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U.S. Families Paying Investigators To Find Bodies

U.S. Families Paying Investigators To Find Bodies

By Richard S. Ehrlich

PHUKET, Thailand -- The family of an American real estate agent who vanished in the tsunamis, hired U.S. investigators to find him dead or alive, but after seven days of searching, no trace emerged of the missing Illinois man, a security expert said.

Larry Peak, dressed in green-and-black, U.S. military camouflage fatigues, said he and another American investigator were hired to search for 33-year-old Ben Abels.

"He is six-foot-two, weighs approximately 190 pounds, lanky. He has a triangle tattoo on his left inner ankle. He supposedly had on a leather kind of a choker necklace," Mr. Peak said in a recorded interview on Monday (Jan. 3).

"He disappeared on Phi Phi island," when a Dec. 26 earthquake under the Indian Ocean generated deadly tidal waves which slammed the coasts of Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent and East Africa.

An estimated 140,000 people died from the tsunamis, including more than 5,000 in Thailand -- about half of whom were foreigners, officials said.

"Intensive searches are occurring throughout the local hospitals and the morgues to look for his body. We are in close contact with the family and are moving on to different levels of identification -- ultimately DNA as a last resort."

Mr. Peak, 38, declined to reveal how much he would be paid, but said he and his partner were hired "through the family" of Mr. Abels.

"They knew where he was and they knew that he, for sure, was on the island," Mr. Peak said.

"We went through and did an investigation, and confirmed the fact he was on the island, and that in fact he had not been recovered."

Phi Phi is a tiny island off the southeast coast of larger Phuket island, and was crammed with inexpensive guest houses, restaurants, dive shops and other facilities catering to thousands of backpackers, resort tourists and Thai residents.

Many on Phi Phi were killed.

"We went to Phi Phi several times. We've also focused on the hospitals and the morgues, looking at photos, looking from the information we have on him -- distinguishing marks and things like that. We've coordinated with the Thailand DNA bureau, the forensic police, we've coordinated with the U.S. embassy, we've coordinated with health department officials."

Tracking Mr. Abels' last moments involved detective legwork, but the path led to rubble.

"He was at the Phi Phi Princess," but that hotel was "totally wiped out," Mr. Peak said.

"We found some of the staff members that were there. We knew the bungalow he was staying in, bungalow 115. We went with them out to the site, and then we basically walked the land backwards and forward, looking for identifying features of the Phi Phi Princess, maybe along the path that the water may have taken."

Picking among the debris, the two American investigators tried determine where corpses may have drifted, but the tsunami created an unidentifiable tangle.

"We went there and we tried to identify where a lot of the trash, and a lot of the debris, and where a lot of the bodies may have landed.

"Working in those areas, looking for clues, we were hoping to find something with his name on it, to give the family a little more movement toward closure to the fact that, yes, their son was 100 percent there, and recovery efforts are going on.

"It was impossible to find anything. We were there actually a little over 48 hours after the incident -- so whether the initial relief teams, clean-up teams, had already picked up documents or anything, or whether it washed out to sea, we really couldn't say."

Mr. Peak sounded as if he believed Mr. Abels was dead and his body would never be found.

"At this time, no one has come forward claiming to be Ben Abels, and [we checked] all known individuals that maybe cannot speak, or are maybe totally not conscious. We have looked at all the photos that they have on the database. We have not been able to find him.

"And we are now at day seven."

After a week of fruitless searching, he ended his paid hunt for Mr. Abels, because Mr. Peak earlier promised to help Thai officials for free.

His partner, however, was continuing the paid search for Mr. Abels, he said.

Mr. Peak identified his partner only as an American former military man who worked for a different security firm.

Mr. Peak, from Fair Grove, Missouri, and his partner are both based in Bangkok, but he declined to name either of their security firms.

An internet search confirmed Mr. Peak's position as "director of operations" for MPA Limited, a well-known security firm based in Bangkok since 1961.

"Mr. Peak has worked with the U.S. Armed Forces [for] 15 years, specializing in Operational Security and Counter-Terrorists Operations," the MPA Web site said.

Mr. Peak previously "served as operations manager for Wackenhut Corporation [for] two years in Bangkok" and began working at MPA on January 17, 2002, it said.

In a recorded interview on January 3, 2002, MPA's president, John Muller, said, "We offer electronic security systems, VIP protection, counter-surveillance protection and almost any kind of security services that you would want."

Mr. Muller, an American from Seattle, Washington, also said at the time, "All U.N. agencies in Cambodia use us."

Whatever happened to Mr. Abels may become clearer as investigators lift more heavy rubble and examine the DNA of more corpses.

"The bodies are still being recovered from the many other locations," Mr. Peak said.

The other American investigator was meanwhile monitoring mortuaries, hospitals and databases, "in hopes that maybe he was picked up somewhere, and it took a couple of days to get to the hospital.

"Maybe nobody knows who he is, and he cannot identify himself," Mr. Peak said.

Asked how much it would cost to hire his company's services to search for a person missing in the tsunamis, Mr. Peak replied: "That would be on a case-by-case basis" and confidential.

"Obviously if we are already doing a job, it would be pretty easy, but I can't really discuss our fees."

Searching for tsunami victims requires some expertise.

"I was in the military about 15 years. I worked with U.S. Army Special Forces. We go through a lot of training on organization, we go through a lot of training on logical sequencing and planning," Mr. Peak said.

"So what we can bring to the table is really as a force-multiplier for the local Thais' work on the ground. We can help plan search grids, we can help plan and coordinate with U.S. assets or foreign country assets, because we work at that level."

On Monday (Jan. 3), he began volunteering his services for free to the Thai government and went -- with about six other American volunteers -- to Phuket City Hall, which has become a high-tech emergency relief center.

"Most of us have worked with the Thai military before. I speak, read and write Thai and Laotian fluently. I have lived here for five years, have relationships with the Thai military as far as friends, camaraderie and things like that, and so they asked us to come down here and help.

"Whether it's going down on the beach and picking up trash, or going out and helping recover bodies, or whatever is needed, they need volunteers."

Asked why he and his colleagues were dressed in green-and-black U.S. military camouflage fatigues and black combat boots while at Phuket City Hall, he replied: "Mainly because it allows movement and they don't rip easily -- jeans or other pants do -- and they are fairly lightweight."

Other families were also paying private American and multinational security experts to search for their loved ones along Thailand's wave-wrecked west coast, he said.

"I know [private security firms] looking for people from Hong Kong, from Japan, from Singapore, and Americans, Europeans, and from all over," he said.

Washington and other governments also sent security forces, health officials and others to search for the missing and identify the dead.

"The governments, the Thai government and all the multinationals, are doing a good job. They are doing the best they can, especially since this has never happened to this magnitude on this side of the world," Mr. Peak said.

"I think the Thai government deserves a clap of hands for the speedy response that they had, getting out and at least trying to identify the bodies, and cleaning up the area before there is any sort of disease or anything that could further destroy the morale."


Richard S. Ehrlich, a freelance journalist who has reported news from Asia for the past 26 years, is co-author of the non-fiction book, "HELLO MY BIG BIG HONEY!" -- Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews. His web page is

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