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Sex Ring Busted: Canadian & Americans Abused Thai Kids

Sex Ring Busted: Canadian & Americans Abused Thai Kids

By Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- US investigators and Interpol successfully busted three Americans and a Canadian who traveled to Thailand and sexually abused pre-teen Thai boys, but human rights activists are still concerned that countless young victims remain unprotected.

On January 31, a US court sentenced John Charles Wrenshall -- who acted as the group's pimp -- to 25 years in prison for reportedly engaging in anal sex, oral sex, and other sexual acts with Thai boys as young as four years old.

Stuffed toy animals, cherished family photos, scrapbooks of cheerful Christmas gatherings, and a framed 1971 University of Calgary Master's degree in sociology, were among the possessions left behind in the Nonthaburi bedroom rented by Mr. Wrenshall after he was seized in London's Heathrow International Airport in 2008 while traveling from Thailand to visit Canada.

His shelves held mostly academic books including "Language Teacher Research in Asia" and "A History of English Language Teaching," showing a dedication to jobs he enjoyed in Bangkok instructing young students who knew nothing of his private obsessions.

But his tomes titled, "History's Worst Decisions and the People Who Made Them," and "Buddha Images: Thailand's Precious Heritage," should have been studied much more by Mr. Wrenshall, an Anglican who had spent a year in prison in Canada after molesting young boys in 1970 and 1997 in a church choir and as a scout master.

The bespectacled, greying and balding man was 62 years old when he lived in the inexpensive upstairs bedroom of a two-story house occupied by a Thai family, who also had children.

"He never brought other children here," said a Thai woman in the clean, modern house, two after his arrest in December 2008.

"My room is right across from his, and there was never any problems here with him," said a Thai man, cradling an infant in his arms.

The Thais had decorated the home's interior walls with cartoon characters.

The house was in a neighborhood where few foreigners lived, surrounded by fields of rice punctuated by occasional long-necked white birds.

Investigators suspect Mr. Wrenshall rented a different room in Bangkok for secret trysts which he arranged for profit.

"His arrest was a big shock, we never dreamed he would be involved in this kind of thing," said Adul Pinsuvana, director of the AUA Language School in Bangkok where Mr. Wrenshall taught for nearly 10 years.

"He started teaching here in March 1999," and quit in December [2008], after giving his notice six weeks earlier that he would be resigning, Mr. Adul said in a telephone interview one day after his arrest.

"He was very meticulous, and so polite and quiet. I imagine he is more of an effeminate type. He spoke softly, and would bow a little bit," in a respectful manner welcomed by Thais.

"He was very classy. He was very articulate."

Mr. Wrenshall was a "permanent staff" teacher of English for Thais and others at the highly respected school.

"We have students ranging from age 15 to 60," Mr. Adul said.

The AUA Language Center is a bi-national organization founded by the American University Alumni Association, with the encouragement and support of US government.

Mr. Wrenshall's crimes were not linked to his job at the school, or any of its students, and AUA was not named in the indictments or court convictions.

But the school discovered Mr. Wrenshall was in trouble a few days before he was arrested in London.

"Thailand's Interpol came to our human resources manager, and said they had evidence about one of our teachers and planned to make an arrest, and asked for us to give our cooperation," Mr. Adul said.

Mr. Wrenshall fought against extradition to the US from London before being convicted in a federal court in Newark, New Jersey.

"John Wrenshall created a place where innocent children were sexually brutalized as a vacation pastime," New Jersey US Attorney Paul Fishman said after the sentencing in January.

"Children represent what is best in us, and Wrenshall's monstrous conduct represents the worst. It is fitting that a man who has condemned children to live with unimaginable scars for his pleasure and profit, should spend decades of his own life in a prison cell."

US District Judge Dennis Cavanaugh said, "For more than 40 years, he has molested children, and unfortunately he hasn't been deterred by prison. It seems unlikely he will ever overcome his desires."

It is unclear what clue initially pointed to the group, but they may have been caught after authorities discovered an online photograph of the gang's sexual exploits.

Interpol published a partially censored photo in May 2008, and an international alert, to find an unidentified molester who turned out to be Wayne Nelson Corliss.

Mr. Corliss, 59, from Union City, New Jersey, was quickly arrested in 2008 and admitted he traveled to Thailand three times between 2000 and 2002, met Mr. Wrenshall, and sexually abused two Thai boys aged six and nine.

Mr. Corliss was reportedly a bit-part film actor who also performed as Santa Claus at children's parties and fairs in America.

The two men were linked to Burgess Lee Burgess, 44, of Mobile, Alabama, and Mitchell Kent Jackson, 31, of Pensacola, Florida.

Mr. Corliss, Mr. Burgess and Mr. Jackson pled guilty of sex crimes -- which all the men had videotaped -- and said they paid Mr. Wrenshall to obtain boys for them in Thailand, according to a US Justice Department indictment.

In 2009, Mr. Corliss was sentenced to 20 years in prison, while Mr. Burgess and Mr. Jackson received six-and-a-half years each.

Other unrelated, recent convictions and prison sentences have focused on the so-called Swirly Face pedophile, and a slew of other lesser-known foreign criminals seized in Thailand for illegal sex escapades.

Christopher Paul Neil thought by digitally altering his photograph to create a blurry, swirled image, he would be safe from identification, but a computer expert reversed the alteration and unscrambled the Canadian's picture for Interpol.

Mr. Neil was arrested in Thailand in 2007, convicted in 2008, and recently had his prison sentence reduced to five years and four months.

Each time foreigners are nabbed in Thailand, authorities express confidence that international cooperation among police, and increasingly sophisticated immigration databases -- aided by cyber-sleuths who infiltrate online sex groups -- are cracking more and more cases and uncovering hidden networks.

In the US, much of the successful coordination is headed by the Justice Department's Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section (CEOS).

"Yes, it is a crime for a United States citizen, or permanent resident, to travel abroad for the purpose of having sex with a minor, and it is a crime for a United States citizen, or permanent resident, to actually have sex with a minor while abroad," the CEOS said on its website.

"If the sexual activity with a minor is a commercial sex act, then the defendant may establish the defense that the defendant reasonably believed that the person with whom the defendant engaged in the commercial sex act had attained the age of 18 years," the CEOS said.

Internationally, an impressive Virtual Global Task Force unites police against sex abuse by predators and catches online "grooming offenders."

Its forces include the Australian Federal Police, the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre in the UK, the Italian Postal and Communication Police Service, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the US Department of Homeland Security, Interpol, the Interior Ministry of the United Arab Emirates, and New Zealand's police.

The Task Force also partners with Microsoft, Telstra BigPond, America Online, British Telecommunications, Vodafone, Lycos, and other Internet-related corporations.

The young victims, however, are often left to fend for themselves after local health officials and others do their best, with limited resources, to help them adjust.

Pedophiles are often aided by cash flowing among eager customers, profiteers and human traffickers.

The crime also involves Thai adults who exploit their own family's children, local brothel owners and Thai customers who use underage kids in Thailand's sex industry, and others who molest youngsters at institutions and elsewhere.

But the ability of foreign law enforcement agencies to pursue and convict their citizens abroad is the newest aspect of tackling this illegal activity.


Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist who has reported news from Asia since 1978. He is co-author of "Hello My Big Big Honey!", a non-fiction book of investigative journalism. His web page is

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