This is the long-awaited story of Pornchai Moontri and Fr. Gordon MacRae, two lives denied justice and deprived of hope that converged upon the Great Tapestry of God.
Editor’s note: The photo of Pornchai Moontri at the top of this post was a middle school yearbook photo taken at age 12 just after his arrival in America and just prior to the onset of events described in this post. His brother Priwan wrote the word “Brother” with the two hearts under the photo in the yearbook.
In nine years of writing for These Stone Walls, this is the most important post I have ever composed. If you have never before shared my posts on social media or emailed them to friends, I urge you to share this one. It is not about me – at least, not directly. It is about something that has haunted my every day for the last twelve years. It’s about someone who committed a ‘real and tragic criminal act, but was himself the victim of a horrible crime. It is something so ironic it defies belief.
There is no short version of this account, so please come back here to finish it if it’s too much for one sitting. I recently hinted that this story was coming. After twelve years in the making it came to its apex this month on the Feast of the Most Holy Name of Mary. Here’s what I wrote in a recent post about “Mary, Undoer of Knots”:
“I want to put some unexpected context on the significance of that day – September 10, 1985 – as I eulogized my beloved Uncle near Harvard. Unbeknownst to me, on that same day and moment on the far side of the world, Pornchai Moontri turned 12 years old in Bangkok, Thailand where he was reunited with his mother after her ten-year absence from his life. On that day, he began a journey to a promised new life in America.”
Six-and-a-half years later, on Saturday evening, March 21, 1992, in a state of intoxication, 18-year-old Pornchai Moontri walked into a Bangor, Maine supermarket and tried to walk out with a six-pack of beer. He was chased into the parking lot. In his drunken state Pornchai had trouble piecing together what came next. He heard much of it for the first time sitting in court.
As he fled across the Shop’n Save parking lot that night, 27 year-old Michael Scott McDowell injected himself into the scene. He saw store employees chasing a young Asian man and assumed it was for shoplifting. The much larger McDowell tackled Pornchai and wrestled him to the ground. Pinned down and helpless, Pornchai described this moment in “Pornchai’s Story” as “something that lived in me got out.”
Pornchai remembers getting up and running, running, running. Later that night he wandered the streets alone, exhausted and confused. He lived on those streets, a homeless teenager in a small port city of 31,000 in a foreign country. He slept under a bridge. As he fled, hunted, through the streets of Bangor that night, a car pulled up. A man he neither knew nor remembers told him to get in.
There, in that vehicle, he sat in silence until the police came for him. To this day, he knows nothing of the identity of the man who sheltered him. Pornchai was charged with assault with a deadly weapon, a knife he carried for protection while living on the streets. The next morning, the police told him that the charge is upgraded to murder. Michael Scott McDowell had died.
On Thursday, September 30, 1992, journalist Steve Kloehn penned a report for the Bangor Daily News entitled, “McDowell murder closed with a verdict, not a reason.” Its opening paragraph set the stage for the mystery contained therein:
“Thomas Goodwin, representing the state of Maine, was trying to explain to a jury the inexplicable: how Pornchai Moontri walked into the Shop’n Save a teen-ager and came out a murderer.”
Until now, I have not been able to write the whole truth of my last twelve years behind these stone walls. I have alluded to some of it in cryptic prose, but not everyone caught it. But many understood that there is an important story coming, a true story of unimaginable pain, power, and consequence. This is the most important post I have ever written.
If you have been reading these pages with any regularity at all, then you have come to know Pornchai “Maximilian” Moontri. This is his story, and it may bring tears. It should. But the sun also rises, and with the long awaited dawn comes – if not rejoicing – then at least a modicum of peace.
Pornchai and I first met at the New Hampshire State Prison in 2006. He had been transferred from a “Supermax” prison in the State of Maine where he served the previous fourteen years – half of them in the utter cruelty of solitary confinement. He had a short fuse. He lived with a despair and a rage that walls could not contain.
The system deemed Pornchai to be dangerous, unfit for the presence of other human beings. A day in his life in Maine’s “supermax” prison was chronicled by the social justice site, “Solitary Watch” in an article entitled, “Welcome to Supermax.” After fourteen years in and out of that horror – including nearly four years in one long grueling stretch – Pornchai was transferred to another state.
The transfer from a prison in Maine to one in New Hampshire was administrative and not at Pornchai’s request. His arrival in 2006 took him to a very familiar place: an initial stay in solitary confinement. After a few months he was sent to a close custody unit, and finally to a unit in the general prison population where he and I met and became friends in early 2007.
I remember the first time we met. I was walking through the prison “chow hall” carrying my tray of food. As I made my way among the crowded tables looking for a seat, I heard my name. “Hey G, sit here with us.” I spotted my young Indonesian friend, Jeclan Wawarunto sitting next to the meanest looking young Asian man I had ever encountered. I could instantly see why the other two seats at their table were still empty.
“Come sit with us,” said the ever-smiling Jeclan. “This is my new friend, Ponch. He just got here.” As I sat down, I looked into the dark eyes of the young man across from me and saw anger, but it was anger masking something else, a hurt and pain I had never imagined possible. “Ponch wants to ask you a question,” said Jeclan. His friend looked so agitated that I looked quickly away. “I just want to know if you can help me transfer to a prison in Bangkok, Thailand,” said Pornchai with hostility.
I had, ironically, just finished reading a book – 4,000 Days – about the horror of life in a Bangkok prison. I told the young man that I would not help him do something that would only destroy him. “Who is this jerk?” he asked Jeclan. Weeks later, I was surprised to see that same young Asian man dragging a trash bag with his belongings into the housing unit where I lived. I approached him and said, “I’m glad you’re here.” He glared at me as though I were crazy.
We slowly became friends. I cannot really explain this long, slow, gradual building of trust with someone for whom trust is a deadly affair. I today know the courage it took for Pornchai to trust me. One day, his assigned cell mate came to me and said that he did not know what to do. He said that Pornchai had not spoken, eaten or even gotten out of bed for days.
I went to see Pornchai. He was known for having a short fuse, but I told him I would not leave until he got out of that bunk and spoke with me. I told him that I know what is under how he feels right now. I asked him to let me try to help him.
Some time later, his cell mate moved. Prison officials were cautious in imposing a new cell mate on Pornchai, so they told him to find someone he wanted to live with. He asked me and I said yes. It was early 2007. Over time, as trust developed, the story of Pornchai’s life was drawn out of him – de profundis – from out of the depths. It is a remarkable account that is now fully corroborated, and it is shocking.
FROM THAILAND TO TERROR
Pornchai was born on September 10, 1973 near the village of Bua Nong Lamphu in the Northeast of Thailand beyond the city of Khon Kaen. His father was a Thai marshal arts fighter who earned a hard-won living traveling from town to town for bouts. He was sometimes away for long periods. When Pornchai was two years old, and his brother, Priwan, was four, their mother, Wannee, left telling them that she was going to the city. She did not return. The two boys were abandoned and stranded.
Their father came home weeks later to find Pornchai and Priwan foraging for food in the streets. Pornchai was hospitalized for severe malnutrition. When he left the hospital, his father was also gone, leaving them in the custody of another woman. She eventually put them out into the street where again they had to forage for food and shelter.
Learning of this, the extended family of Pornchai’s missing mother sent a 17-year-old uncle to search for the two boys and bring them to their small farm. Pornchai and Priwan grew up there raising rice, sugar cane, and water buffalo. They worked hard, but they were happy. Over time, Pornchai forgot his mother. He came to believe that his Aunt Mae Sin was his mother.
It was 1975 when Wannee left Pornchai and Priwan at ages two and four. She went to Bangkok to find work. While there she met Richard Bailey, an American military veteran and air traffic controller from Bangor, Maine who was a frequent visitor to Thailand. He brought Wannee to the United States.
Nine years passed. In 1985, when Pornchai was 11 years old, his mother, Wannee, suddenly reappeared in Thailand to claim her sons. Pornchai had no memory of her, and was traumatized to be taken away by a stranger. He never saw his home and family again. Wannee took Pornchai and Priwan to Bangkok for several months to await passports and travel documents. Pornchai turned 12 in Bangkok on September 10, 1985. Wannee told Pornchai and his brother that in America, they would never be hungry again.
In early December, 1985, they flew from Bangkok to Boston where Wannee’s husband, Richard Bailey, met them. On the long drive from Boston to Bangor, Pornchai and Priwan had their first meal in America at a McDonalds drive-thru. Both boys vomited the meal out the back seat windows of the car.
From the moment of their arrival in Bangor, the tone changed rapidly. Richard controlled their money, their speech, and their every move. The two boys and their mother were forbidden from speaking Thai in Bailey’s presence, and neither boy spoke or understood English.
Richard Bailey’s sister, who always treated Pornchai and Priwan with kindness, asked them what they wanted for Christmas. The boys did not know much about Christmas, but they understood that it involves presents. Pornchai’s adjustment had been traumatic. He asked for a watch and a teddy bear.
I caution you that from here on, this story may be difficult to read but please be brave for our friend who lived it. That night Pornchai was awakened from sleep and brought to a basement room by Richard Bailey. While there, Pornchai was forcibly raped by Bailey, an event that was to be repeated too many times to count. Pornchai was traumatized and terrified.
He did not understand what was being said, but its meaning was clear. If he resisted or told, the consequences to his mother would be severe. To demonstrate this, Bailey beat Wannee in the presence of both boys. When they tried to stop him, he beat them as well. They were treated as slaves.
Bailey then arranged separate bedrooms for the two brothers. Only much later did Pornchai learn that Bailey also raped his brother Priwan. In fear for each others’ safety, they both kept silent. They lived in a nightmare from which they saw no escape.
Witnesses who grew up in Bangor, and had read of Pornchai on These Stone Walls, have come forward with accounts of the 12year-old who showed up at their homes traumatized, beaten and bloody. One man reports that he confronted Richard Bailey who later beat Pornchai again while forbidding him to interact with neighbors. Others have similar accounts. A school nurse reported his injuries. Nothing happened.
The first police intervention came when Pornchai was 13. He had run away, following railroad tracks out of Bangor. After a day or two, Richard Bailey reported him missing. Sheriff’s deputies pursued Pornchai through the woods and caught him. They did not understand his protests as they handed him back over to Bailey, but they filed a report alluding to their suspicions. Nothing happened.
LOST IN AMERICA
By the time Pornchai was 14 in 1987, his brother, Priwan, traumatized and broken, fled Bangor. Pornchai was alone. He ran away again and again, and while evading police he lived for months on the streets of Bangor. For the second time in his life, he was forced to forage for food in the street. He also amassed a police record for stealing food, for truancy, and for being a chronic runaway.
At one point, Wannee asked Pornchai why he keeps running away. Pornchai broke down and told her in Thai what Richard Bailey had been doing to him. She warned Pornchai never to speak of this again. She said Bailey would beat her and then send her back to Thailand with no means to support them.
In the summer Pornchai lived in the woods, or under a downtown Bangor bridge (photo above) where his mother would sometimes bring him food. She held a job as a hotel maid arranged by Richard Bailey, but he tightly controlled her earnings. In the winter, Pornchai would sleep in vacant buildings or at times in the homes of friends whose parents’ welcome of him was at times generous but sometimes not. At 15, he was sentenced to reform school, the Maine Youth Center, and became a ward of the state.
While there, social worker Nancy Cochrane built some trust with Pornchai. When she learned of the severity of the physical and sexual violence he suffered, she filed a formal report with the Sheriff’s department. Deputies interviewed Richard Bailey, but no one else. Bailey convinced them that he heroically gave Pornchai a home in America and Pornchai made this whole story up. The deputies dropped the case without questioning Pornchai or his mother or brother or the social worker treating Pornchai.
The Maine Youth Center staff did not drop the matter so easily. They brought it to other authorities. During the investigation, Wannee visited Pornchai at the facility where he was held. She told him that the police questioned Bailey who then sent her to warn Pornchai to withdraw his claims. The implication – the truth of which Pornchai had already witnessed – was that Wannee would face Richard Bailey’s violence.
Fearing for his mother’s safety, Pornchai refused to cooperate further with the investigation. She was his only contact in both worlds, the nightmare he lived in America and the world he left behind in Thailand. He suffered in silence, consuming the injustices visited upon him like a toxin.
For many years, Pornchai believed that his mother chose to protect Bailey over him and Priwan. But at that moment Pornchai came to see that Wannee was as much a victim of Richard Bailey as he was. The evidence for that belief was still looming on the horizon.
State officials did not understand what was behind Pornchai’s silence. He was transferred to the Goodwill Hinckley School in Maine where he met Joe and Karen Corvino, foster parents who, for a brief period, became instrumental in his life. He later lost contact with them. Their tearful reunion with him came twenty years later when they discovered him though These Stone Walls, a story relived in “Loved, Lost, Found: A Gift for Mothers Day.”
Pornchai did well at the Hinckley School. He excelled in Math and Soccer, and the Corvinos recognized the special child who had come to them. They considered legal adoption of Pornchai, but were told this would be difficult given that his biological mother still lived in Maine.
One day, at a soccer match with a rival school, a group of players realized that they could not win with Pornchai on the Hinckley team, so they targeted him for harassment. They pushed him, struck him, checked him, and he endured it all. Finally they shouted slurs about his mother. In seconds, all three of the larger boys were on the ground.
Pornchai was expelled from the game. The next day, over the strenuous objections of Joe and Karen Corvino, he was also expelled from the school. Joe and Karen had no choice but to put the 16-year-old alone on a bus to Bangor. They were told that a social worker would be at the other end but there was no one. At 16, Pornchai was again living on the streets. Sleeping in alleys and doorways, he began to carry a knife for protection.
Pornchai went in search of his brother, Priwan, and found him living in an Asian community in Lowell, Massachusetts. But because Pornchai was still a minor, authorities required that he return to Maine. He petitioned to be emancipated from being a ward of the state. At 17, Pornchai’s legal emancipation was processed by a reluctant Maine Youth Center staff.
THE FATEFUL DAY AND THE LOSS OF ALL HOPE
At age 18, on March 21, 1992, Pornchai became intoxicated and the tragic offense that began this story took place. It was the last day Pornchai knew freedom, but in reality, his freedom had been taken from him six-and-a-half years earlier at age 12.
This is the context, the “why” that journalist Steve Kloehn asked in the Bangor Daily News at the end of Pornchai’s trial in 1992. Once charged, Pornchai was held without bail for months while awaiting trial in the Penobscot County Jail.
He was assigned a public defender. After a month, Wannee came to visit Pornchai once. Again sent by Richard Bailey, she pleaded with him to protect her by saying nothing of his past life with Richard Bailey. Convinced his mother was in danger, he again became silent, refusing to allow any defense that included an evaluation of his life. Under duress, he refused to participate in his own defense.
Pornchai’s brother, Priwan, told the public defender of the years of traumatic sexual and physical abuse, but Pornchai refused to discuss this and refused to allow the lawyer to raise it. He was never evaluated, and none of what happened to him became part of the court record. The judge mistook Pornchai’s silence for a defiant lack of remorse. Citing that he “had many opportunities in America but squandered them,” she sentenced 18 year-old Pornchai to 45 years in the Maine State Prison.
After the trial, Richard Bailey sold his Bangor home, took Wannee, and purchased land and a home on the U.S. Territory of Guam in the Western Pacific. At age 18, alone and in prison, Pornchai was thousands of miles from his only contact with the outside world.
Eight years passed before he saw his mother again. She traveled to Thailand, and then to Maine to visit Pornchai in prison. She told him she was returning to Guam to finalize her divorce from Richard Bailey and financial settlements in the Guam courts. The year was 2000, Pornchai’s eighth year in prison.
To this day, the financial agreements ordered in the divorce decree have not been met. A cousin of Wannee in Thailand today reports that, upon her return to Guam, Wannee called her in 2000. Richard could be heard shouting in the background. The cousin states that Wannee cried that she is being threatened, and if she is found dead, she wants her cousin to demand an investigation.
Weeks later, Pornchai learned in prison that his mother had been murdered on the Island of Guam. He could learn no details except that it was filed as a homicide. The autopsy report indicates that she had been beaten to death and her body left on a beach. A Guam police report shows that Richard Bailey reported her missing, then the next day reported finding her body himself. No one has been charged. It remains today a “cold case” unsolved homicide in Guam.
This was a breaking point for Pornchai. He gave up, and ended up spending the next nearly seven years in and out of solitary confinement in Maine’s supermax prison. After seven years in hell, Pornchai was transferred to the New Hampshire State prison where we met. You know most of what followed, but not all. [Editor: WGBH-PBS Frontline’s documentary “Locked Up in America – Solitary Nation” depicts the nightmare of Pornchai’s solitary confinement. The prisoners you see were in solitary with him in adjacent cells. We’ve been having problems with the link, but this one to WGBH works well Frontline Solitary Nation.]
Once I learned the entire story, I could not let it go. I began several years ago to make discreet inquiries into Pornchai’s life in both Thailand and Maine. In 2007, shortly after we became friends and cell mates, a U.S. Immigration judge ordered that Pornchai is to be deported from the United States upon completion of his sentence. I assisted him in an appeal based on the severity of his life and his need for asylum, but to no avail.
I told Pornchai that we will need to build some connections in Thailand. He said that he did not even know where to begin. Pornchai felt overwhelmed, and took refuge in his imagined “Plan B” – his own final self-destruction. I challenged him to trust. A few years later, on Divine Mercy Sunday, 2010, Pornchai became a Catholic, and accepted my challenge to place his future in God’s hands with the guidance of his chosen Patron Saint, Maximilian Kolbe, whose name Pornchai chose as his own.
Then, Felix Carroll and Marian Press published Loved, Lost, Found with a beautiful chapter about Pornchai’s conversion. Felix graciously made the chapter available for posting. It made its way to Thailand where it moved many people in Bangkok to become involved in Pornchai’s story. A group called “Divine Mercy Thailand” organized to help bring him home. They have assured him of a home and support system when he returns.
A DAY IN COURT
After being received into the Church, I convinced Pornchai to seek some treatment in the prison system. He was diagnosed with acute anxiety and severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He is working with a counselor and is prescribed a medication for acute anxiety and another to inhibit nightmares.
The inquiries I had been making produced some amazing results. Clare and Malcolm Farr, a husband/wife team from an intellectual property law firm in Perth, Australia had been reading These Stone Walls. Entirely pro bono, they immersed themselves in Pornchai’s story with overtures to the government of Thailand and the State of Maine. Clare Farr, one of the attorneys, has been in daily contact with us over the last three years.
Their tireless efforts gained the notice of the Thai Consulate in New York from where officials have since visited Pornchai and involved themselves in his plight. This story also gained the attention of law enforcement in the State of Maine from where an investigation was launched. Detectives from the Bangor police traveled to Concord, NH to interview Pornchai and also met with his brother, Priwan. An Assistant District Attorney came on the second interview.
In 2017, Richard Alan Bailey was indicted on forty felony counts of gross sexual misconduct for his well documented victimization of Pornchai and his brother. He was arrested at his West Lake, Oregon home and released on $49,000 cash bond. On September 12, 2018, the Feast of the Most Holy Name of Mary, Richard Bailey entered a plea of no contest but was found guilty and stands convicted of the charges. At this writing, the 2000 Guam case remains an open unsolved homicide.
Bailey’s sentence may bring the biggest gasp of all, forty-four years in prison, but all suspended, and eighteen years of supervised probation. He will not serve a day in prison. This was a hard truth for me. I am serving 67 years in prison for crimes that never took place, with a fraction of the charges faced by Richard Bailey and with none of the evidence. It is clear. He is not ‘Father” Richard Bailey.
Covering this story for the Bangor Daily News, reporter Judy Harrison referred to Pornchai as “the now 45-year-old convicted killer.” Fully one third of her brief coverage of this story focused not on Richard Bailey’s crimes, but on Pornchai’s. Judy Harrison turned a deaf ear to the profoundly troubling serial victimization that his Victim Impact Statement describes.
The shallowness of reporters notwithstanding, Pornchai has also learned the ways of Divine Mercy. He learned them from me. In his submitted impact statement, he asked the court for justice but also for mercy for his tormentor, the very person who has haunted his nightmares for all these years. From Pornchai’s Victim Impact Statement presented in court:
“My brother has struggled with gambling and alcohol addictions and my mother is dead. Richard carried out more sexual assaults against me than there are current charges against him. His actions have robbed me of a normal life which I can never reclaim. Fortunately I have since had a lot of counseling and with the guidance of a wonderful Catholic priest I have found faith and a firm belief in God… I asked God to help me to forgive Richard and through my strong faith I have done this… I cannot forget what he has done but I do forgive him. The law must pass a just sentence, but I agree with the terms of this plea agreement.”
But there is something even more compelling in this story. Pornchai Moontri came to me, a Catholic priest whom he believes with all his heart to be innocent of the very things that stole his hope and his ability to trust. The irony sends me to my knees in thanksgiving for an opportunity. The most important mission of my life as a man and as a priest has been walking with Pornchai Moontri from dusk to dawn in his survival of the darkest night.
Editor’s Note: Please share this important post. This story continues over the next two weeks on These Stone Walls with guest posts from Attorneys Clare and Malcolm Farr, the Perth, Australia lawyers who pursued this case and were instrumental in restoring Pornchai’s life and hopes for a future. You may also see these related posts in a new light: