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1. $14,000 and a new passport
A few days before Christmas 2013, Stuart Dempster hired a car to take him from Bangkok to the rural town of Ban Phai, in northeastern Thailand. Mr. Dempster, a 55-year-old track and field coach from Australia, was accompanied by a tall, burly security contractor. The two men were preparing to abduct his daughter.
As they sped north, winding past the mountain-rimmed Lam Takhong reservoir and Khao Yai National Park, Mr. Dempster wasn’t sure what to expect. He had not seen his 5-year-old, N., in almost a year. At home in Brisbane, he had agreed to spend several thousand dollars to hire the contractor, Brad Stilla, through a company called Child Recovery Australia, one of a handful of agencies that reunite parents with children taken by estranged partners. Mr. Stilla met him at a hotel in Bangkok, after flying in from China, and boasted that he knew kung fu.
After several hours, the car pulled up outside Holy Redeemer Ban Phai School, a private Catholic academy on a busy, tree-lined street in the center of town. Mr. Dempster and Mr. Stilla walked toward the entrance — a wide, airy atrium next to a basketball court. Mr. Dempster felt a nervous sensation in his stomach, the way he often did before important races. Inside the school, he asked where he could find N., and a teacher pointed toward a classroom up a flight of stairs. He wondered whether his daughter would recognize him.
Eleven months earlier, Mr. Dempster’s wife, a Thai woman named Atchariya Chaloemmeeprasert, had taken N. to Ban Phai to visit relatives. It was an unhappy time in the marriage: With a 24-year age difference, they argued often and had been sleeping in separate bedrooms. During her trip to Ban Phai, Ms. Chaloemmeeprasert never called home. The day she was scheduled to fly back, her uncle, a Scot who ran a business in Thailand, told Mr. Dempster that she no longer wanted to speak with him. She planned to remain in Ban Phai with their daughter.
“It was difficult to think straight,” Mr. Dempster recalled. “I just thought, ‘Have I done anything wrong?’ Nobody’s perfect, and there’s no hard-and-fast rule for bringing kids up or for relationships. But I had done nothing to justify that.”
There is often little the local police or family courts can do when one parent takes a child overseas without the other parent’s permission. But in Australia, the United States and dozens of other countries, the parent who is left behind can seek the child’s return under a 1980 international treaty, the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. Countries that adopt the pact agree to help resolve international parental abduction cases by returning children to their “habitual residence,” where local family courts can determine custody.
In early 2013, not long after N. vanished into Thailand, Mr. Dempster contacted the Australian attorney general’s office to seek his daughter’s return. He soon became frustrated with the process. The paperwork was complicated. His caseworker was slow to return his messages. And once the Australian government broached the issue with Thailand, local authorities claimed they could not locate Ms. Chaloemmeeprasert. “It’s a failed system,” Mr. Dempster said. “It fails us all the time.”
As the months passed, Mr. Dempster started considering another option. He had read online about bounty hunters who retrieve abducted children — an entire industry of self-proclaimed “recovery agents” who operate in legal and ethical gray zones, snatching children off the street in foreign countries.
A lawyer at the Australian attorney general’s office urged Mr. Dempster to avoid these groups, which often break the law, bribing police and smuggling children across borders. Some parents have lost tens of thousands of dollars to agents who turned out to be dishonest or inept. Even a successful “recovery” can put a child in harm’s way. “Two wrongs don’t make a right,” the lawyer told him.
But Mr. Dempster was impressed by the website of Child Recovery Australia. In late 2013, he traveled along Australia’s Sunshine Coast to meet the company’s founder, a silver-haired private investigator named Colin Chapman, who got his start tracking children for an Australian television network in the 1990s. After listening to Mr. Dempster’s story, Mr. Chapman showed him images of Ban Phai on Google Earth and explained how to obtain a new passport for his daughter.
He said he could arrange a recovery for around $14,000. He told Mr. Dempster to meet Mr. Stilla in Thailand.
2. ‘Help me! I can’t breathe.’
When Mr. Dempster peered inside the classroom at Holy Redeemer, he immediately spotted N. at a desk by the window. He picked her up and walked out as Mr. Stilla followed, talking by phone with Mr. Chapman, who was overseeing the operation from Australia. “All right,” Mr. Stilla said, in Mr. Chapman’s recollection. “This is good.”
But the sight of two foreigners removing a small child caused alarm at Holy Redeemer. Taweerart Nilda had taught at the school since Ms. Chaloemmeeprasert and her older brothers attended decades earlier, and she followed Mr. Dempster and Mr. Stilla as they hurried out. She tried to ask what was happening, but Mr. Stilla brushed her away. “They walked in as if they had authority,” she recalled. “They did not care about anything.”
Outside, it was a typical Thai winter day — about 70 degrees, with a clear blue sky. Some older students were playing soccer. Ms. Nilda and a few other teachers followed Mr. Dempster and Mr. Stilla through the courtyard, past a statue of Jesus underneath a red-and-white awning. By the time Mr. Dempster and Mr. Stilla reached the street, a crowd was beginning to form. The driver refused to open the car door. Ms. Nilda started pulling N. from Mr. Dempster’s arms. She recalls the girl screaming in Thai: “Help me! I can’t breathe.”
Still on the phone with Mr. Chapman, Mr. Stilla made a futile attempt to use his bulky frame to fend off the teachers and explain that N. was Mr. Dempster’s daughter. “Now what do I do?” he said into his phone.
“How much cash have you got on you?” Mr. Chapman responded. “Start waving that around.”
The confrontation was escalating. Police officers had appeared on the scene. One reached toward Mr. Dempster, who tried to elbow him away, only for the force of the crowd to push them even closer together. A group of male teachers grappled with Mr. Dempster, trying to wrest N. from his arms.
“How long can you hold onto a kid?” Mr. Dempster told me recently. “It was a tug of war, and I thought, ‘This is too much stress for her.’ So I let go.”
3. The child abduction industry
When people think of kidnappers, they often imagine strangers in dark vans, luring young victims with candy. But most child abduction in the United States happens within families. In 2019, the State Department reported nearly 500 new abduction cases in which parents took their own children overseas. Partly because of its large number of cross-cultural marriages, Australia has a relatively high rate of international child abduction: Parents apply through the Hague Convention to seek the return of as many as 140 children a year.
That legal process is notoriously complex. Some countries, like India, have never signed the Hague Convention. Before Japan agreed to the pact in 2014, it had such a poor record of returning children that it became known as a “black hole” for child abduction. And even when both countries involved in a custody dispute have joined the treaty, the process can take years to unfold. In many Hague cases, countries side with their own citizens, regardless of the evidence.
It’s those weaknesses and inconsistencies that drive some parents to seek a high-stakes shortcut: snatching their children back. There is no official tally of the number of companies purporting to offer “child recovery” services, or of the number of parents who use them. But interviews with child advocacy groups, law-enforcement officials and the companies themselves suggest that the industry is small: a dozen or so agencies active over the last decade, usually executing only a handful of operations a year.
For everyone involved, the industry is fraught with dangers, from scams and scuffles to botched border crossings and international arrests, according to nearly 50 interviews with parents, psychologists, family lawyers, law enforcement officials and child abduction agents. Some agents say they work with local authorities to enforce family court orders. But often they intervene without hearing both sides of the story, sometimes bringing children back to parents who later lose custody in court or who have been accused of domestic violence. A snatchback, even a successful one, can be harmful to a child, leaving psychological scars that last into adulthood. And parents assume much of the risk: A company might conduct surveillance and plot an escape route but require the left-behind parent to physically grab the child.
“It’s an unregulated industry, and we have seen things go very wrong,” said Vicky Mayes, a spokeswoman for Reunite, a British charity that helps parents of abducted children. “It’s just a massive risk for parents to take. It’s a big financial risk, and it’s a big safety risk for themselves and for their child.”
For decades, many parents have worked with agents who have military experience, such as Gus Zamora, an ex-Army Ranger in Florida, and Michael Taylor, a former Green Beret best known for engineering the Nissan executive Carlos Ghosn’s escape from Japan. In recent years, others have turned to companies with names that evoke corporate power, like ABP World Group.
Preston Findlay, a lawyer for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, a Virginia nonprofit, keeps a stack of printouts about child abduction companies in a desk drawer. “Not everyone in that drawer is a straight-up concern,” Mr. Findlay said. “Sometimes it’s a group I’ve never heard of. Sometimes they pop up and change names. One group may post a picture that includes a guy who I’ve seen posted on another site.”
Typically, child retrieval groups employ few full-time employees, more often delegating on-the-ground operations to freelancers paid by the day. Many agents advertise aggressively, announcing snatchbacks on social media, granting interviews to reporters, or denigrating industry rivals in long-winded blog posts. In 2015, two operatives for Child Recovery Australia cornered a man in a shopping mall in Malaysia while his ex-girlfriend, the Australian soap opera actress Eliza Szonert, grabbed their 6-year-old son. Mr. Chapman, the company’s founder, filmed the operation, and the video circulated in the Australian media. (Eventually, the father won sole custody in an Australian family court.)
Over the years, a network of middlemen has developed within the industry — lawyers and advocacy groups who put desperate parents in touch with agents, sometimes for a fee. For more than a decade, Eric Kalmus, a Los Angeles businessman who was separated from his own child after he split up with his wife, served as a conduit between left-behind fathers and ex-soldiers who claimed to recover children. For $1,500, Mr. Kalmus would coach fathers to sweet-talk their estranged wives and, if that failed, refer them to abduction agents in the United States or Europe. Occasionally an operation would collapse and the parent would turn on him.
“I did this because I loved helping people,” Mr. Kalmus said. “Ninety percent of the time it’s great, and then something goes wrong, and I’m the devil. For $1,500, I’m the devil.”
The agents themselves often charge much more, and for parents, the costs can be crippling. Kerry Bartlett, who works as a secretary at a hospital in the London area, sold her house to raise the roughly $60,000 she needed to extract her son and daughter from Northern Cyprus in 2017. When she returned to England with the children, she was homeless and had to move into a government hostel.
“It was my only chance to get the kids out,” Ms. Bartlett said. “I didn’t want anyone to try to dissuade me.”
Even a relatively straightforward operation can cost tens of thousands of dollars. In the spring of 2018, Keith Schafferius, a private investigator in Australia who claims to have recovered more than 100 children over several decades, was hired by an Australian father to get a kindergartner back from Lithuania. One morning, Mr. Schafferius waited outside the mother’s house until she emerged to take the child to school. “We took him off the street, and she screamed and shouted a bit, but we got back over the border,” said Mr. Schafferius, 78.
“It was a fairly simple one,” he said. “I probably cleared about $15,000 out of that.”
4. ‘That’s the difference between us and criminals’
Not long after the scrum at Holy Redeemer, Mr. Dempster sat in a cafe in Ban Phai, scribbling in a notebook. Once he had let go of N., the police had cut him loose. He was trying to stay positive. In the notebook, he made a list of everything that had gone well. His daughter had recognized him. He was not in trouble with the police.
On a blank page, he wrote, “Next plan for N.’s return.”
Back in Brisbane, he called Sean Felton, the founder of Abducted Angels, a British-based charity offering advice and legal assistance to the parents of kidnapped children. Mr. Felton advised him to contact an abduction agent named Adam Whittington.
A former Australian soldier who later worked as a policeman in London, Mr. Whittington runs Child Abduction Recovery International, a company based in Sweden. He has successfully extracted children across Europe and Asia, once accosting a child’s grandparents in a quiet neighborhood in Poland. At 44, bald and baby-faced, he is personable and eager to please, always prepared with a colorful anecdote about some especially complex operation.
He also has a history of embellishment. He once admitted to using stock images of photogenic children in some of his Facebook posts announcing snatchbacks, although he insisted the operations themselves were real. And four years ago, he orchestrated an abduction attempt that failed so spectacularly that it made headlines in Australia for months.
In 2016, the Australian TV network Channel 9 paid Mr. Whittington more than $70,000 to extract the two children of an Australian mother named Sally Faulkner from Lebanon, where they were with their father. One day that April, a team working with Mr. Whittington seized the children off the street in a Hezbollah-controlled neighborhood of Beirut. “We work a lot in the Middle East,” Mr. Whittington said. “There’s a lot of corruption, which works well for us.” But the Lebanon operation ended in disaster: Before the children could leave the country, the local authorities arrested Ms. Faulkner, Mr. Whittington, and a Channel 9 news crew that had come along to document the operation.
Mr. Whittington spent more than three months behind bars, until he was granted bail and allowed to return to Sweden. (Ms. Faulkner’s children remained in Lebanon with their father.) The botched recovery was embarrassing, and Mr. Whittington’s industry rivals seemed to sense an opportunity. Mr. Chapman, who had traded online insults with Mr. Whittington in the past, denounced Child Abduction Recovery International in the Australian media. “They’ve been a bit arrogant in their behavior,” he told one local journalist. “What were they thinking?”
After leaving prison, Mr. Whittington embarked on an aggressive campaign of retaliation. In long, rambling blog posts, he accused Mr. Chapman of sabotaging the Lebanon operation and claimed that various child abduction agents had scammed desperate parents. Mr. Chapman and the others responded with outrage, claiming that Mr. Whittington has exaggerated the number of children he has retrieved, lied about his finances and forged emails to cast aspersions on rivals.
Mr. Whittington insists his critics are liars. But he freely admits that he has broken laws around the world, and brags about bribing police officers and border officials. In 2014, he was arrested during an operation in Singapore and accused of putting an elderly man in a headlock. “What we do is help kids,” Mr. Whittington said. “That’s the difference between us and criminals. Sometimes we’ll cross the line. But it’s not for a bad cause.”
For all his ire online, Mr. Whittington can be a sensitive listener. When Mr. Dempster called, he was impressed with the agent’s calm demeanor and apparent professionalism. “I felt at ease,” Mr. Dempster said. “I slept better that night.”
Before accepting a client, Mr. Whittington conducts a screening to weed out parents who are violent or abusive. He sends potential clients a detailed questionnaire, looks into their criminal histories, and asks for court orders regarding the custody of their children. Still, he acknowledges that a full background check is impossible. “We can’t pull skeletons out of people’s closets,” Mr. Whittington said. “There are many people who commit domestic violence but never get caught.”
So he also relies on instincts he says he honed during his career in policing — that “funny feeling” he sometimes gets about people. Mr. Dempster quickly passed the test. “You could tell, even by talking to Stuart on the phone,” Mr. Whittington said. “He’s just a lovely guy.”
5. ‘He must be a good man’
In the beginning, Atchariya Chaloemmeeprasert also had a good feeling about Mr. Dempster. She met him on a dating website called Thai Love Link when she was in her 20s and had recently graduated college in Bangkok. Mr. Dempster, who was around twice her age and had never been married, told her he was hoping to meet women in Thailand. He was the only foreign man she knew, and at first, she exchanged messages with him mainly to practice her English. Eventually, though, their conversations turned intimate. Mr. Dempster promised to visit her family in Ban Phai, and she was impressed when he followed through.
“I thought, ‘Oh, he must be a good man,’” recalled Ms. Chaloemmeeprasert, a deeply Christian woman who goes by the nickname Tan. “We could talk and understand each other. It’s so easy to make him smile.”
The couple got engaged in Thailand, and when she was about six months pregnant, Ms. Chaloemmeeprasert went to live with Mr. Dempster in Wanganui, New Zealand, where N. was born in March 2008. The family moved periodically, first to the city of Darwin in northern Australia and later to Brisbane. Most of the time, Ms. Chaloemmeeprasert stayed home to take care of N. while Mr. Dempster coached. But they sometimes struggled financially, she said. For a while, she worked at a massage parlor and picked strawberries.
Mr. Dempster and Ms. Chaloemmeeprasert give strikingly divergent accounts of their marriage. When they lived together, she said, Mr. Dempster was different from the charming man who had visited her in Ban Phai. Sometimes, he would fly into a rage and smash dishes or chairs. He also turned on her, she said, kicking her so hard that he left marks. One day in Darwin, he threw a dish against the wall and started strangling her, she said. When his grip loosened, she picked up N. and fled to a neighbor’s house, and then a women’s shelter. Later, she said, Mr. Dempster wrote a letter asking her to come back, and she agreed. “I wanted to have a full family,” she said.
While they were living in Brisbane in 2012, she suspected Mr. Dempster was seeing other women. During one argument, she said, she waved a knife at him, and he filed a complaint with the local authorities, seeking a domestic violence order — a legal document in Australia that essentially serves as a restraining order. Not long after, she responded in kind, filing her own complaint in January 2013, with the help of a friend from church.
At the time, Ms. Chaloemmeeprasert had already scheduled a flight to Thailand with N. to visit her family. She decided not to return. When Mr. Dempster found out she was staying in Ban Phai, she said, he told her, “Do not think you win.”
“He thought it was a competition,” Ms. Chaloemmeeprasert said. “I did not think that way. I just wanted to get away from that situation.”
Mr. Dempster denies that he ever abused or cheated on Ms. Chaloemmeeprasert. He accuses her of “playacting.” When she ran out of the house in Darwin, he said, it was after a verbal argument, not a physical assault. In fact, Mr. Dempster said, he sometimes feared for his own safety, and for their daughter’s. Ms. Chaloemmeeprasert did not merely wave a knife in his direction, he said; she threw one that narrowly missed his leg.
Both Mr. Chapman and Mr. Whittington claim they spoke about elements of Ms. Chaloemmeeprasert’s allegations with contacts in the Australian police, who assured them there was no evidence of abuse. But Mr. Dempster said he often worried that neighbors and other acquaintances would accept his wife’s version of the story.
“You feel so helpless,” he said. “Because who’s going to believe the bloke?”
6. Standoff at the embassy
Mr. Whittington took Mr. Dempster’s case for around $12,000. But it was months before they could try to abduct N. In May 2014, the Thai army toppled the civilian government in a coup d’état. It seemed like an inopportune moment to sneak a child across an international border.
After the attempted abduction before Christmas, N. returned to school in Ban Phai, where she studied English as part of a bilingual program. She lived with her extended family in a white, two-story house with a balcony overlooking a tree-lined street. Meanwhile, Mr. Whittington was laying the groundwork for another snatchback. He traveled to Ban Phai and installed a tracking device on a car belonging to Ms. Chaloemmeeprasert’s mother. By January 2015, he believed he had enough information to grab N., and he and Mr. Dempster returned to Ban Phai.
One morning that month, dressed in dark clothing, the men crept into Ms. Chaloemmeeprasert’s yard. N. was by the back door, chatting with her grandmother, who was making breakfast in an outdoor cooking area. Around 7:30 a.m., the two men sprinted toward the house.
“It was as if they emerged from the earth,” the grandmother said. As they approached, she pulled N. closer, but Mr. Dempster pushed her away and grabbed his daughter. Then he leapt over a fence and ran along a dirt road to the getaway car.
“She’s given up, mate,” said Mr. Whittington, panting behind him. “She’s given up way too soon.”
Ms. Chaloemmeeprasert was in the house getting her nephew ready for school when she heard her mother scream. She rushed outside, but Mr. Dempster and Mr. Whittington were gone. She was sure they were on their way out of Thailand. After calling the police, she began to pray. “If I didn’t find her,” she said, “I thought that my heart would have been broken to pieces.”
On a hunch, Ms. Chaloemmeeprasert took a bus to Bangkok and made her way to the New Zealand Embassy, on the 14th floor of an office building. Sure enough, Mr. Dempster and Mr. Whittington had also headed there to get N.’s passport stamped. (The embassy declined to comment on its involvement.) Ms. Chaloemmeeprasert could see her daughter inside, drawing a picture of two people holding hands, next to a cross and a little heart. Embassy officials would not let her enter, so she called the police, who surrounded the building. The standoff lasted for hours. Finally, after the embassy closed around sunset, Mr. Dempster and Mr. Whittington emerged.
“Just let her take N.,” Mr. Whittington told Mr. Dempster later, at the local police station, as he recently recalled. “We’ll get her.”
To her mother’s relief, N., who was then almost 6, did not seem particularly shaken by the ordeal; Mr. Whittington had given her snacks and toys. Hoping to strike some kind of compromise, Ms. Chaloemmeeprasert and her family agreed to meet Mr. Dempster and Mr. Whittington at a Chinese restaurant later that week. “The confidence they had in me wasn’t high,” Mr. Dempster said. But Mr. Whittington had a story ready: Mr. Dempster would move to Thailand to teach English and coach. “I don’t care about Stuart, and I don’t care about Tan,” he told the family. “What we need to sit down here right now and try and negotiate is what’s best for N.”
It was a convincing display. Ms. Chaloemmeeprasert liked the idea of N. growing up with a father. Oddly, she also trusted Mr. Whittington. He had presented himself as a couples mediator, rather than a child extraction specialist. “Adam was an OK man,” she said. “He was a smart guy.” She agreed to let her husband spend a few days a week with N., as long as he handed over his passport before each visit. “But in the end,” she said, “all the good deeds I did gave me nothing back.”
When Mr. Dempster returned to Ban Phai, he came with two passports.
7. A blurry line between incompetence and fraud
In an industry in which some of the more successful figures have spent time in prison, it can be difficult to tell who is legitimate. Parents frustrated with the legal process and desperate to recover their children are vulnerable to fraud. “This is the nature of the beast,” Mr. Whittington said. “You get vulnerable parents, you’re going to have sharks and scammers.”
In March 2017, a Brooklyn man named Peter Senese was sentenced to three years in prison for defrauding the parents of abducted children. He had collected more than $70,000 from a mother in New York, claiming that he and a team of operatives were in India tracking down her son. In reality, Mr. Senese and his girlfriend were on vacation in Miami.
Walter Wright, an F.B.I. agent who investigated international child abductions during a 25-year career, arrested Mr. Senese at his parents’ home in Brooklyn. As he drove him into Manhattan, Mr. Wright recalled, Mr. Senese started bragging about rescuing children, including one he claimed to have recovered from a cage in Macau. “He’d heard about me and my reputation,” Mr. Wright said, “and he considered us peers.” When investigators examined Mr. Senese’s travel records, they found that he had not left the United States in years.
“There probably could be a lot more cases brought,” said Jaimie Nawaday, a former assistant U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York who prosecuted Mr. Senese. “That whole industry is very shrouded in secrecy. They have to be breaking laws left and right.”
Sometimes the line between incompetence and outright fraud can be unclear. In 2017, one American father paid an abduction agent more than $55,000 to retrieve his then-3-year-old son from a country in East Asia. But the agent backed out at the last minute, according to an affidavit the father later filed with local authorities, claiming that it was too risky to take the child and that he couldn’t offer a refund because he had already spent the money paying his operatives on the ground.
Other abduction agents have blamed failed snatchbacks on reckless parents. Mr. Chapman, for example, says that it was Mr. Dempster’s idea to remove N. from school before Christmas 2013 and that Mr. Stilla followed him into the building reluctantly. (Mr. Dempster denies this, and Mr. Stilla did not respond to multiple requests for comment.) But Mr. Chapman said he did not fault his contractor for agreeing to help Mr. Dempster take N.
“People have questioned me — why did Brad do it?” Mr. Chapman said. “I wouldn’t sit in a car and let the bloke do it on his own, either. I’d feel like a coward. And who wants him to do it on his own and be successful? You want to be there, just in case the prick pulls it off.”
8. Sneaking across the border
There was no tug of war. No snatch in the garden, no sprint to a getaway car. The third time Mr. Dempster fled with his daughter, near the end of April 2015, he picked her up for one of their regular visits and handed over an expired passport to N.’s grandmother. He never retrieved it. Instead, he walked the girl to where Mr. Whittington was parked, waiting to drive them away.
After the failed abduction in January, it seemed unwise to take N. to a major Thai airport. So Mr. Whittington drove several hours to a checkpoint on the border between Thailand and Cambodia. The plan was for Mr. Dempster to fly with her from Cambodia to Vietnam and on to Australia.
But after passing through the Thai side, Mr. Dempster and N. were turned away by Cambodian border officials, who said there was a problem with their travel documents. Stranded at the border crossing, Mr. Dempster grew flustered. He was attracting attention from locals, who glared at him and N. suspiciously. One woman asked why the girl’s mother wasn’t with them. Mr. Dempster called Mr. Whittington, and they reconvened at another spot near the border.
Mr. Whittington told Mr. Dempster to catch a domestic flight to Udon Thani, a city in northeastern Thailand near the border with Laos. There, Mr. Whittington said, they would meet a local fixer whom he knew from other operations. “Honest, Stuart,” Mr. Whittington said, “I wouldn’t trust this with anybody that I didn’t trust myself.”
At the airport, a man in shorts and sandals greeted Mr. Dempster and N. and ushered them into a Toyota Land Cruiser. “It was like something out of an espionage movie,” Mr. Dempster said. The fixer took them to a spot along the Mekong River, which forms the border between Thailand and Laos, where a flat boat was waiting to transport them. “If you get caught doing things like that, you can get slung in jail for a long time,” Mr. Dempster said. But he climbed inside anyway, his back toward Laos, with N. sitting in front of him and two suitcases perched precariously beside them. Facing backward, Mr. Dempster could not tell how much farther the boat had to travel. “It was a bit unstable,” he recalled. “Every time I would look over, it would shift the boat, so I was going, ‘Oh, God. Where’s the riverbank?’”
The boat reached land safely, and Mr. Dempster was delighted to be out of Thailand. He had always taken a dim view of the country’s culture. Laos felt different. The street signs were in French. The architecture was reassuringly Western. “I felt more at home there, or more comfortable there, because Laos had been colonized by the French, and it had done them a lot of good,” Mr. Dempster said. “Thailand has never been occupied by anyone.”
A few days later, Mr. Dempster and N. flew to Australia. Mr. Whittington sent Ms. Chaloemmeeprasert a thumbs-up emoji — a message she interpreted as a taunt. (He says he was simply assuring her that the girl had made the trip safely.) Mr. Whittington also announced N.’s return in a May 7 Facebook post, claiming that she had been living in “terrible conditions and undernourished” in Thailand.
Ms. Chaloemmeeprasert said her daughter was always safe and well cared-for. “They insult my country,” she said. After the snatchback, she fell into a deep depression. She took down decorations in N.’s bedroom and avoided looking at photographs of her. Ms. Chaloemmeeprasert said that she has tried to get in touch with Mr. Dempster, to no avail. (Mr. Dempster said he has not heard from her.)
For a while, losing N. made Ms. Chaloemmeeprasert question her faith. “Why did God allow this to happen?” she asked. “Why didn’t God sympathize with me?” She and her mother visited a fortune teller, hoping to find some kind of spiritual anchor, but no one could make N. reappear. These days, Ms. Chaloemmeeprasert teaches kindergarten in Ban Phai and runs a business selling health supplements. She considered going to Australia to track down N., but her mother told her it would be too dangerous. Every day, she prays that her daughter is safe. “Wherever she is,” she said, “I hope angels take care of her.”
For the last five years, Mr. Dempster has raised N., now 12, on his own. At school, he told me, she recently won a public-speaking award and was invited to serve on a student leadership board. He said he does not regret circumventing the legal process to take her to Australia. “My poor daughter would be 12 and stuck in Thailand if I’d gone by the rules — the so-called rules,” he told me. “Or the right side of the law — so-called.”
Psychologists say that memories of snatches can haunt children into adulthood, making them reluctant to start serious relationships or fearful that their own children might face similar traumas. N. has seen a therapist, but Mr. Dempster said he himself avoids raising the subject of her return from Thailand. “I’d rather it came from her,” he said. “If it comes from me, it looks like I’m trying to prove a point or something.”
Still, he wants to make sure she hears his side of the story. In 2018, he set up a blog chronicling the first two snatchback attempts, as well as the collapse of his marriage to Ms. Chaloemmeeprasert and her allegations of domestic violence. “I would like N. to have the opportunity to read the stories here,” he wrote in an April 2018 post. “When she is capable, and in her own time, I would like her to make her own mind up about what happened.”
Ryn Jirenuwat contributed reporting. Isabella Kwai contributed research.
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