A father's three-year search for justice
"I'm not looking for revenge, I'm just looking for justice," said Rory McDonald.
- Published: 21/04/2013 at 12:00 AM
- Newspaper section: topstories
Three years ago his son, Andrew Oake, was set upon by two machete-wielding young men in Thailand's Northeast. Their reported motivation for the attack: merely that he was a foreigner in public with a Thai woman, his fiancee.
Oake died later from the injuries sustained in the attack. His fiancee, Som, was five months pregnant at the time.
Somyod Sangchan and Pitak Thonglong were identified as the main attackers first by police and then by the man who confessed to driving them around on his motorcycle on the night of the crime.
Mr McDonald has made 14 trips to Thailand over the past three years, all but one at his own expense, consulting embassy officials, attending court hearings, petitioning law enforcement for action and even engaging private investigators in a quest across three countries to track down his son's alleged attackers.
It's a search for justice that has been exacerbated by extradition problems and confusion over the whereabouts of the two suspects. Despite arrest warrants issued for murder, one of them, Mr Somyod, applied for a passport and fled to Macau. But last year he returned to Bangkok, passed through immigration and disappeared off the police radar, even though he had an outstanding murder warrant against him.
AT HOME IN THAILAND
Oake first visited Thailand on a family holiday when he was 15. It would be the first of many trips to the Kingdom.
THOSE LEFT BEHIND: Som and Angelina, who are living in Adeleide with Oake’s family.
The tough-looking ''gentle giant'' felt like he was constantly judged in Australia and suffered from bouts of depression. When he was in Thailand he felt as if that weight had lifted.
At home in Seaford Rise near Adelaide, South Australia, Oake worked as a taxi driver and a scaffolder. He and his two siblings had been given their mother's surname at birth, partly because their mother was the older parent and partly to spare them from ''Old McDonald'' taunts on the playground.
Oake was an imposing size and had tattoos - one that read ''Mum & Dad'' above his heart and another saying ''Crew 81'' to indicate his association with a Pattaya-based biker group. But his appearance belied his gentle demeanour, Mr McDonald said.
He described his son as someone willing to help out when a friend was down or in trouble and remembered how Oake would visit his grandmother at her nursing home when others couldn't be bothered.
Yet Mr McDonald said his son felt that he didn't quite fit in in his native Australia.
In Thailand, Oake felt free from judgement and was able to be himself, he said. He was very interested in the principles of Buddhism to the extent that he considered himself a practising member of the faith.
Occasional visits to the Kingdom became longer and more frequent, until Mr McDonald bought his son a small condominium in Jomtien.
Oake met Som through mutual friends, and was happy when she became pregnant. They later got engaged.
ANY WESTERNER WILL DO
On March 14, 2010, the pair visited Som's home village in the northeastern town of Prasat in Surin. They were looking forward to the birth of their first child and had just completed a Buddhist marriage ceremony at the local temple.
As they were leaving an internet cafe about 10pm, two young men sprang off the back of a motorcycle and confronted them.
The two men were wielding homemade machetes and, according to later testimony, were high on methamphetamine and alcohol and on the hunt for any Westerner in the company of a Thai woman.
Oake shouted at Som to run and then faced his attackers.
a trio of pictures showing the lacerations to Oake’s head.
He tried in vain to defend himself, as the two men slashed away at his head and arms. The attackers fled by motorcycle and Oake was rushed to Prasat Hospital. He survived the initial attack, suffering severe lacerations.
On March 15, 2010, Mr McDonald received a phone call from his son in Thailand. He was in a hospital waiting room in Prasat, 12 hours after being attacked.
Due to a staff shortage at the hospital, his son said, he was still waiting to be treated for severe wounds to his head and arms, and sounded in a bad way.
Mr McDonald made arrangements to take the next available flight out of Adelaide, connecting to Bangkok, where Oake would be transferred for emergency treatment.
When he arrived, the medical treatment seemed adequate and his son's wounds serious but not life-threatening.
Much of the initial concern over Oake's wounds centred on the severed tendons in his arm; there was some danger it might need to be amputated. From Prasat Hospital he moved to Bumrungrad in Bangkok, where he was treated as an inpatient for six days and an outpatient for three.
There was concern there that some of his behaviour was aggressive and that he was seeking out drugs, so he was discouraged from further treatment.
Mr McDonald said this could have been due to the staff not being familiar with his son and his normal behaviour. It was likely that his brain was already infected and swollen, putting him in discomfort that his doctor may have attributed to other causes.
Oake was moved to Bangkok Pattaya Hospital, but despite the extent of his injuries there was a lot of pressure from his travel insurance company to continue his treatment in Australia, where they would no longer be liable for the costs.
Mr McDonald said they levied an ultimatum that Oake either return to Australia immediately or his policy would be discontinued. He was given the all-clear to travel, leaving him with no choice but to go to Australia.
He hired a minivan to take him back to Prasat to pick up his passport and belongings.
But the move proved fatal. Cerebral oedema and infection are thought to have caused several blood clots in Oake's heart and he died of a cardiac arrest on April 11. He was 28.
The post-mortem was conducted at Surin Hospital.
''The insurance company is as much to blame [as the attackers],'' Mr McDonald said. ''Even if he'd made it to the plane, the autopsy showed he would have died immediately.''
Pol Maj Songsak Kaechalaem of Prasat police station told insurance investigators early on in the police investigation that the attack was unprovoked.
He also said that the two accused, Mr Somyod and Mr Pitak, both 18 at the time, were known troublemakers from Khon Kaen's Ban Pai district who worked at a car spray paint business.
Home-made weapons including a sword were recovered from their family homes and further evidence was found at the crime scene. The suspects would be charged with intent to kill, Pol Maj Songsak told the investigators.
The driver of the motorbike, Suvit Srimoonsri, turned himself in and confessed to driving Mr Somyod and Mr Pitak.
He pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit murder and conspiracy to conceal a deadly weapon, and was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
That was eventually reduced to a three-year suspended sentence and 20 hours of community service.
The judge cited his confession and the fact that his family had paid 50,000 baht to Oake's family in compensation.
The money had been accepted, Mr McDonald said, to serve as part of the reward for the capture of Mr Somyod and Mr Pitak, who had both gone into hiding.
Mr McDonald acknowledged that Mr Suvit was a minor player in his son's death, but said that a three-year suspended sentence was staggeringly lenient for someone charged with murder.
LETHAL WEAPONS: The homemade machetes used in the attack on Andrew Oake.
Despite the arrest warrant out for him, Mr Somyod was issued a passport and fled the country.
He was represented in Surin Court by his parents, who said he was working as a security guard in a Macau casino.
Mr McDonald immediately contacted Macau officials, who confirmed Mr Somyod's presence in the country. They were surprised that a murder suspect had been allowed to leave Thailand; however, they would need an extradition request before they could apprehend him, something Mr McDonald said Thai police were reluctant to grant, citing insufficient funds available to translate the warrant and extradition request.
When Australian consular officials offered to process the paperwork, the Thai police prevaricated and new obstacles were cited.
Mr Somyod eventually got wind of the efforts to extradite him and left Macau on Sept 11 last year, officials told Mr McDonald.
HUNT FOR JUSTICE
A source in the Immigration Department confirmed to Spectrum that Mr Somyod had re-entered Thailand at Suvarnabhumi airport on Sept 12, despite him being flagged with an arrest warrant. The only way that could have been possible, the source said, was if Mr Somyod had been escorted by a high-ranking official.
But Provincial Police Region 3 chief Pol Lt Gen Cherd Chuwet has denied that Mr Somyod ever re-entered Thailand. He told Spectrum that he had fled to mainland China instead, where his whereabouts remain unknown.
He said that efforts, in collaboration with friends at the Australian embassy, remained ongoing to locate both suspects.
Pol Lt Gen Cherd also contradicted the early accounts of what occurred on the night of the attack as well as the testimony at Mr Suvit's trial.
He said Oake's injuries did not stem from an unprovoked attack but were rather the result of a motorcycle race between the Australian and the three young men.
Mr McDonald said that was the first mention he had heard of a motorcycle race, either from the police during the trial, his son or Som. ''It was a random attack by boys high on ya ba and unhappy that Westerners were taking their ladies,'' he said. Neither had he heard that the suspect had fled to China.
Police had told him, however, that both suspects' arrest warrants would be re-issued on a lesser charge.
''For sure the family is doing everything they can to protect and hide [Mr Somyod],'' Mr McDonald said.
''I don't blame them for that. Maybe I would do the same if it were my son. But I blame the police for not making every effort to arrest the boys and bring them to trial. My job as a father is to make sure that justice is served.''
RAY OF HAPPINESS
Despite what Mr McDonald considers a series of avoidable mistakes - medical, judicial, in police procedure - in his son's death and the subsequent investigation, there is one overwhelming positive - his granddaughter Angelina.
Prior to his death, Oake had informed the embassy of his intention to marry Som. This was crucial following his passing as it eventually enabled Som to raise his daughter, born after his death, with the little girl's grandparents in Adelaide, South Australia.
Australian Immigration Minister Chris Bowen approved Som's permanent residency status. As the only witness to the crime, she had felt in grave danger if she remained in Prasat, and so the family was able to bring her into their home and help raise Angelina, who turns three in July.
''She is bilingual, ambidextrous, plays violin, and is extremely smart,'' Mr McDonald said of his granddaughter.
He also hailed Som as a kind and giving person and a great mother. They were making every effort to visit the two Thai temples in Adelaide on a weekly basis and become part of the local Thai community, which numbers in the high hundreds.
''I want Angelina to grow up to be a proud Thai, to later feel comfortable to live in Thailand, and to never be bitter at her country about what happened to her father,'' said Mr McDonald.
SCENE OF THE CRIME: Prasat, Surin where the attack occurred.
ON THE RUN: Police images of the two men wanted for the assault, Somyod Sangchan, left, and Pitak Thonglong.
About the author
- Writer: Ezra Kyrill Erker & Chaiyot Yongcharoenchai