Ten days after the rape and murder of Welsh backpacker Kirsty Jones at Aree Guesthouse, a 60 baht per night guesthouse off Moon Muang Road, Andrew Drummond received a call from Lek Chailert who was at the time working with the Tourist Guide Association in Chiang Mai (today she is better known as Ford’s Hero of the Planet for her work at the Elephant Nature Park). We were told to rush off to Johnny Boy guesthouse to meet her for a breaking story. I was still with the BBC crew when Drummond called and we grabbed our equipment and ran; this was when we had the infamous incident of the schlep down the Westin’s fire escape.
Finally we made it to Johnny Boy Guesthouse, a scruffy little guesthouse-slash-travel agency with walls ubiquitously plastered with posters of a gleaming Doi Suthep, river-fording elephants and overly made up ladies balancing umbrellas on bicycles. There the diminutive and energetic Lek greeted us and introduced us to Narong ‘Abraham’ Pojanathamrongpongse, 34, a Karen hill tribe trekking guide who had taken Kirsty on her trek to the Mae Chaem area prior to her death. The group had returned to Chiang Mai two days before her murder, gone out to The Riverside pub for a party, as so many trekking groups do, and parted ways. Narong remembered Kirsty, but didn’t spend any special time with her and said that she was simply one of many clients. I must admit that my memory of this meeting is very fuzzy, but I can put the jigsaw back together as there were copious news reports to remind me, and I have bumped into Narong a few times over the years. A soft spoken, gentle man who carries the waft of his religion with him, Narong lived part time at the Sacred Heart’s Catholic School, where he had volunteered with the church on and off over the years. He was also working full time as a trekking guide.
As he poured his story out to us, I sat aghast, my naivety being shredded, as it was to be, repeatedly, over the next few months. By this time the police had grudgingly accepted that the DNA of the rapist was Asian, and slowly, one by one, the foreigners at the guest house had been released and allowed to return to their countries, many of them shaken and shattered from their ordeal. Scratching their heads, the police now had to begin looking for a Thai suspect, or, to fit into their theory of a westerner as murderer, at least a Thai accomplice.
Narong had been walking along a road side the evening before when a van came up to him and a handful of men in plain clothes grabbed him, blindfolded him, pushed him face down on the floor and made him drink some water. The water was obviously spiked as he then recalls waking up in what looked like a cheap motel room. Over the next few hours Narong was tortured by men he could only assume were the police. He was threatened with summary execution, he was told that since he was only a hill tribe and not a real Thai citizen, that he should confess to the murder of Kirsty Jones and help the country. He was beaten up, stripped naked and had these men stand on his chest forcing him to confess. He showed us his bruises, though thankfully y not his privates, though there was a moment when I thought he was about to, and there was no doubt that this man had been through physical hell in the past 24 hours, his skinny torso a Rothko of bruised colours blending with one another. The men then plucked some of his pubic hair, using a lighter to burn off some more and told him to masturbate. When Narong refused to do so, one of the men attempted to masturbate him, but with such an unwilling participant, they soon gave up. Narong told us that he drew from his belief to pull through, that he knew he had done nothing wrong and that God would protect him. Eventually he passed out and found himself awake some time at night being held in an outlying police station of Chiang Mai. No one could explain to him why he ended up there and he eventually made his way home.
While DNA was found in Kirsty’s body, it was the DNA evidence on the sarong used to strangle her which has been the one referenced for testing. I assume that Narong’s forced-sperm donation was supposed to have been planted onto the sarong; perhaps along with the actual killer’s DNA , the police could then push –one of many – the theory of two murderers. Though I don’t know how they reckon they could explain the DNA lodged in her body not belonging to Narong. By this time Dr. Tanin from the Forensics Department was getting testy with the police, who, he told me, were trying to get him to force his facts into…well, their fiction. Part of it was their insistence that the DNA found in Kirsty’s body was planted there, when he repeatedly insisted that it was impossible and that it was lodged there perimortal. Although, he said that at least he was grateful that they had finally, and reluctantly, accepted that the DNA belonged to an Asian male.
Back to Narong.
Cleverly Narong kept a cool head and instead of understandingly running into hiding, being a trekking guide, he went to his association, sought out Lek Chailert and told her his tale. She contacted Drummond, giving us a small heads up before the coupe de grace the next day.
Like many ethnic minorities in Thailand who have been used as police (and society’s) scapegoats, Narong knew that he was in an extremely dangerous situation. Until today we still don’t know if his kidnappers were a ‘rogue unit’ as grudgingly blamed by the police, or that they were acting on established orders, but the fact is, he is lucky to have escaped without a forced-signed confession…let alone his life. Lek knew that while he was now a free man, he could very well be framed again and in order to protect him, she must untilise the power of the media.
I remember sitting in the large marble office of General Aram Chanpen during a press conference. I don’t think that anyone remembers what the press conference was about, and trawling through old articles, I can’t find any mention of the purpose of the conference. While some media outlets were already moving onto newsier pastures, there was still quite a huge turnout. Grumpy General Aram Chanpen looked, as usual, affronted at having to deal with the pesky press, his side-kick, deputy commissioner Bamrung Gerddee deputy police chief, who would soon be taking over the entire investigation, mirrored his boss’s permanent disdain towards and distrust of the media, intimidating policemen in plainclothes lined the wall and the room was crowded with camera crew, journalists and the usual gaggle of media that had pretty much become best buddies over the past ten days of squatting outside police stations, swapping theories and competing for interviews. Because Drummond and I were about the only ones in the know of what was to happen, I do recall my heart beating a mile a minute, and, indiscreet and immature youth that I was, I am embarrassed to admit to sending a few smug smirks over General Aram’s way – not the most intelligent move to have made had I intended to remain in the journalist world. Lek and Narong entered the room with an official letter of complaint and knocked the police for sixes.
There they were, having run a ‘shambolic’ police investigation and having been ridiculed and pressured by the world press, having pretty much discovered no leads on the murder, and here was a hill tribe man daring to humiliate them even further by exposing their ‘black-ops’ behaviour. After listening to the account of Narong’s trauma, General Aram told us all that he had not heard of this incident before but that he would make sure that it was investigated ‘fairly’. That was the last word we have heard on the subject from the police.
In fact, General Aram Chanpen would, two years later, in 2002, announce the arrest, following a ‘confession’ of two hill tribes men of murdering an Australian bird watcher and raping and attempting to murder his girlfriend on Chiang Mai’s Doi Angkhang http://andrew-drummond.com/2007/09/04/hill-tribe-men-set-up-for-rape-murder-of-aussies/ a case which was turned over in May this year, both men acquitted of the crime due to the Chiang Mai police’s suppression of DNA evidence…which would have cleared them ten years ago. Both men are now free. Nothing has been reported on the evidence-burying policemen…and no word on any compensation for the men’s wasted decade in jail.
So that is how Narong ‘Abraham’ Pojanathamrongpongse escaped a fate as a murder scapegoat. And we are only 10 days into the case at this point! I will get back to writing some more in the next few weeks, after jogging my memory with a bit more reading.