Return to Phuket turns into holiday from hell

'Stung for $60,000' ... Logan Hesse.
'Stung for $60,000' ... Logan Hesse. 

It seemed like a good idea to return to paradise. That was the memory a Melbourne-based American couple had of the Thai holiday island Phuket where they used to live.

When they did return for a short holiday early last month, it became a holiday in hell.

After a night in prison plus $60,000 in mysterious payments through a Kafkaesque legal system, it was a very expensive hell too.

Logan Hesse and Urica Lopez met in Phuket four years ago where they were both working.

In May 2007, the house they were living in burnt down while they were out to dinner with friends.

Mr Hesse says police investigators told them at the time the cause was an electrical fault.

Soon afterwards, they left Thailand to come to Melbourne where they were enrolled as students at La Trobe University.

Mr Hesse revealed his story yesterday following revelations Melbourne tourist Annice Smoel faced jail on the island over the theft of a beer mat.

He believes such cases are due to a tourism downturn because of the global financial crisis and recent civil unrest.

These had bitten into the usual source of "supplementary income" for Phuket's police and other officials, Mr Hesse claims.

"Their pockets are lighter so they are turning on tourists," he said.

Mr Hesse said nothing more had been heard about their house fire until they arrived at Bangkok last month. They were immediately detained and their passports were confiscated by police who told them a Phuket arrest warrant was outstanding for "criminal damage".

The costs started piling up from that point.

The couple were expected to cover the $265 price of an air ticket for a police officer to accompany them on to their island destination.

In Phuket, they were refused permission to speak directly to the US embassy and were slapped in jail for the night.

Their problems were compounded by arriving at the start of the Thai New Year, when all officaldom shuts down for a week.

Although the initial police investigation found an electrical fault was the cause of the fire, a subsequent report some months later changed the cause to a cigarette, even thought they were out at the time.

The house owner was pursuing them for $60,000 in a civil action.

Under Thai law, the civil action had to be resolved before any criminal trial could take place, so they were unable to leave.

Mr Hesse said this could have meant waiting in Thailand for years with no source of income.

The lawyer who claimed he had been appointed by the US embassy then tried to pocket $7000 until they made a fuss in his office.

The pair then negotiated with the house owner to reduce his claim to $50,000 and a further $1500 went to the police to have the matter heard expeditiously.

"In court the judges didn't even speak to us. We just had to hand over a wad of money to the landlord and we were fined 10,000 baht ($380) for criminal damage," Mr Hesse said.

"We were never able to find if the house was insured.

"I think the landlord was able to organise a second fire investigation, either because he had no insurance or he was under pressure from the bank.

"They knew we would come back because we had friends [in Thailand]."

Mr Hesse said he and Ms Lopez had set up a blog to tell their tale and hopefully recoup some of their total $60,000 in costsĀ  from sympathisers.

The revelations follow a case earlier this year when a British man in Thailand was shackled and jailed for three weeks for "being rude to officials".

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