Point of No Return

updated 12/19/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/19/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

AROUND VAIL, COLO., CHARLES "Chuck" Betcher seemed as much a part of the scenery as the craggy mountains and cobblestone streets. Weather-beaten, wiry and strong, the 48-year-old building contractor was renowned as one of the top members of the resort town's search-and-rescue unit and as a world-class mountain climber who had scaled Alaska's Mount McKinley and trekked the Himalayas several times. "Chuck had an incredible ability to size up difficult situations and react immediately," says Tim Cochrane, codirector of operations with Betcher of the 35-member rescue team. "His strength was that he could take care of himself, but still do anything for his friends."

Last May, during a vacation in Thailand, Betcher finally met a situation he couldn't handle. He died from head and neck injuries after being in police custody. Thai authorities insist Betcher caused his own death after a bizarre series of actions over two days. But as facts of the case have emerged, his friends and family have become increasingly convinced that his death was a homicide. Since May, Betcher's congressman, Scott Mclnnis, has been pressuring the State Department to explore the possibility of a Thai cover-up, and even former President Gerald Ford, a Vail resident, has written to President Clinton expressing his concern. "My brother was done in," insists Barbara Betcher, 47. "He was the victim of foul play."

Chuck Betcher and his close friend Heather Wood, 44, arrived on Phuket, a resort island off the south coast of Thailand, on May 2 after 10 days of climbing in Nepal. Now, on Phuket's Patong Beach, a vacation spot with a raunchy reputation thanks to its nocturnal sex trade, they planned to relax and do some scuba diving.

Wood says Betcher told her he was carrying about $10,000 in cash. That became an issue when Betcher, who had been to Phuket at least twice before, introduced Wood to Malee Rakkandee, 50, who worked as a masseuse on Patong Beach. Wood says Malee repeatedly wheedled Betcher for gifts such as gold earrings and T-shirts. "I didn't like her at all," says Wood, who does not want her whereabouts or occupation disclosed for fear of retaliation. "I warned him that he should be careful of her because she was after his money."

On May 5, as planned, Wood headed back to the U.S. to return to work. When she left, Betcher seemed fine. Two days later, though, he reportedly walked into the Patong tourist police booth on the beach, telling the sergeant he had a headache and needed water to take some medicine. Another officer on duty told investigators that Betcher appeared "confused and disoriented." Earlier that evening, Betcher had also placed an urgent call to a friend in Glenwood Springs, Colo., telling him he was "in very big trouble" and that he feared for his life. He talked about a woman on the beach who was pestering him for bigger tips, and he also related how, at dinner the night before, two men had stared at him, apparently trying to intimidate him. "I recommended that he get the hell out of the country," says the friend. "He said that was difficult because of air service."

At 7 a.m. the following morning, Betcher showed up at the Fantasea Divers shop on Patong Beach, where he had previously booked dives. "He looked like he was under a lot of strain," says Panya Ngamsuwan, dive master at the shop. Betcher said he wanted to use the office photocopier so he could distribute an open letter he had written complaining about Malee. The rambling three-page letter, later found by police, accuses Malee of pestering him for gifts and trying to con him into a "loan" of $400. "You have made me incredibly angry," he wrote. "You have made it very easy to see through your scam."

Later that day, Sunday, May 8, Betcher's behavior became even more erratic. Shortly before noon he reportedly arrived at the Phuket airport, threw his suitcase on a Thai International Airways ticket counter, then ran past security and immigration, checkpoints all the way to the boarding area. An airport officer escorted him to Phuket's Vatchira Hospital for evaluation. A doctor who examined him there says he kept repeating the phrase "This is reality."

Since Betcher had not been officially detained, he walked out of the hospital at about 4 p.m. A few hours later he again called his friend in Glenwood Springs, leaving a message on the answering machine. "The tone of his voice was a lot more relaxed," says the friend. "He said he had been in contact with the Thai police and felt comfortable he had worked out his problems."

Betcher's relief was evidently shortlived, and over the next several hours he became embroiled in several strange incidents. At around 8 or 9 p.m. he showed up at a gas station and tried to ignite two of the pumps with a pocket lighter before attendants chased him away. A few minutes later he appeared at the Phuket International Hospital. "His face looked as if he had not bathed in two days," says Somjai Lertrakkul, an emergency-room nurse. "He didn't look crazy, but when he spoke he sounded crazy. His voice shook, and he kept saying, 'Don't leave me alone.' " In an attempt to explain the gas station episode, recalls Somjai, "he said he did it because he wanted a big crowd around. He was afraid someone was after him." She called police, who took Betcher back to his hotel.

Once there, according to police, he announced he didn't want to stay. "He was afraid to go into his room," said officer Tawee Foonmanao. "He said he wanted 50 people there for protection." Inside the room, Tawee noticed a large number of bottles and vials containing everything from vitamins to the controversial sleeping pill Halcion. Again Betcher set out on his own, this time stopping around 11:45 p.m. at a nearby souvenir shop, where he is reported to have deliberately broken a life-size ceramic dog priced at $120. The police arrived again and led him back to the hotel. But when he began to shout and smash things in his room, they decided to take him to the Kathu police station.

According to witnesses, including police and other prisoners, Betcher tried to jump off a second-floor balcony at the station before he was put into a tiny holding cell. At around 11 a.m. the following morning, he became agitated again and began shaking the bars of the cell. He then allegedly ran across the cell, bowing at the waist, and rammed his head into the concrete wall. He did this, a female prisoner later maintained, four times. Another female prisoner told U.S. Embassy staffers a slightly different story. She said Betcher dove at the wall, hitting his head some 14 inches above the floor. According to her, he then smashed his head two or three more times into the wall.

Stitched up at a local hospital, Betcher was brought back to his cell, apparently not seriously injured. At the request of the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok, he was transferred to Suan Saraanrom Hospital, a psychiatric facility 180 miles north of Phuket. An X-ray at a hospital showed he had fractured vertebrae, but no other major injuries. Doctors put a cervical collar around his neck. Over the next six days, Betcher's mental state fluctuated sharply. "Sometimes he was shouting and screaming," says Dr. Sayomporn Ratanawijit. "Other times he was silent and wouldn't respond."

Doctors at the hospital say Betcher asked them to call the U.S. Embassy, which they did, only to be told the appropriate official was not in. Embassy officials insist that when they called back, they were not allowed to talk to Betcher. "We asked to speak to him," says one embassy staffer in Bangkok, "and we were told he didn't want to speak to anybody."

On the night of May 16, Betcher died, allegedly of respiratory failure. The official Thai report cites as causes a bacterial infection in his lungs and a spinal cord injury caused by the broken vertebrae. His family in Colorado couldn't believe it. "My first reaction was that it wasn't him," says Barbara. "The whole thing just sounded so stupid."

Grief and bewilderment quickly gave way to anger when Dr. Robert Kurtzman, a respected forensic pathologist in Grand Junction, Colo., hired by Betcher's family, performed an autopsy on Betcher's body after it had been flown home and declared the death a homicide. Kurtzman concluded that Betcher had suffered the head cut and the neck injury at different times. What's more, he considered it unlikely that banging against a wall had caused any of the wounds. "The pattern of injury on top of his head is not typical for a person who runs into a wall," says Kurtzman. "It is consistent with a blow to the head by a narrow, hard object." According to a source close to the investigation, in November pathologists at the U.S. Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Washington reviewed the autopsy data and agreed that Betcher was a victim of homicide.

Because Kurtzman performed the autopsy two weeks after Betcher's death, all traces of drugs had disappeared. However, Kurtzman did find two ominous entries in the electronic day-planner Betcher always carried with him. One, on Saturday, May 7, recorded at 10:25 a.m., reads, "Help, help, Chuck Betcher is in trouble." Eighty minutes later another reads, "Betcher, Charles E., is in trouble."

So what happened? Betcher's three sisters—Barbara, Marsha, 44, and Georgia, 36—and friends strenuously insist that he had no history of psychiatric problems. Raised in Minnesota, Betcher had majored in mathematics at Colorado College in Colorado Springs. After working at various jobs over the years, including the Forest Service and managing a ski shop, he had settled on contracting, in part because it allowed him the freedom to take long vacations each year. Outgoing and loyal, he was still close with his ex-wife, Susie Betcher, 47, from whom he was divorced in 1990 after 14 years of marriage. "He would still drop by to make sure I was okay," says Susie, who also lives in Vail. Above all, those who knew him best say Betcher never used illegal drugs. He was so health-conscious, in fact, that in recent years he had even stopped drinking.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok conducted its own inquiry and found no evidence of foul play. But Betcher's family argues that the embassy was part of the problem, since it had not made enough of an effort to contact them early on. Had the family known, says Barbara, Betcher might have been evacuated. "We didn't find someone, which means we could have done more," admits an embassy source. "We are open to some criticism there."

Betcher's family and friends wonder if Malee may be able to shed some light on the mystery of his behavior. Malee has never been named as a suspect in the case, and in an interview with PEOPLE she seemed quite willing to discuss her relationship with Betcher. Married and the mother of two children, she said she had come to know 7 Betcher fairly well during a solo visit he made to Phuket last year. During his last two trips, she says she even had him over for dinner at her home, because he seemed lonely. And she denies ever hitting him up for money. "I have worked here for 10 years," she says. "I never asked for money."

Now another twist in the case is at hand. With the consent of Thai authorities, the FBI dispatched several experts in September to examine the dark stains in the cell where Betcher supposedly tried to kill himself. Recently, according to two well-placed sources, analysts concluded that one stain on the wall was not blood at all, while a stain on the floor was animal blood. If this is so, the FBI findings at the very least call into question the accounts of Betcher's injuries given by Thai police. Yet they still leave murky the explanation for his death. (At the time of his arrest, Betcher was found to be carrying slightly more than $1,500 in cash, plus $2,500 in travelers checks, but it remains unclear how much more he had on him originally.) Though the Thai police force is riddled with corruption, even a rogue cop might hesitate before deliberately killing an American tourist. A variation on that highly speculative scenario—that Betcher died at the hands of overzealous cops trying to subdue him—still invites the question of what prompted his erratic behavior in the first place.

In the absence of reliable answers, the Betcher family is hoping that further probing may bring new facts to light. Certainly they intend to keep pushing. "It's not like you just bury someone and it's over with," says Barbara Betcher. "This is like a bad movie, and we're in the middle of it."

BILL HEWITT
ANDREA PAWLYNA in Phuket and VICKIE BANE in Vail

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