Fugitives in Thailand
by Jason Armbrecht
10 November 2008
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.