Doug Whittaker and his three friends had barely set foot in Bangkok when a woman in her mid-20s introduced herself as Veena.
She asked them questions about America, and answered theirs about Thailand. They were struck by her excellent English and “sweet demeanor.”
She became something of a tour guide, showing them around town and explaining Thai customs. “She didn’t even really want money for it,” Whittaker recalls.
The trip was Whittaker’s first experience seeing the world, and an eye-opener for a St. Paul beat cop then in his mid-40s. He’s been back three times since—twice on church teaching missions—and has come to take Thai generosity for granted.
“It doesn’t matter where they’re at on an economic scale,” he says. “They will help you. You will never be alone. If they see that you’re lost, they will ask you if you need help.”
He and Veena kept in touch through Facebook. She’d ask about his family, and he’d ask about the tourism industry. Last year, during the “low season” when Thailand is deluged by rain, Veena landed a seasonal hospitality gig in South Korea. She enjoyed it, and wanted a similar opportunity this summer.
On July 28, Whittaker got a message in the middle of the night. “I made a big mistake,” Veena wrote. “I feel ashamed. I am in Bahrain. I believed people I didn’t know. I’m not a good lady anymore.”
Veena had been lured to the Persian Gulf nation with the promise of a temporary hotel job. Instead, a Thai woman and a Bangladeshi man had seized her passport and luggage, and locked Veena in a room with other Thai women. The couple rented their captives out for use by tourists and businessmen.
“What happens if you say no?” Whittaker asked.
“The boss lady gets mad,” Veena replied.
In messages and a subsequent phone call, Whittaker recognized the same defeat he’d seen in victims on St. Paul’s streets. To the trafficker, that hopelessness is as good as handcuffing her to a bed.
Whittaker, who’s worked as an investigator since he was promoted to sergeant in 2012, told Veena to keep her hopes up, that she didn’t deserve this fate, and that she needed to get home. He asked what it would take for them to free her. Veena said her captors were keeping her until she paid them 80,000 Thai baht—about $2,400—an amount that would take her months or years to raise.
“I don’t want anyone to pay for my stupid and foolish mistake,” she wrote Whittaker, asking if he knew anyone in the Middle East who could help. (“She’s picturing Liam Neeson,” Whittaker says.)
Whittaker remained pragmatic, asking Veena to verify that other women had successfully paid their way out, and if she knew her way to the airport.
Whittaker's roommate Phichet Srimueng, a Thai citizen who needed a place to crash between graduation from Wisconsin-River Falls and returning to his native country, tried Googling Veena's situation. Within "five minutes" he'd found a Thai newspaper article featuring a trafficked woman's story, one almost identical to Veena's. (One expert estimated last year "hundreds" of Thai women have been enslaved in Bahrain.)
After several sleepless nights, Whittaker’s fellow cops noticed his fatigue. He told only a few what was keeping him up, and how he was thinking of paying Veena’s ransom. “Doug,” one asked, “are you sure this is legit?”
Whittaker exhibited the stream of back-and-forth messages. They didn’t know her like he did, he said. Thailand has its share of sex tourists and prostitution, but Veena wasn’t a part of it. If she was turning tricks in Bahrain, he believed, it was because she was someone’s hostage.
“I decided to throw up my hands and act in good faith. I thought if it buys her freedom, it’s the best $3,000 I ever spent. If I don’t do it, and then never hear from her again, I’ll never forgive myself.”
Whittaker went to his bank. Before wiring the money, he explained to the tellers exactly what he was doing, and why. They took him at his word; the badge on his hip probably didn’t hurt.
The next morning, Veena sent a screenshot of her bank account, suddenly full of Doug’s money. Another image showed she’d transferred 80,000 baht to a woman with a Thai name. A third showed her plane ticket.
The “boss lady” was angry Veena was leaving so soon. She returned Veena’s luggage and passport and threw her into the streets. Her fellow hostages contributed cab fare to the airport.
Whittaker didn’t relax until he got a photo from inside the airport. A day went by with no contact, then another photo arrived with a scene he recognized: the interior of the Bangkok airport.
They’ve been messaging almost every day. Veena keeps thanking Whittaker. He, in turn, gently reminds her to please see a doctor and explain what happened. She can hardly get herself out of the apartment, but promises Whittaker she’ll pay him back.
Last week, she sent a message saying: “Doug, I’m not doing well. I’m trying to move forward. I just want to let you know you saved my life. If I stayed in Bahrain, I think I would be dead today.”
Whittaker says he didn’t do anything extraordinary. “If it was your friend in trouble, you would do the same thing.”
A few days after wiring the money, he went back to the bank to give the story an ending, and tell them Veena made it to Thailand. “I’ve never seen anything like it: a bank where the tellers are all crying.”
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