BAGO, Myanmar — It’s been nearly a decade, but Akbar Khan hasn’t forgotten the day Thai police sent him to interrogate Christopher Paul Neil.
He remembers the crooked smile that Neil, the B.C. pedophile known internationally as “Swirl Face,” shot him from across the interrogation table all those years ago.
Khan is a Bangkok private investigator, debt collector and translator who works with Thai police as an interpreter and liaison. But “liaison” can mean many things.
He’s sometimes known as “The Chameleon,” he says, for his ability to pass undercover: he can blend in with the cab drivers, meth heads and freaks who sometimes wander the streets of Bangkok looking to score.
Khan often participates in sting operations for the Thai police, who pay for his ability to infiltrate, for example, drug circles run by foreigners whose hands come up clean when uniformed Thais show up.
Scammers, thieves, dishonest dope dealers and consumers of child porn have all been subject to his inquisitions — which sometime lead directly to confessions, many of which Khan films and posts to his YouTube channel, Radio 419 Mhz. One upload to the channel from January 2008 offers a different perspective on a scene that made front pages across Canada: a shaky handheld camera surveys a crush of media, then pans to a table draped with a white tablecloth and festooned with microphones as Thai police lead Neil, clad in a white T-shirt and sunglasses, his head shaved, into a press conference to expose him to the world.
On Wednesday, a B.C. judge sentenced Neil, 41, to five-and-a-half years in prison after his guilty plea last December to five child-sex charges. But because of time already served, he will serve just over 14 months.
Khan was part of the team that took Neil down, and though not present at his arrest in 2007, he is privy to many details of the investigation. He is speaking out about the case in the hopes Canadians will be reminded of the severity of Neil’s crimes.
Sitting in a bamboo hut during a recent day-long jaunt to the historic city of Bago, Myanmar, Khan is taking a break from his life in Thailand. He’s a lover of gems — and “The Golden Land,” as they call it, is full of rare stones.
He is half Indian and half Irish, 50 years old and tanned, and if you ask him he’s outspoken about how effective it is in his profession to be a nondescript brown person.
Khan says he grew up with a tough Irish mother who taught him not to take any abuse as a kid. But he wasn’t always pulling the punches during his childhood, as you might expect of an up-and-coming debt collector. He says there are many ways to lean on people.
“Everybody has strengths and weaknesses,” Khan says.
In adolescence he tried a few jobs that didn’t satisfy him until a career counsellor turned him onto skiptracing, a role that had him prying for information on people who for one reason or another did not want to be traced. When he got good at it, his bosses asked him to collect the debt owed to their clients.He moved continents in search for work and has been on the road in Asia for 30 years.
“You cannot win in this world. In the U.K. I was just another f—–g Asian and in Asia I’m just another farang (foreigner in Thai).”
Khan says he is motivated in his chosen career because he believes people should be free to do as they please as long as they’re not harming others.
When asked about Neil’s crimes abroad nearly a decade ago, his reaction is immediate and visceral.
Neil was the subject of a worldwide manhunt in 2007 after the release of images showing a man with his face digitally obscured by a swirl sexually abusing children. Captured and imprisoned for five years in Thailand, he was released early and sent back to Canada in 2012, where he was arrested immediately upon his return. He has been in custody for the past two years while facing 10 child-sex crime charges, including some for producing the images in Cambodia that originally brought him under Interpol’s scrutiny.
In December he pleaded guilty to half the charges, and at B.C. Supreme Court hearing in April Neil apologized to his victims. He told the sentencing judge that he didn’t fully appreciate the impact of his crimes on his victims until hearing about it in court, that he no longer believes pedophilia is acceptable “anywhere in the world” and that it was his “full intention to change (his) life.”
And I will try my best, I will do everything I can to not offend again,” Neil said.
While the Crown asked for a five-year sentence, Neil’s lawyer asked the court be satisfied with the time his client has already served. Khan scoffs at the notion that Neil can change. “I have seen people give up their life of drug-dealing and go into other businesses, and occasionally I have seen people give up drugs. I cannot say the same for pedophiles,” he says.
“It seems to be something that, once it’s manifested to that great extent, it’s something that stays with them until they die.”
In 2007 Khan was working as an operative for the Royal Thai Police’s Department of Prevention and Suppression of Crimes Concerning Women and Children, now known simply as the Anti-Human Trafficking Department.
Footage Khan captured and later posted to YouTube depicts a Thai press conference on Oct. 18, 2007 at the height of the Interpol manhunt for Swirl Face. A high-ranked Thai policeman, Maj. Gen. Wimon Powin, describes the crimes of which Neil was accused — including luring children from Internet cafes and into his home where he would pay them 200 baht ($7.31) for sex acts.
Later the same day, Powin issued an arrest warrant after Neil’s shaved head was spotted at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport.
"By underage, I don’t mean in the vicinity of 17. I mean in the vicinity of seven"
Khan says Neil inadvertently tipped off Interpol when he flew from South Korea, where he was working at the time, to Thailand after seeing his face on the news.
“He went straight to (the coastal city of) Pattaya and got a ladyboy to take him to a remote part of Thailand in the northeast, towards the Laotian border, thinking that he would be safe,” Khan recalls. In fact, Neil was easily found in the homogeneous Thai community to which he fled.
Once in custody, Neil wasn’t responding to his Thai interrogators’ questions. As a foreigner with a knack for getting foreign crooks to open up, Khan was sent into the interrogation room to get him to talk.
What he remembers most is the twisted smile playing across Neil’s face when he tried getting him to answer questions.
“If you understand the job, you will know that to get a criminal acting like that — busted for a crime like that — it’s almost unseen,” Khan says. “What every policeman expects to see is remorse, guilt or a feeling of wrongdoing.”
But with Neil, there was none, according to Khan. And for that reason he doesn’t believe Neil’s changed much in nine years.
Even without an immediate confession, the case was a “slam dunk” for the Thais, who imprisoned Neil for five years for his pedophilia and abuse in that country. His sentence would have been longer, but he eventually confessed and it was noted by the judges, who sent him back to Canada for prosecution.
Neil’s apology in B.C. court doesn’t move Khan at all. It offers no compensation whatsoever to his underage victims.
“By underage, I don’t mean in the vicinity of 17. I mean in the vicinity of seven,” Khan says. “They weren’t child prostitutes, and they were very, very innocent. They find a large white person that’s 10 times bigger than them a little bit intimidating.”
(Originally published in National Post June 1, 2016)