BANGKOK--Half a decade has passed inside his humid Thai prison cell, where he sleeps on the concrete floor, “living like an animal.” Yet when Michael Karas emerges, he’s an optimist.
Karas, 60, picks up the telephone in visitation room No. 4 of Bangkok Remand Prison. He’s soft-spoken, hard to hear over the loud voices of young Thai inmates speaking their native language to loved ones through the pane. When asked to repeat himself, he leans forward toward the hazy glass.
“I’ve been repatriated,” he says.“I’m coming home.” Karas’s accent is unmistakably Canadian, and so are his questions.
He was a much younger man when he lost his freedom, but beneath the orange-and-burgundy prison fatigues is a Torontonian who grew up in the Beaches, walking up and down Queen St. E. when he wasn’t riding the streetcar.
“Who won the Raptors game?” he asks, anxious to hear the news of his favourite sports team.
Apart from quarterly visits by embassy staff — standard procedure — a recent prison interview with this reporter marks the first visitor he’s had since 2011, when he lost his 15-year battle at home against extradition to Thailand to face murder charges originally filed by police in 1996.
Karas went to Thailand in the ’90s and settled in the coastal city of Pattaya, known for its wild nightlife and high volume of expats. By then, he was already a wanted criminal in Canada. On arrival in Southeast Asia he assumed a new identity: Morgan Michael David. After a few months of living in Pattaya, Karas moved in with a young Thai woman, Suwannee Ratanaprakorn, remembered for her long hair and distinctive eyebrows. She was a country girl who moved to the big city with hopes for a better life. They lived in Room 805 of the Bay Breeze hotel before she went missing.
According to staff at the hotel, the room was always paid for in cash and was registered under Ratanaprakorn’s name. The last time anyone heard or saw the 27-year-old she was inside that room, quarrelling with Karas.
A day or two after Karas checked out of the hotel in the middle of the night, after being spotted coming and going from the hotel with luggage, police discovered Ratanaprakorn’s severed head and limbs in a nearby swamp. Evidence taken from the scene, according to court documents in both Canada and Thailand, suggest the murder and dismemberment took place inside the room’s bathroom.Karas is believed to have used an electric saw to remove the limbs and mutilate her face in hopes of hiding her identity. Police identified the body after locals recognized images taken of her eyebrows.
It’s a dark tale, one Karas only reluctantly discusses over the prison phone.
Instead, he’s more interested in complaining about his current accommodations.
A few minutes pass before Karas starts talking Canadian politics, praising the switchup in Parliament a year ago.
“It’s a good thing we got a new government. To me, it was the light at the end of the tunnel. I want to personally thank Ralph Goodale for my repatriation,” he says.
Why Goodale? Because the minister of public safety is responsible for approving foreign inmate transfer applications, allowing them to serve sentences issued by another country, or vise-versa.
Karas’s application is among the stacks of paperwork approved by the ministry. He received the news from a consular official in April: essentially, that he can go home if the Thais let him.
Karas isn’t the only one jumping for joy as a result of Public Safety Canada’s foreign inmate transfer protocols. Approvals are higher than they’ve been in years.
This year, 82 inmate transfer applications were through Sept. 28 with zero denials. By comparison, the previous Conservative government approved 59 transfer applications to or from Canada in the first nine months of 2015 and denied three.
In all of 2014, 37 applications were approved with one denial. And the year before that, the minister denied 32 applications and approved 57.
These numbers indicate a softening approach toward dealing with Canadians convicted and detained abroad, of which are there are more than 1,000 globally.
Where the Conservatives tended to defer to the authority and jurisdiction of another nation, the Liberals have adopted a more rehabilitative role toward Canadian offenders.
According to Karas, his prison file indicates he’s been on “very good” behaviour during his five years inside.
But he still hasn’t completely owned up to his role in the murder. When questioned, he first says he was in Thailand for a year before “my girlfriend got killed.” But later on, he claims: “She came at me and I snapped her neck.”
While it is still not completely clear why Karas killed Ratanaprakorn, a 25-year cleaner at the Bay Breeze Hotel sheds some light on a long-held belief by the staff, who were integral witnesses to the Royal Thai police investigation.
In Thai language, the maid, who declined to give her name, said Karas brought a prostitute to the ninth floor of the Bay Breeze Hotel. After they had sex, Ratanaprakorn was furious when she found out. As the story goes, she threatened to phone the cops on Karas, who was at the time in possession of a fake passport.
By 1996, Karas already had a warrant for his arrest in Canada for breaching conditions. (He would later confess to bank robberies long after the discovery of Ratanaprakorn’s body.) To this day Karas maintains that he was wrongfully convicted of murder on the grounds that he thought he was admitting to guilt of manslaughter when he was finally hauled to Pattaya court in 2011.
These days, Karas is excited after receiving the news of his approved transfer by Public Safety Canada.
“I’ll be getting out, it’ll be over,” he says, referring to the potential for an early release due to parole eligibility.
At least one practising criminal lawyer agrees.
“He could talk about the conditions he was in and it could resonate well with the parole board. They may frankly see that he did hard time,” says Paul Lewandowski, an Ottawa-based criminal lawyer and occasional commentator on criminal law.
Despite Karas’ firm belief that he’ll finally get out of jail, it might not be that easy. Lewandowski says the nature of foreign inmate transfers — and extradition cases in general — is that they’re almost always swayed by politics in one way or another.
“If (Thailand’s military rulers) really wanted to make a political stance, they won’t let him go to Canada. Thailand doesn’t have to necessarily agree.”