Middle River couple agonizes as daughter sits in Thai prison Drug conviction was a mistake, they say

October 14, 1993|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,Staff Writer

Out on Vailthorn Road in Middle River, they were praying for a number.

Through fear and anger and tears, Bill and Faye Swann asked: Please, let them give Janet a jail term numbered in years.

But on Monday, a Thai court sentenced Janet Leigh Dettler to death for trying to smuggle about 16 pounds of heroin out of Bangkok, later commuting the punishment to life in prison, an official at the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok said last night.

If she had received 25 or 50 years, Dettler might have been released after serving 10. With a life sentence, that is unlikely.

Since her arrest on Feb. 12, 1992 -- when she was stopped with two suitcases containing 7.4 kilograms, or about 16 pounds, of heroin while trying to board a flight to Switzerland -- the 30-year-old former Domino Sugar worker has maintained her innocence. Dettler says she was merely the gullible, unwitting courier for a Nigerian man who promised her riches in exchange for a few favors.

"It's not a good situation," said a State Department spokesman. "Short of a royal pardon, which no American has ever received, she's going to serve out a very long sentence."

On Vailthorn Road, where Janet Dettler lived with her mother and stepfather all of her life until she wandered into her nightmare, they can't make sense of any of it.

One day their daughter was a local working-class girl looking for a full-time job in the catering business.

The next she was living the life of the jet set after promising to marry a Nigerian so the man, whom the Swanns never met, could stay in the United States.

In a letter from prison, Dettler said she agreed to marry the stranger in return for a free apartment, a monthly allowance, plus vacations and travel.

Then, they learned that the daughter named for actress Janet Leigh was locked up on heroin charges in a brutally hot prison on the other side of the world, some 9,800 miles from home.

In January 1992, said Mrs. Swann, "Janet met some girls who set her up with a Nigerian who wanted her to marry him so he could stay in the country. They took her to New York where she lived the life of a queen with a chauffeur and an apartment, everything all paid. Then she called to say she was going overseas to work with clothing and fabric."

After her arrest, Dettler said she never again heard from the Nigerian, whom she never married.

"The whole thing's as crooked as a corkscrew," said Mr. Swann, 51, looking up from a shoe box stuffed with letters from Janet and dozens of officials he has written to for help.

"I'll never understand it for as long as I live," said Mrs. Swann, 59. "And I don't think I'll live that long."

Federal drug officials say that for several years, Nigerians have been the major importers of heroin to the eastern United States. The smugglers usually package the powder in balloons and swallow it before flying to the United States, where it is passed and recovered.

Most of the heroin originates in Thailand, officials say, and Nigerian drug rings make connections there and elsewhere in Asia.

From the day that Drug Enforcement Agency officers came to the Swann house to ask a lot of questions and, said Faye Swann, suggest that they forget about ever seeing their daughter again, Bill Swann has been writing letters.

He bought himself a typewriter and began pecking out letters to the queen of Thailand; former ambassador to the United Nations Jeane J. Kirkpatrick; former President George Bush; the U.S. Embassy in Thailand; Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y.; U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno; Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md.; Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, D-Md.; officials in the State Department and the Justice Department; and anyone else he thinks might be able to help.

Some, like Mr. Sarbanes, he said, never wrote back. Others, like the State Department and Ms. Mikulski, sent regrets, noting a clause to the prisoner transfer treaty between the United States and Thailand that says anyone convicted of trafficking more than a kilogram of narcotics cannot be transferred to prison back home.

"Don't talk to me about drugs, you're talking to the wrong person about drugs. But somebody has got to lend an ear to me a little bit. Somebody has got to sympathize with me," said Mr. Swann. "In my heart I don't believe Janet knew what she was doing. She's never been in trouble before."

Pardon unlikely

Although a pardon is unlikely, the Swanns are heartened by the case this July of two young English women who were released on the order of Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej after an appeal from British Prime Minister John Major. Mr. Swann keeps writing to politicians hoping that one of them will do the same.

Barring that, their best chance of seeing their daughter free is a change in the transfer treaty to allow smugglers convicted of more than a kilo to be sent home for incarceration.

"At least if we can get her back here, we can get an attorney to start working on it," Mr. Swann said.

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