back to the office and write the note I did to Sue, a message I hope will allow her to keep her own alive.
Crime and punishment sound so clear cut to most of us who follow the news. But in every case there are nuances and emotional depths which echo throughout so many lives. I know that James was very shaken by his proximity to Uthai yesterday and will probably end up one day writing some great short story about it: his first close encounter with the criminal kind. For the families of the victims, and in Del Pinto’s own words to me, “I don’t want to be angry any more. I’ll never forget my son. It’s the best that I can do.” And personally, I feel good about being able to give Sue Jones a small ray of hope, just now receiving her reply: “Thank you for thinking of us today. I pray our day will come at some stage.”
As to Uthai, well, he has years and years ahead of him to spend either sorting through his emotions or, if lack thereof, continuing his own hopefully futile fight.
There are still so many cases unsolved (or swept under the table) in this country, with Thai and foreign victims alike. As we read of one high-so hit-and-run case or aggressive shooting after another, only to suspect that punishment will most likely never follow the crime, I just hope that there are enough people out there who don’t give up. The media needs to do more to keep these stories alive; those involved need to speak up and not shut up; victims need to refuse bribery and the culprits need to be held accountable. Perhaps 13 years on I am still naive…but I would rather call it doggedly optimistic!