JUSTICE

Bangkok bust

Toronto men may face the death sentence

DIANE BRADY April 15 1991
JUSTICE

Bangkok bust

Toronto men may face the death sentence

DIANE BRADY April 15 1991

Bangkok bust

JUSTICE

Toronto men may face the death sentence

During business visits to Thailand, Michael MacNeil, 24, enjoyed a lavish lifestyle. According to Thai officials, MacNeil, a Torontonian who described himself as a business consultant, rented Ferrari automobiles and chauffeured limousines, bought expensive communications equipment and stayed in five-star hotels. For his part, MacNeil said that he was in Thailand to look at business opportunities, along with his uncle, 41-year-old Ralph Wilson, also of Toronto. Last week, officers of the Thai Royal Police arrested the two men, who faced charges that carry the death penalty.

MacNeil, Wilson and Melvyn Wallace, a 38-year-old Briton, were arrested at gunpoint as they left their hotel in Chiang Mai, 580 km north of Bangkok. The suspects insisted that they were innocent. At the time of the arrest, police said that each of the men was carrying a black leather briefcase. Police said that false bottoms in the briefcases concealed six kilograms (13.2 lb.) of high-grade heroin with an estimated resale value in Canada of at least $20 million. Facing heroin-trafficking offences, the three men could be executed if they are found guilty.

In Toronto, RCMP officers said that the arrests in Thailand followed investigation of an international drug-smuggling operation by Thai, British and Canadian police that had been under way for almost a year. An RCMP spokesman said that police tracked members of a syndicate through Greece, India, Lebanon, parts of North America and Thailand before making the arrests in Chiang Mai, where members of a Thai-based RCMP drug detachment were involved in the investigation.

As well, RCMP officers in Toronto said that Wilson is actually Brian MacNeil, the younger man’s father. Following the arrests in Thailand, Toronto RCMP officers moved in on a house in neighboring Scarborough, Ont., and arrested Marlene and Ronald Preddy, Michael MacNeil’s mother and stepfather, on charges of possessing drugs for the purpose of trafficking. RCMP officers said that they found 1.5 kg

(3.3 lb.) of heroin in the Preddy household.

For their part, the three men arrested in Thailand told reporters during a news conference in Bangkok that they were framed. Wilson insisted that he was a semiretired construction consultant who was in Thailand for a vacation. “That’s our luggage but not our contents,” said Wilson. He also told reporters that he suffered

from diabetes and needed “medical attention quickly.”

The Chiang Mai arrests were in connection with the. first major drug seizure in Thailand since a military government under Gen. Sunthorn Kongsompong seized power from the country’s civilian leaders on Feb. 23. Although Thailand is a major producer of opium, from which heroin is manufactured, and imposes the death penalty on some convicted drug traffickers, Thai authorities in the past have spared Westerners from execution.

Still, some political observers in Bangkok said that the new regime might act differently. Prime Minister Anand Panyarachun told the Thai parliament last week that his government intended to crack down on the country’s lucrative narcotics trade. Said a Western diplomat based in Bangkok: “These three accused are in

more danger than any before them.” He added: “For years, the Thai military and police have been itching to follow the example of Malaysia and Singapore, where death sentences are mandatory for drug traffickers.”

Meanwhile, Canadian and Thai authorities hailed the arrests as a triumph in inter-agency co-operation. Said Maj.-Gen. Bamrung Khiewurai, a senior Thai narcotics police officer: “This is another example of the excellent co-operation between the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Thai police.” For his part, Donald Willett, officer-in-charge of the RCMP’s Toronto drug squad, called the arrests a “very good seizure from a very well-organized group.” While they awaited their first appearance in court, MacNeil, Wilson and Wallace were being held in Bangkok's Crime Suppression Headquarters in the city’s Chinese district. Human rights activists said that conditions in the jail are poor, with prisoners crowded into cramped

quarters during the torrid Thai summer. About 200 other Westerners, including five Canadians, are currently serving sentences for drug offences in Thailand. Most of them are held in the grim Bang Kwang prison just outside of Bangkok.

According to Thai authorities, prisoners facing the death penalty in Thailand are taken to an execution shed at Bang Kwang where they are shot to death by a policeman using an automatic rifle. Before he pulls the trigger, the executioner, who like most Thais is a Buddhist, kneels before his victim and begs for forgiveness. It was a chilling prospect for the two Canadians and their British companion to contemplate as they remained in custody under Thailand’s tough new military government.

DIANE BRADY with NEIL KELLY in Bangkok

NEIL KELLY