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Fugitives in Thailand

by Jason Armbrecht

10 November 2008

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.

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