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Offline thaiga

Family's long wait for justice
« on: September 15, 2011, 05:54:41 PM »
Family's long wait for justice
When Michael Joseph Charles Karas showed up at the popular Thai resort of Pattaya in 1994, he was already a fugitive from a criminal career back home in Canada.
By The Vancouver Province March 4, 2007

When Michael Joseph Charles Karas showed up at the popular Thai resort of Pattaya in 1994, he was already a fugitive from a criminal career back home in Canada.

According to federal parole records, he had failed to return to a correctional centre in Kingston, Ont., around Jan. 22 that year.

He travelled to Thailand on a false Canadian passport under the name Michael David Morgan.

Before long, he had moved in with a local woman, Suwannee Ratanaprakorn, and was said to be "into exporting jewelry to Canada."

The couple lived in modest hotels -- he rode a small motorcycle; she quit her restaurant job and went out afternoons and evenings to "beauty shops" and discos.

According to Thai investigators, in September 1996 Karas was heard quarreling with Suwannee by staff at the Bay Breeze Hotel. He was observed repeatedly hauling heavy luggage into a taxi, and checked out of the hotel around 3 a.m. Sept. 24.

Karas left Thailand the next day and returned to Canada. He was arrested in Vancouver Oct. 3, 1996, on an outstanding warrant for his earlier parole violation.

Around the same time, Suwannee's dismembered body was found dumped in a swamp. Her shorn, severed head, legs and an arm were found later in a field, now the site of a vacation hotel.

Karas has been in Lower Mainland prisons ever since, serving the remainder of a 26-year sentence that ends in 2011.

But he is also fighting a decade-old request for his extradition to Thailand on suspicion of Suwannee's murder, a crime that carries the death penalty there.

In September 2004, it appeared as though Karas would be facing his accusers when the federal justice minister in Ottawa issued an order of surrender -- essentially green-lighting his removal to Thailand.

But, a month later, his Vancouver lawyer, Glen Orris, applied to the B.C. Court of Appeal for a Judicial Review of the minister's order, and a hearing was adjourned due to Orris's other commitments.

At the same time, Karas confessed to a cold-case armed bank robbery, claiming he wanted "nothing hanging over his head" when he was eventually released.

On Dec. 12, 2005, he was sentenced to three years for the robbery, time that must be served prior to his extradition, in accordance with Canada's Extradition Act.

"A cynic could say it could also have been a strategic or a tactical plea," B.C. Provincial Court Judge J. Spence said, prior to sentencing.

In sunny Pattaya, far from the grinding machinations of Canada's extradition system, the case against Karas grows murkier.

Witnesses move away, and police move on.

The population is roughly 500,000, including 100,000 resident foreigners and nearly five million overnight visitors a year.

Police Major Taweesak Suathong heads a 12-member Suppression Special Crime and Transnational Crime unit that deals specifically with the city's "foreigner cases."

If you're white and you're wanted, Pattaya is an easy place to get lost, says Suathong. His unit apprehends around 20 foreign fugitives every year.

The Karas case may still be a priority for Bangkok, he says, but on the ground his officers have more pressing concerns.

Detectives were unable to produce the case file on Suwannee's murder when requested by The Province.

But in the air-conditioned squad room, mention of the pretty girl who was dismembered and the prime suspect who disappeared sets the room abuzz.

"It was a very shocking case," says one detective. He said police identified Suwannee by her "distinct fake eyebrows."

Bay Breeze manager Phayow Sriem says Karas and Suwannee stayed for three-month stints on at least two occasions. She found it odd that the couple registered under Suwannee's name and always paid cash. But they kept to themselves, she says, and the room was clean.

Occasionally there "was fighting, shouting inside that room," she says.

"The reception call and ask. She say, 'It's okay.'"

On the day of her death, Suwannee called down for a light bulb and an "engineer" was sent to Room 805 at 5 p.m. She didn't go out that night, Sriem recalls, and at 11 o'clock Karas returned.

"He came back again and went out again, maybe three or four times. At four o'clock [in the morning] he says to reception he wants to check out of the hotel."

Later that same day, police arrived with a picture of Suwannee's severed head, her distinctive hair hacked away.

"The police come and ask has anyone seen this girl," Sriem recalls. "The regulars say, 'Oh, it's Suwannee. Oh!'"

Guido Krohl, a German expatriate who owns the Beercorner bar across the street, watched events from his regular sidewalk table.

"She was a very nice girl, very pretty," recalls Krohl. "She had very strong hair. I remember that, like everybody. Very long hair. A lot of people where shocked. No people wanted to go in the hotel for a long time."

Karas has long maintained that he fled Thailand because he feared police there would discover his criminal past and pin Suwannee's murder on him.

"I am no angel," he has said. "But I did not kill anyone."

He told a federal parole board in 1998 that Suwannee was "likely the victim of a cover-up for another murder," but he did not elaborate.

At an extradition hearing in Vancouver in 2001, B.C. Supreme Court Justice J. Lysyk determined that Thailand's case against Karas was not strong enough to support a charge of murder.

He determined that the evidence of a hotel maid who heard Karas and Suwannee quarreling, and Karas's flight from Thailand, implied some culpability, but didn't demonstrate intent to murder.

Lysyk ordered Karas committed to await surrender for extradition on the lesser charge of manslaughter.

And it was on the condition that Karas be tried only for manslaughter that the justice minister in 2004 made his order of surrender.

Thailand, however, is insisting on a murder charge, The Province discovered during a meeting at the Office of the Attorney General in Bangkok with the head of Thailand's International Affairs Department.

"We cannot guarantee against the death penalty," says Deputy Director General Piyaphant Udomsilpa. "That is at the discretion of the court. We can't interfere."

Under Thai law, a person cannot be charged in absentia. Karas is the subject of a Thai arrest warrant containing a prosecution order, and not formal charges, which will be established in court.

"We want him to come here and face the charges," Udomsilpa insists.

Udomsilpa would not release her department's file on Karas. Her position -- Thailand's position -- remains firm: It is not for Canada to dictate to Thailand what charges can and cannot be laid against offenders wanted for crimes against Thai nationals committed on Thai soil.

According to federal parole records, Karas, 54, has "not physically harmed any of [his] victims." He may be a fraud artist, a bank robber and a flight risk (he has escaped or walked away from prison four times in the past), but Karas -- university educated and reportedly from a well-to-do Ontario family -- has never been convicted of assault, let alone murder or manslaughter. His last conviction for a violent offence was in 1987.

Karas did not respond to requests through his lawyer and Corrections Canada for an interview.

Glen Orris, a veteran defence lawyer, says Karas wants his extradition case resolved "the sooner the better."

"His position throughout is that he's not responsible. There's lots of evidence of him moving body parts around, or bodies around, but the issue is, how did the death occur?

"Any country, any right-thinking country, could have to be concerned with returning anybody to Thailand at this point," Orris says.

Regardless, Orris says he is not appealing the decision of the extradition judge, but rather the order of surrender.

"Our position is that Lysyk had it right when he decided that the only evidence that was before him satisfied him only that there was manslaughter, but not murder," says Orris.

The fugitive's lawyer believes the minister is prepared to extradite his client "generally," and leave it up to Thailand what to charge him with.

"My position is that the minister . . . must comply with the ruling of the court," says Orris, adding official, irrevocable assurances from Thailand must be received by Canada before Karas is sent anywhere.

Canada's extradition process is of cold comfort to Suwannee's family, whose home in remote Nongsang village is lit only by lanterns.

The family pores over a surviving photograph of their beloved Suwannee, remembering her bright smile and lush, dark hair.

Attractive and ambitious, she was 24 when, in late 1994, she fled peasant life for the glamour of party-town Pattaya.

There, pretty village girls can triple their families' incomes by sending home money earned in bars and restaurants.

"She never should have left," says her frail father, Prayoon Ratanaprakorn, as he sits sobbing beside his wife, Naree, on the floor of their home.

Suwannee's twin, Supaporn, says her sister left without a word.

"She was very happy, she loved children," she recalls. "She had many friends here."

Prayoon says she twice brought Karas to their home. "At that time that guy was very nice," he says. "That guy come out and say he give money so we don't have to work . . . we were waiting for them to get married and move to Canada."

After Suwannee's death, says her mother, Naree, police took her and her husband to Room 805 of the Bay Breeze Hotel.

"I saw the bloodshed on the bathroom floor," she says.

One day, she believes, the "law and the government" will uncover the truth of her daughter's death.

"One day he will be returned to Thailand," she says of the man she believes is responsible.

"We cannot forgive Karas."


- Jan. 22, 1994: Karas breaches parole in Canada and relocates to Thailand.

- Sept. 23, 1996: Suwannee killed and dismembered.

- Sept. 24, 1996: Police find body parts in swamp.

- Sept. 25, 1996: Karas leaves Thailand for Canada.

- Oct. 3, 1996: Arrested in Vancouver on outstanding warrant for parole violation, with Canadian passport under Michael David Morgan.

- May 1997: Thailand launches extradition.

- Oct. 25, 1999: Arrested in prison on an extradition warrant.

- June 1, 2001: Ordered committed for extradition on the offence of manslaughter.

- Sept. 14, 2004: Ordered surrendered to Thailand subject to specified assurances.

- October 2004: Confesses to cold-case bank robbery and sentenced to three years.

- November 2006: Case adjourned so DOJ can "reassess situation" in post-coup Thailand.

- Feb. 15: Case adjourned without a set date in B.C. Court of Appeal.
Anyone who goes to a psychiatrist should have his head examined.