Almost exactly a year earlier, Brian Michael Jones, a Canadian wanted in Las Vegas on kidnapping and sexual abuse charges, was arrested by the FBI and Royal Thai Police in a village outside of Nan. He had been working as an English teacher for at least three years. The FBI was originally tipped off to his whereabouts after he tried to renew his passport at the Canadian Embassy in 2004.
One could ague that Jones’ main blunder was not trading in his real passport for the anonymity provided by fake or forged documents. Hambali, the Indonesian born operational chief of terror group Jemaah Islamiah and chief Al Qaeda operative in Southeast Asia, was living in Ayutthaya as a businessman on a forged Spanish passport purchased in Bangkok before his 2003 arrest. He was reportedly planning attacks on Bangkok hotels and the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit before the Thai police “received a tipoff from local people that there were strange looking people in Ayutthaya,” Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was quoted as saying at the time.
According to authorities, there a number of highly sophisticated counterfeit rings run by Thais, Iranians, Burmese and Bangladeshis utilizing stolen passports, visas and immigration stamps, as well as passports that the counterfeiters have bought off of tourists. Travelers looking to finance their adventures can turn a quick buck or two – American and European passports are the most valuable - by selling their passports and then reporting them stolen. The passports are then doctored and either sold to middlemen or they are sent oversees, London being the most popular destination.
Thailand’s days as the ‘fake passport capital’ may be numbered, however. 2005 saw the arrest of Mohammad Ali Hossein, the counterfeiter who supplied Hambali with his forged Spanish passport. 2008 has seen two major counterfeit rings broken up by the Thai authorities - an April raid netted over 1300 forged passports and visas and a May bust brought in almost 21,000 fake passports along with 200 real US passports. As an added deterrent, Thailand’s Penal Code was amended last year to increase the maximum penalty for passport related crimes to 20 years in prison. This increased vigilance by the Thai police is due in part to increased concern voiced by European and American officials. Police officials from eight countries meet monthly in Bangkok with the Thai police to discuss passport forgery and other identity fraud issues.
Fake or forged passports have been extremely effective in allowing international fugitives and criminals entry to the Kingdom. According to an immigration official at Suvarnabhumi airport in Bangkok, immigration officers only have 45 seconds to detect a fake passport, a restriction in place in order to ensure short lines and a tourist friendly atmosphere for new arrivals. Despite the time constraints, almost 250 forged passports and visas were discovered at Suvarnabhumi checkpoints last year, with immigration officials receiving help from a $10 million passport verifying machine provided by the Australian government.
Just as technology has made the world as a whole smaller, it has also made the net that law enforcement has used to trap fugitives that much smaller. With the advent of information sharing technologies, especially the internet, and the advancement of global communication systems, even the smallest of Thai villages are not nearly as remote as they once were - a fact American fugitive Howard Pritt learned in August. Pritt fled Denton County, Texas after his indictment on multiple sexual assault and indecency involving a minor. In May, the Denton County Sheriff’s office received an email tip through their Crime Stoppers website that Pritt was in Thailand. Communicating through the website, police were able to get information from the tipster on Pritt’s exact location. Three months later, Pritt was arrested in Nakhon Ratchasima and promptly returned to the US for trial.
Fortunately for local law enforcement, they don’t have to rely on anonymous tipsters to find fugitives who have fled the country. Coordinating the global manhunt for international fugitives is Interpol, a policing agency that works with 186 countries and their respective law enforcement agencies. Interpol’s I 24/7 system allows its member countries to search fellow members’ criminal databases in real time, as well as Interpol’s own centralized databases housing information on international terrorists and fugitives, lost and stolen travel documents, and child sex abuse images.
But if all of this information sharing fails to help nab a suspect, Interpol will turn to the public for help. In October of last year, Interpol posted digitally restored pictures of a man wanted for sexually abusing children on its website as part of a global plea for information about his identity. Five people on three continents soon identified the suspect as a teacher working in South Korea. Within three days, Interpol knew his name, nationality, passport number, and work history. Neil fled to Thailand but was photographed at Suvernabhumi by Immigration, who immediately released the photo. The police were tipped off as to the name of his male companion and were able to locate Neil by tracing the companion’s cell phone. He was quickly tracked down and arrested in Nakhon Ratchasima. The search lasted only ten days from the initial release of photos by Interpol to his arrest.
In the wake of this success, the Royal Thai Police, acting in tandem with the United States Air Force, put age progression pictures of the Air Force’s most wanted man, Saner Wonggoun on their respective websites. Wonggoun, born in Thailand and later a naturalized US citizen, was believed to have fled the US to Thailand after murdering his pregnant wife and dumping her body on the side of a California road. Within a day of releasing his picture, Thai police received a tip that Wonggoun was selling charcoal at a market in Phisanuloke. He was arrested and deported to the United States where he was court-martialed, found guilty of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to ten years.
The Neil and Wonggoun cases demonstrate that the Royal Thai Police can quickly track and apprehend foreign fugitives. These cases also showcase Thailand’s willingness to work with law enforcement agencies from around the world and the effectiveness of this cooperation. It was this cooperative spirit that played a pivotal role in the capture of arms dealer Viktor Bout. Bruce Falconer of Mother Jones magazine writes that Bout and a DEA informant who helped bring him down discussed numerous countries in which to meet, “but could not reach an agreement, probably out of the informant's concern that local enforcement in those countries might not cooperate with DEA's plans to arrest Bout.” Bout and the informant later agreed to meet in Bangkok – the informant knew that the Thai police would assist in the arrest.
Although Thailand has shown that it is more than happy to assist in the apprehension of foreign fugitives, most western law enforcement agencies, especially American law enforcement, are more concerned with the pursuit of terrorists than tracking down fugitives - no matter how high on the most wanted list. An investigator chasing “Whitey” Bulger quipped to the Boston Globe, “Preventing people from getting killed is a higher priority than the apprehension of a 75-year-old man.” Some made note of the fact that the US seemed to tolerate Viktor Bout’s gun running until he showed an interest in dealing with Colombia’s FARC rebels, considered by the US government to be a terrorist organization.
While the US has beefed up its immigration restrictions to keep terrorists off American soil, the same calories have not been burned keeping those charged with crimes from fleeing. Sexual criminals Howard Pritt, James Betts, Brian Jones, and Earl Bonds all fled the country after posting bail. Unbelievably, Bonds was issued a new passport after being released on bail, before his scheduled trial. According to Joe Leeds, managing partner of the Thailand-based law firm Chaninat & Leeds, “When fugitives flee equal blame should be put on their home country police and prosecutors for failing to apprehend and detain them. Prosecutors should be arguing against bail for criminals considered to be flight risks."
For those bail jumpers who avoid police and immigration detection, the bail bondsmen seeking their return have to go another route to get them to court. One option is to track them down personally, a la Duane “Dog” Chapman, star of the American reality show Dog the Bounty Hunter. Bounty hunting by foreigners is illegal in Thailand , as it is in most countries, and hunters face the possibility of arrest and prosecution. Chapman and his team were arrested by United States Marshals on behalf of the Mexican government after they tracked down cosmetics heir Andrew Luster in Puerta Vallarta. They were charged with depravation of liberty but the statue of limitations expired before they could be extradited.
Another option is to hire a Thai-based bounty hunter. Although most agencies hired to track foreign individuals in Thailand tend to shy away from criminal cases, preferring to focus on missing persons or domestic issues, there are a few companies who track bail jumpers. A couple of these firms even have members of the National Enforcement Agency, the professional association of American bail enforcement agents on staff. These bounty hunters use their contacts with various Thai government agencies to track down their prey, but according to one Thai bounty hunter they rarely, if ever, arrest a foreign national without a civilian or military policeman present.
Turning members of the general public into bounty hunters by offering cash rewards for information on fugitives’ whereabouts has also proved effective. It’s no coincidence that the case of Saner Wonggoun laid relatively dormant for fourteen years until a $25,000 reward was offered. He was arrested a couple weeks later. A $1,000 reward was most likely a contributing factor to the tipster in the Howard Pritt case emailing the Denton County Crime Stoppers hotline. And the FBI hopes that upping the reward for the capture of “Whitey” Bulger to $2,000,000 will encourage some investigative work on the part of aspiring bounty hunters not only in Thailand, but around the world.
If Bulger is arrested somewhere in Thailand in the future, some in the press will recycle the stories about the ‘haven for fugitives.’ But Thailand is making efforts to combat this image through the tightening of visa restrictions, cracking down on fake passports, and increased cooperation with Interpol and foreign law enforcement. The government is trying to balance this effort, however, with the needs of a tourist industry that is attempting to keep 15 million visitors happy, wants to keep immigration checkpoints as painless as possible, and lines moving into and out of the country moving as smoothly as possible. According to Mr. Leeds, “A criminal record check for every entrant may be prohibitive. However, if you are in Thailand and someone with money and power, wants you badly enough, our investigators will find you. You can run but you can’t hide.