Wiltshire-based freelance journalist saves three from death row in Thailand - Press Gazette

Wiltshire-based freelance journalist saves three from death row in Thailand

How many journalists can say their work has saved a life? Andrew Drummond’s journalism last month saved three people from a death sentence in Thailand. Drummond formerly reported from the country and but returned to England in 2015.

Three people, who had been condemned to death twice for drugs trafficking, were last month acquitted and released from prison at Thailand’s Supreme Court by a judge who expressed surprise that the case had ever been brought.

Australian Luke Cook, 38, his Thai wife Kanyarat Wedphitak, 40 (pictured above) and Australian Tyler Gerard had their convictions and sentences confirmed at the Court of Appeal on the most suspect evidence.

Working from my cottage in Wiltshire 7,000 miles from Bangkok I provided vital information which ridiculed the prosecution.

The surprise to me was that no other correspondent or news organisation any longer cared. Media in the past would have left no stone unturned.

Instead, for four years newspapers regurgitated statements made at a Thai Police.

The case was linked to the summer of 2015 when two bags of ‘Ice’ (methamphetamine) weighing 50.4 kgs were found washed up on a beach near the Thai naval base of Sattahip in the Gulf of Thailand.

Six months later a well-known Australian underworld figure called Antonio Bagnato, still wanted in connection with a murder in Sydney, was accused of the kidnap, torture, murder, and disposal of the body of Australian Hell’s Angels leader Wayne Schneider in Pattaya.

Two years later Thai police linked the two events. Calling a press conference, Police Lieutenant General Sommai Kongwisaisuk of Thailand’s Narcotics Suppression Bureau reading from a script claimed that Luke Cook had been paid $15 million by Wayne Schneider to sail his yacht Jomandy into international waters and download 500 kgs from a Chinese trawler.

It was alleged Cook dumped the drugs overboard when a Thai naval patrol caught him in its searchlight.

Cook, said Thai police, had a lifestyle well above his means. He had luxury cars, a mansion and eight other properties. Schneider had been murdered in a row over Cook’s abandoned consignment.

The story was massive in Australia, accompanied by long features about Cook’s rise and fall.

But that press conference was in fact scripted by two other Australian offshore workers, who onshore offered their services to a very questionable unit of the Thai police. One of them even sold the arrest video to Australian television.

It was not long before I started getting calls on the story.

“I am being framed,” said Luke Cook in a desperate email. I treated his claims more seriously when I got calls from two members of the arresting team, who said the same!

His arrest had not been conducted by the Narcotics Suppression Bureau, but by a unit of Thai police working out of a private house (with prison cell) on the edge of Pattaya. This unit operated with a core of Thais and six or seven ‘foreigners’.

The two callers, an American and a Russian-Israeli, had defected. They freely admitted that they themselves dealt in illegal substances (cannabis and steroids) and that the team’s principal aim was to make money out of its arrests. But they thought setting up Luke and his wife for the death sentence was ‘a bit over the top’ and they had complained.

One of the informants had himself been arrested for trafficking in steroids. Given the choice of jail or paying two million Thai baht and joining the unit, he paid up and joined.

Their story was that the principal architects of the scheme were two Australians, also offshore workers, who did not care about the consequences. They were vitriolic about Luke Cook’s wife, who ran a law business in Pattaya, and who, they claimed, had cheated them on bills, which had run to over $10,000.

Other members of the team had been coached to lie in court. Drugs had been thrown into Cook’s back yard the day before a planned raid, and there were arguments in the unit about who was being paid and how much for each team arrest.

Backing their claims, they even passed operational photos and social media messages between team members. One image was a Google Earth graphic with a purple marker pen spot indicating where the drugs (cocaine) could be found – another message was a list of victims, who paid and who went to jail.

One of the two Australians became the prime prosecution witnesses at the trial.

He gave evidence that Luke Cook confessed all to him after taking him on a boat trip which he said initially was to recover gold.

I had the statement he rehearsed from.

It was two staggering facts about the main prosecution witness, which could not be contested in court, which destroyed the credibility of the prosecution.

The man, together with his Thai wife, had provided the vehicles used for the kidnap and the disposal of the body of Wayne Schneider, and rented the house for his torture and murder. He was also accused of trafficking women from Kenya and Tanzania for the Asian sex trade.

The first information came from the New South Wales Gangs Squad, known as ‘The Raptors’.  A detective sergeant openly presented it at the inquest in Sydney into Wayne Schneider’s death.

The other information came from a source within the Anti-Human Trafficking Unit of the Thai Police.

There was no evidence that Cook was living well beyond his means. He was on a good offshore salary but, still he could not even afford his defence and had pro-bono lawyers. No naval vessel could be found which caught him in its searchlight. No evidence could be found that his yacht even left port at the time. And expert tidal evidence was produced to show that the drugs found on the beach could not have come from his boat.

I sent extensive documents backing all this up to the defence team via Luke Cook’s father Paul in New Zealand.

After the defendants were released, Paul Cook messaged: “Thank you so much for what you have done. Your help certainly helped in getting true justice for the three of them.”

I also received a thank you from Cook’s Thai wife and congratulations from former colleagues in Thailand.

I did not solely save Luke and his co-defendants.

The credit goes to his pro-bono lawyers guided by the Melbourne based Capital Punishment Justice Project, and his father who never doubted his son’s innocence. But I was glad to help.

I would like to have taken this case as my ‘swan song’, but I still have the ‘Death in Paradise’ case of a British barrister, which goes to the heart of the Prime Minister’s Office in Thailand.

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