Hope of royal pardon glimmers for Middle River woman in Thai jail on drug charge

December 23, 1993|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,Staff Writer

Janet Leigh Dettler -- the Middle River woman serving a life sentence in a Bangkok prison for drug smuggling -- got some hope yesterday when Thailand's ambassador to the United States mentioned the possibility of a pardon during a meeting with her attorney.

"I have reason to believe we have a lot of hope," said Baltimore attorney Edward N. Leavy after meeting with Ambassador M. L. Birabhongse Kasemsri at the Royal Thai Embassy in Washington. "The ambassador said Janet's family situation evoked a lot of sympathy and that the best and quickest remedy would be to seek a royal pardon."

Embassy officials confirmed the meeting between Mr. Leavy and Mr. Kasemsri, but declined to give comment or details. Wiboon Khusakul, a first secretary to the ambassador who was present at the meeting, referred all calls to Mr. Leavy.

Royal pardons -- such as one granted in July to a pair of young English women after an appeal from British Prime Minister John Major -- usually occur on important Thai holidays. The next such day is Aug. 12, birthday of Queen Sirikit. Mr. Leavy said he was encouraged by the ambassador to file a petition for pardon timed to the queen's birthday.

No American has ever received a royal pardon from King Bhumibol Adulyadej for a drug conviction.

Miss Dettler, 30, is one of about 35 Americans serving time in Thailand for narcotics.

"We'll be on pins and needles until then," said Miss Dettler's mother, Faye Swann, from the family home on Vailthorn Road. "I just hope I live to see her again."

Mrs. Swann, 59, lost a kidney to cancer and had a brain tumor removed this year. She has high blood pressure, and her remaining kidney is damaged.

Her illness -- and the family's belief that Miss Dettler didn't know she was carrying heroin when she tried to leave Thailand 22 months ago -- are the heart of Mr. Leavy's "humanitarian" appeal to the Thai government.

"Given the family situation, we might have some light at the end of the tunnel in August," said the attorney, an immigration specialist with the Weinberg and Green lawfirm who took on the Dettler case for free after reading about it in The Sun.

Mr. Leavy said his petition will include a stipulation that if Miss Dettler is freed, she will spend several years giving first-hand testimony about her drug nightmare in schools and community centers.

"To get out of there, she'd do anything and she should," said William Swann, 51, Janet's stepfather. "But we're just trying to take it as it comes."

Before she was caught at the Bangkok airport on Feb. 12, 1992, with about 16 pounds of heroin in two suitcases, Janet Dettler was an unremarkable working class woman from southeast Baltimore County.

A 10th-grade dropout from Kenwood Senior High School, she flipped burgers at a local bowling alley, worked for the Schmidt's Bakery and cleaned offices and hospitals. Heavyset and plain, she did not have many dates.

But her life changed overnight in early 1992, according to the Swanns, when friends introduced her to a Nigerian man who showered her with money, gifts, and romance in exchange for marrying him so the man could stay in the U.S.

Living the life of the jet set in a rent-free Manhattan apartment, a chauffeured limousine and free overseas travel, Miss Dettler apparently did whatever the man wanted without asking questions, according to letters she mailed home from prison.

Mr. and Mrs. Swann never met the man. Miss Dettler was arrested before they were married.

Although she claims not to have known what was inside two suitcases allegedly given to her by a friend of the Nigerian man in Bangkok, Miss Dettler did not balk at trying to pass them through customs.

For this, her parents admit that Janet was "stupid" but don't believe her stupidity merits spending the rest of her life in a Thai prison some 10,000 miles from home.

Yesterday, according to Mr. Leavy, the Thai ambassador said that courts in Thailand don't take into account whether or not a suspect knew what he or she was doing, particularly with respect to drugs.

"If you've got it, you're responsible for it," he said. "But at least now we have a dialogue. With God's help, we might bear fruit in the next eight months."

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