It was twelve years ago today when I first heard the name Kirsty Jones. I was a budding editor, 27 years old, with no real idea where my writing interests lay, and when I received a phone call from Bangkok-based journalist Andrew Drummond, asking me if I could rush to the scene of a crime and report back to him, I jumped at the opportunity. It was my first, and was to be my last, foray into investigative journalism.
I arrived at Aree Guesthouse down Moon Muang Road soi 9 in the evening, just a few hours after the police were informed of the discovery of the body of Kirsty Jones. A small two story wooden house with a shady garden, next to an open aired bar, lounge and pool room, Aree was a typical backpackers’ guesthouse. In fact, I was shocked to recall that I had spent some time there a few years before during my own backpacker days, smoking pot with travellers and drinking Sangthip under the stars. As I arrived I saw a crowd of the curious, local residents and backpackers, craning their necks to get a glimpse of something exciting. The police were milling around and some reporters still lingered. But the national and international press had yet to arrive, most of the local reporters had gone home for the night, never anticipating the world wide attention this case was to generate, and when I found out that I knew the guesthouse manager (connections from those backpacker days came in handy), he invited me to join him and fellow witnesses, for a beer. It was a surreal experience sitting there for hours on end probably getting the first telling, after the police, of so many witnesses’ stories. I staggered home that night, having filed my story and honestly thought that the matter would be over within days. It seemed like an Agatha Cristie type of who-dun-it and we all thought that one of the witnesses would prove to be the perpetrator.
How wrong I was. I ended up working around the clock on Kirsty’s murder for over three months…but we will get to that in time.
Typically in Thailand, the first people on the scene are reporters; tuned to police radio around the clock, this was no different. Along with the rescue service, the local press arrived ahead of the police and immediately invaded the scene of the crime. Kirsty’s room was on the ground floor, a dark little room filled with one bed and nothing much else. As more and more reporters arrived, her room had filled up with the curious, I reckon, from film footages, that 20 people had entered Kirsty’s room before any fingerprinting or evidence collecting was done. The evening news that night showed the rescue team responding to requests from cameramen to turn her head from side to side for a good shot. A cameraman opened Kirsty’s toiletry bag and pulled out condoms – ubiquitous travel accessories for any sensible backpacker – to hold up, tut-tuting in judgment. Reporters riffled through her clothes, some even touching the bed sheets, which were later used to extract DNA. The crime scene was contaminated within seconds and no one, including the police, seemed to have been the slightest bit concerned.
Kirsty Sarah Jones from Brecon in Wales was 23 years old and only two months into a one year round the world trip. She was brutally raped and murdered around 1 a.m. of the night before. Initially there were no witnesses and it was claimed that the maid had discovered the body at 4 p.m. when the police were called.
Though two days later the Kursk would sink, there was a lull in world news that week and by the time the Kursk story broke, Kirsty’s murder had made headlines worldwide with journalists from CNN, BBC, ABC, AP, Reuters and just about every major media in the UK converging upon Chiang Mai to cover this sensational story which struck a chord with so many parents whose children were backpacking in far flung places around the globe. I was hired by the BBC the next day to be their fixer/interpreter and spent the next week or so working around the clock with reporter David Willis on this case.
It was the first time that the Chiang Mai police force had had to come under the intense scrutiny of international press. For the first time, they were being held accountable for their actions, words and methods.
Faced with mounting pressure, Police Commissioner for the 5th Region, General Aram Chanpen announced within days that the killer was either a guest or a staff at the guesthouse and that with DNA evidence, an arrest was guaranteed within a week. Colonel Prasit Thamdi, Chief of Police for the Municipality joined in the fray, and even before the autopsy results were released, claimed that Kirsty was enjoying consensual sex with a man when it got out of hand, “it was an accident,” he said. His statement was published in over twenty newspapers around the world. Within 24 hours he was relocated to Isaan.
Over the next few days our crew was camped outside the municipal police station as we received one leaked theory after another from the increasingly panicked police. Willis quickly worked and reworked his scripts, pasting on his foundation before he faced the camera each day, reporting on latest theories and leads. We drank endless fresh coconuts and bottles of water on the steps of the police station, swapping theories and insights as we watched a parade of Aree’s foreign guests and its Thai manager being taken in for interrogation. As the press packed up and left the police station at the end of each day, to the great relief of the besieged police, I headed to Aree where I spent my nights drinking beers with the suspects and going over each and every angle of the case. It was quite helpful that I had this ‘in’ as not all reporters were allowed into the guesthouse.
The cast of suspects was a reporter’s dream. Suspect number one was Andy Gill, the English owner who was allegedly a violent drunk, and had disappeared for two days after the body was found claiming to have left to sort out his visa. It transpired his visa had expired two years previously. Then there was Surin Chanpranet the drug dealing Thai manager and massage teacher who was found to have amphetamines and marijuana in his room as well as a dodgy looking postcard of a naked foreign woman tied up in bondage. Then Nathan Foley, an Australian Brit on his way to the UK for the first time to visit his relatives was arrested because he had had dinner with Kirsty the night before and couldn’t be found for a few hours after the body was found. Australian Stuart Crichton was another guest who was suspected because he was a known heroin addict. Stephen Trigg was a British backpacker who soon admitted to having heard Kirsty scream, “leave me alone, get off me,” but when other guests came to investigate he had told everyone to go back to bed and mind their own business, that people often argue at guesthouses. Glen Liester was probably the most colourful of the lot, a self proclaimed ex-Morman elder and CIA spy, he was obviously unbalanced and spend hours regaling us with fantastical stories. One suspect after another had their faces splashed on newspapers and televisions around the world as the Chiang Mai police desperately tried to make the whole headache go away.
The pressure was intense as outlets vied for a soundbite or angle. At one point I was sitting in a room on the 13th floor of the Westin [today’s Holiday Inn] with the BBC team as they were editing that morning’s footage, when we received a call about a new lead. We knew that Australia’s ABC team were in the lobby, and without using much of our brain, we all decided to run down the fire escape on the side of the building, all 13 floors, to keep the Aussies away from our story. In hindsight it would have been less painful – what with the camera equipment and all – to have taken the lift down to, say, the 3rd floor, and walked down the fire escape …but pressure was high and even professionals were making some silly mistakes. Over the next few weeks things were going to get a lot more complicated.
Dozens of Thai and foreign reporters scoured Moon Muang’s soi talking to prostitutes, second hand book dealers, trekking guides, other backpackers, all the while camping out by the bronzed statue of the police holding a boy in his arms at the municipal police station…a good backdrop as they reported the latest police gaffes. When the BBC reported that the police investigation was ‘shambolic’ the accusation was picked up by every other news outlet and the already harassed police began to get desperate. My next installment will be discussing some of the terrible mistakes made during the early days of the investigation.
This is my personal account of what happened. Please excuse me if I have made any mistakes, it has been a long time and sadly all my taped transcripts, notes and photos were destroyed in the 2004 floods. I just thought that after 12 years it was probably time to put it all down in writing. Also the latest putsch by Sue Jones could be one of the last as time will eventually dim memories and lessen the urgency. I hope to keep Kirsty Jones’ case alive; we need to catch this killer. He has been at large for far too long and needs to be brought to justice so that the Jones’ family can, perhaps, finally find peace.