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

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

Janet Dettler -- a 10th-grade Kenwood High School dropout who worked for the Schmidt's Bakery and cleaned offices and hospitals before seizing the lure of easy money -- is one of about 35 Americans locked up in Thailand on drug charges.

She sleeps on a straw mat on the floor with hundreds of other women at Cook Poo Ying prison on the outskirts of Bangkok and must elbow her way to the shower for a quick rinse before the hot water runs out. Because the food is skimpy and awful, the heavyset Dettler has lost 50 pounds during the 21 months of her incarceration.

She has been in fights with other prisoners, reads the Bible with American missionaries who visit her, and for a while made umbrellas, raked leaves and sewed prison uniforms. She doesn't work anymore and passes the time befriending stray cats in the prison yard, drawing, reading and writing letters home for news of friends and family and how the Orioles are doing.

Out of retirement

To send Dettler money for necessities such as shampoo and toothpaste and to cover the expense of mailing packages overseas -- like a big one for Christmas stuffed with Reese's Peanut Butter Cups and Doritos -- Mr. Swann came out of retirement and took a part-time job.

"You go out and spend $100 on her and you don't even know if she's going to get everything," said Mrs. Swann. They say they can't afford to visit their daughter in Thailand and could not bear to see her if they did.

The ordeal has been harder to suffer because of health problems Mrs. Swann has endured since her daughter's arrest. In the last year, she said, she has lost a kidney and had a brain tumor removed.

On top of everything, the Swanns have tried for almost two years to keep their tragedy a secret. "If somebody asks you how Janet's doing, you have to keep from crying," said Mrs. Swann.

Has it destroyed their lives?

"Yes," blurts Mrs. Swann, who says pure anger at her daughter's foolishness and government rigidity get her from one day to the TTC next.

"No," said Mr. Swann, who has worked on his frustration through his Roman Catholic faith. "I've run out of tears."

"But you feel guilty all the time, because she's over there and we're here," said Mrs. Swann. "I just hope and pray that I live to see her again."

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