With a string of foreigners dying in suspicious circumstances and an ominous nickname like Death Island, Koh Tao has been in the public eye for a while. Time to have a look into the history of the island, summarize the different conspiracy theories and come to a logical conclusion.
Originally called Pulo Bardia by European cartographers and mariners, the island’s first historical event was a visit to its shores by His Majesty King Chulalongkorn (Rama V), who left his initials carved in a large boulder on Sairee Beach. Other than the occasional fisherman looking for shelter, Turtle Island (literal translation of Koh Tao) remained desolate until the early twentieth century.
In 1933, it was declared a political prison. When Koh Tarutao, another prison island, ran out of food and medical supplies during World War II, 104 prisoners and 15 wardens were transferred there. Fourteen years later all prisoners were pardoned, leaving the island abandoned once again. That same year, two brothers ventured out from Koh Pha Ngang with their sailing boat. Khun Uaem and Khun Oh immediately claimed part of the island and started growing crops with their families, close to Sairee Beach.
The island was discovered by tourists in the 1980s and grew out to be a popular destination for backpackers and divers in the 1990s. Sairee turned into the tourist epicenter, due to the long white sand beach. Growing tourism attracted foreign workers to the island. Primarily the Burmese gravitated there, due to their English language skills, which were in growing demand.
The rapid expansion of the local tourist industry quickly created vast fortunes. Rumors say that especially the original families have thrived and have allegedly been able to keep their hold over the island. Protection money, control over the police force and violence against opponents are often mentioned, but have never been confirmed.
The Koh Tao Seven
The first foreign death on the island that appeared in international media, was reported on New Years’s day in 2014. Brit Nick Pearson (25) had come to the island with a large group of family and friends. After celebrating New Year’s eve at Choppers Bar and Grill, they watched the fireworks on Sairee Beach. Around 1am Nick’s father walked him to his bungalow and saw him get into bed. The next morning, Nick was found dead in the sea. The police concluded that he had fallen 15 meters and drowned. A UK autopsy later confirmed the drowning, but could not find any broken bones that would have indicated a fall. Spicy detail: his mother later reported that he had met a girl that he liked. Both parents were convinced their son was murdered.
Hannah Witheridge (23) and David Miller (24) met each other in September 2014, when they were neighbours at the Ocean View Bungalows, near Sairee beach. They met up at Choppers Bar and Grill, continued on to AC nightclub and later went for a stroll on the beach. In the early hours of September 15th, their bodies were found in a horrific scene at the south end of Sairee beach.. Witheridge had been raped and beaten to death. Miller received terrible blows before being drowned in the shallow surf. The brutality of the murders instantly caused international sensation. Clumsy management of both the crime scene and media relations fueled the fire. Two Burmese migrant workers were convicted, but human rights organizations expressed serious concerns. UK media claimed that there were reports of some kind of intense discussion between Miller and a local person on the night of the murders. The Telegraph added that a British woman was mugged around the same location, one night earlier. A week later, a friend of Miller’s life was allegedly threatened and warned he would be framed for the murders, when asking around about it in the local bar scene. He claimed to have fled the island.
Fast forward to January 2015, when the lifeless body of French tourist Dimitry Povse (29) was found outside his bungalow. His death was declared a suicide. A suicide note was supposedly found but a picture claiming to show his hands tied behind his back, went viral. Povse reportedly had two 5 centimeter lacerations to his arm, in addition to the wounds around his neck. The fact that Povse allegedly was too drunk to control and hang himself, cast a shadow over the case.
That same month, Britton Christina Annesley (23) died on the island after allegedly mixing antibiotics with alcohol. The lack of a toxicology report caused her parents to slam the investigation. A man that supposedly left her apartment hours before her body was discovered was never interrogated.
In January 2016, the island was kept in the limelight when another body turned up around the same beach. Brit Luke Miller (26) was found on the bottom of the Sunset Bar swimming pool, after a night out drinking with friends. Miller’s travel companion claimed that his friend had been beaten and dumped in the pool, after being separated from his buddies. A coroner concluded that there wasn’t any evidence of murder. A second post mortem examination concluded Miller had sustained head injuries and subsequently drowned. Toxicology found significant amounts of alcohol in his blood, along with traces of Rilatin. Luke’s mother has vowed to find the truth.
Russian tourist Valentina Novozhyonova (23) vanished from her hostel in February 2017. A large police search did not find any trace of her. Her mobile phone, passport and camera were later found in het room. Valentina supposedly mentioned that she was planning to go on a deep dive adventure. Bone fragments, flesh, and a green tank top that were later found by divers were later found to be unrelated to the case. Valentina remains missing to this day. Thai police have mentioned mental health issues and limited diving experience in statements.
In my opinion, the most mysterious death occurred in April 2017 in the Tanote Bay area. The case went unreported in the media for months, and suddenly went viral in June 2017. The first report seems to be a disorganized post in the Samui times. After puzzling the pieces together, the story seems to be as follows.
Elise Dallemagne (30) had been traveling for two and half years through India, Thailand, Australia and New Zealand. She had finally settled down on Koh Phangan, where she was an active member of the Sathya Sai Baba cult movement, locally led by the German-born guru Raaman Andreas and Yoga/Trantra practises. In a call made to her mother on April 17th she had announced her plan to return to Belgium, after which she left for Koh Phangan where she booked a ferry to the harbor in Chumphon. She took a bungalow in the Triple B resort, which burnt down in an electrical fire that same day. Dallemagne fled the scene and walked through the jungle to Tanote Bay, where she checked into the Poseidon Resort and booked another ticket to Bangkok for April 24th. A resort employee later claimed that she refused to provide her passport number and later changed her name to an assumed one, in the guest registry. Her half eaten body was found 3 days later on a rock, supposedly half-eaten and with a strap around her neck. Eye-witnesses claimed to have seen her body wrapped in old T-shirts and with a bottle of fuel nearby. Her luggage later arrived in Chumphon, at the final place of disembarkation. Police labelled the death a suicide and claimed referenced a previous attempt in Bangkok.
Even though the previously mentioned deaths are the most publicized ones, other foreigners have lost their lives in the same time span. While they can reasonable be thought to be accidents, they should be mentioned for the sake of completeness. The body of Swiss tourist Hanspeter Suter (44) washed ashore in November 2014 in Chumphon, after going missing from Koh Tao. Norewegian diver Siljen Mathisen (22) was fatality hit by a boat propeller in December 2014. 50-year-old Canadian Shelly Bot lost her life in a snorkeling accident on February 16th, 2017.
Seven deaths of foreigners in 3 years have sent the rumor mill in overdrive and have spawned several conspiracy theories about what is going on on Turtle Island.
The most prolific conspiracy theory speaks about a Koh Tao mafia, controlling every aspect of the local tourist industry, the local police force included. Locals claim that a small number of families, linked to the original brothers who claimed land on the island after the abolishment of the prison, retained control of the most valuable stretches of land, especially around Sairee Beach. With the island having developed relatively quickly and with a late active police presence, some claim that the inhabitants developed a sense of self-sufficiency and private justice. The suspicion was nourished after initial reports that the son of a local headman had fled the island, shortly after the murders of Hannah Witheridge and David Miller. He was later cleared of suspicion by the police, after DNA testing and time-stamped security footage emerged.
Others suggest that the island is an elaborate tourist trap, luring victims with its sweet nectar of paradise and parties, for serial killers and human traffickers to pray on. This theory probably originates from a Facebook post by Laura Witheridge (sister of victim Hannah Witheridge) and took off from there.
A third kind of speculation focuses on the local foreign community, with whisperings about sex and drug cults. Almost certainly fueled by Elise Dallemagne’s membership of the Sathya Sai Baba cult, no concrete proof about this claim has surfaced yet.
My personal opinion: Occam’s razor
Even though my knowledge about the Koh Tao Seven cases originates purely from media coverage and with no relationship to the people involved, allow me to go out on a limb and formulate my opinion applying Occam’s Razor. The more assumptions one has to make, the more unlikely an explanation is.
With Chao Po (‘Godfather’) organized crime groups confirmed to be active in 39 of Thailand’s 77 provinces by the authorities, and Koh Tao originally a relatively secluded and self-sufficient community, chances are that some sort or ‘mafia’ network may be present. Typically profit-oriented, it seems very unlikely that these powerful families, should they exist, would get involved in activities that fundamentally damage the very industries they depend on. Worst case scenario, they would be dealt with internally and stopped. Even a rogue serial in their midst would be quickly identified and eliminated. It simply isn’t good business. Personally, I completely rule out the mafia theory, at least as cause of a string of systematic Farang murders.
The foreigner sex cult idea also seems outlandish. The tourist population changes constantly due its its very nature, and a relatively small number of permanent foreign residents. Even the very hint of plausibility of an origin in a non-Thai group would be taken with both hands by Thai authorities.
With Koh Tao widely known as a party island, it seems a lot more likely that the cause is linked to the typical characteristics of a nightlife environment. A constant flow of foreign twenty-somethings washes up on the island’s shore, catapulted out of their usual environment and set on exotic experiences and debauchery. More often than not, they are oblivious to Thai culture and might resort to behavior that isn’t compatible with local values.
A catalyst is the Asian phenomenon of saving face (‘kreng yai’). Deeply rooted in Thai culture, ‘face’ is similar to the Western concept of being polite, respectful, considerate, inoffensive and unobtrusive. One needs to avoid the loss of face for oneself and others. Clashing cultures will unavoidably lead to issues related to face, especially in the Testosterone driven world of the night. Loss of face potentially triggers very strong reactions.
Mix in the usual ingredients of alcohol and drugs and a very explosive cocktail emerges.
Additionally, the backpacker circles also seem to attract many loners, dreamers and especially escapists. Prone to an easily shattered rose-colored world view, acts of desperation aren’t out of the realm of possibility.
Finally, the local Koh Tao police force’s inexperience in dealing with PR on a such a global stage, cannot be factored out. Reinforced with the clickbait phenomenon in the media, this is a contributing factor in the media hype and subsequent overspeculation.
In my opinion, Koh Tao isn’t any more dangerous than any other destination in Thailand. Any place can be dangerous, under the wrong circumstances. Solo travelers should apply extra caution, especially women in nightlife. Follow local customs, be respectful, avoid confrontation and you will be fine. But that is good advice anywhere in the world, isn’t it?
Information about Koh Tao tourism is available here.