American Sex Tourist

Mae Sai, Thailand, has little to recommend it to most foreign tourists. The small teeming town along the Burmese border at Thailand's northernmost tip is built around an ugly main street and a nondescript river bridge. Much of the low-slung outpost is given over to a street market described in one guidebook as an "entrepôt for a bizarre diversity of goods," everything from tiger intestines and bear claws to bootleg Hello Kitty toys, fake PlayStations and tins of Jacob's Cream Crackers.

It isn't uncommon in Mae Sai to hear artillery fire in the lush hills beyond from border clashes and drug-related disputes, says one Dallas-based private investigator who visited last year. Beyond the town lies a region of teak forests, working elephants, serene mountain temples and, far less serene, the infamous Golden Triangle: the poppy fields that supply much of the world heroin trade. Ruby smuggling is reported to have its place here, too.

Although his intentions were bad and his need for secrecy extreme, drugs and jewels were not the temptations that drew Nicholas Bredimus to this exotic destination.

In early November 2001, the 53-year-old high-tech entrepreneur from suburban Coppell had flown from Dallas, to Tokyo, to Hong Kong and then on to Bangkok, where he was scheduled to meet with executives at Bangkok Airways and Thai Airways.

His company, Bredimus Systems Inc., was in the business of designing software to help airlines sell seats, reduce costs and manage revenues and at the time counted on its client list 40 airlines worldwide. Twenty years in the travel industry--in positions such as president of American Airlines' AMR Travel Services, vice president of American Express and founder of QuickTix, the first electronic ticketing network--had made Bredimus both worldly and wealthy, with a net worth well over seven figures.

The trim, balding executive had arrived in Bangkok two days before his scheduled meetings, time enough to hook up with Pensri Suhongsa, a Thai woman whose services Bredimus had hired before.

Bredimus, as it turned out, was one of the estimated 2 million foreign men who travel to Thailand each year because of its reputation as the carnal capital of the world, a place where sex for sale is so rampant that the most respected newspaper in the country publishes a weekly column on sex-trade news and gossip. Although technically illegal since 1960, prostitution in Thailand has deep historical roots, government and police corruption are rampant and the legal age of consent is 15.

Bredimus' fancies ran younger. And he knew just the place where his female pimp could satisfy his demand for a supply of young boys. Bredimus brought Pensri along as his interpreter and procurer. On November 3, he and Pensri checked into two rooms at an obscure hotel in Mae Sai and got to work.

"A lot of very, very poor child prostitutes come from Burma, which is just across the border," says Linda Groves, a federal prosecutor in Dallas. The surrounding area, Chiang Rai province, "isn't dirty and nasty like Bangkok. It is a beautiful place, and the people are beautiful. He picked the place, and his procurer-translator went with him."

By 6 o'clock that evening, Pensri and several local adults had brought six boys ages 11 to 14 up to Bredimus' rooms. Moving them in assembly-line fashion from an ersatz waiting room to his own, Bredimus molested three of them before a local police captain knocked on the door, then opened it with the manager's key. Police didn't need to ask questions to know what Bredimus had done. He'd recorded it all on a compact video camera he'd mounted on a tripod and a digital camera with which he took stills of the naked, aroused boys.

Oftentimes, social workers in Thailand say, children such as these are sold into prostitution by their parents, who act out of dire need and social customs that demand that children pay their way. The parents of Bredimus' victims, however, acted far differently in this case--or so say Thai police reports explaining how the luckless Bredimus came to be ensnared in a Thai police web that is usually filled with holes.

Thai police reported that "the parents of the male child victims filed a complaint...that their children were missing," according to a U.S. Customs report. That didn't include the parent of one child, who was upstairs in the hotel, waiting to get paid. With amazing efficiency, the Mae Sai police conducted an investigation and raided Bredimus' hotel room just as he finished molesting the third boy. When the police knocked on the door, Bredimus ordered the 14-year-old to escape through the second-story window. Down below, Thai police nabbed the teen with his fee--1,000 Baht, equal to about $22--still in his hand. They confiscated the American's cameras, memory sticks, videotapes and a laptop computer. They returned the computer, unsearched, when they failed to crack the password.

Bredimus' arrest in Thailand set off a fascinating and singularly unprecedented prosecution 9,000 miles away in Dallas, where he became one of only three men ever to be charged under an obscure 1994 law making it illegal for U.S. citizens to travel abroad to have sex with minors.

Carried out largely behind the scenes and left untouched by the daily media, it came with claims by Bredimus of corruption by Thai officials and a daring but clumsy attempt by him to fight back with extralegal means of his own.

From his jail cell in Seagoville, federal investigators suspect Bredimus directed an extensive campaign to bribe or intimidate Thai witnesses in advance of his trial, the Dallas Observer has learned. That push, which he conducted behind the back of his own defense lawyer, ended up entangling his wife and 32-year-old son in obstruction of justice allegations and sparked a wider federal investigation that apparently continues to this day.

Beyond the international intrigue, Bredimus' story is also one of lives shattered by a revelation. Until he pleaded guilty last fall, nobody near Bredimus--neither his accomplished family, nor his business associates, nor his friends from the top ranks of Dallas business--had the slightest clue that this successful, law-abiding businessman was driven to travel to the ends of the earth to break society's uttermost sexual taboos.

Viewed up close, says his son, the story is "a nightmare, a freaking nightmare."

The one thing difficult to doubt from the outset of the Bredimus saga was the evidence--the tape and photos depicting him molesting Thai boys that afternoon in late 2001. "It's like a bank robber who robs the bank and takes a picture of himself holding the money on the steps," says Dallas defense attorney Tom Mills, who Bredimus hired shortly after his arrest on U.S. charges. "What could be better evidence than that? How many times have you heard people filming their crimes? I read about things like that in airport novels, but it's not the kind of thing you run into in real life."

Mills, who takes mostly high-fee white-collar cases and is best known for winning former Dallas Public Schools trustee Dan Peavy an acquittal on bribery and money laundering charges five years ago, had his work cut out. But he had a number of things with which to build a defense, starting with the quality of Thai police work.

Shortly after his arrest, Bredimus posted a cash bond of more than $7,000, surrendered his U.S. passport and was ordered to return on November 13, 2001, to local court in Chiang Rai, the provincial capital. Bredimus returned to Bangkok and immediately began taking steps to leave the country instead.

He walked into the U.S. Embassy on November 7 and applied for a new passport, lying on a written statement that he had lost his in a taxi on a trip between two Bangkok hotels. Two days later, he turned in another application, saying his passport was being held by police in Chiang Rai, but he didn't say why.

The same day Bredimus was scheduled to appear in court, he left the country--using yet another passport he'd acquired on the black market under an assumed name. "He was scared to death Thailand wouldn't let him out under his name," says one source with close knowledge of the case.

Little did Bredimus know that the case was about to follow him home.

Only three days after his arrest, the head of a Thai charity, Fight Against Child Exploitation, and the Thai government-sponsored Thailand Criminal Law Institute informed U.S. Customs officials in Bangkok that Bredimus had been arrested for sexual misconduct with minors. Within two days, two American investigators set off for Chiang Rai to interview police and all the child victims.

An 11-year-old, identified in a detective's sworn affidavit as Victim 1, said a local man approached him and introduced him and two other boys to Pensri, who told them a "farang," a Western foreigner, wanted to take their photographs. Bredimus took them one at a time to a bathroom where they stripped, and he took their photos. He sent one--a 12-year-old--home, telling him that he didn't want him because he was missing a toe.

A local woman brought two more victims to Bredimus' waiting room, and a sixth child was on the scene when the police arrived. In all, three boys were subjected to the more extensive molestations, including Victim 1, who is caught on the video beginning to cry as the "farang" puts his finger in his backside.

The tape and interviews launched an unprecedented and fast-moving scramble at the U.S. Attorney's Office in Dallas to put the arm of an untested and seldom-used U.S. law around Bredimus and charge him here for criminal sex acts he allegedly committed abroad. The Child Sexual Abuse Prevention Act of 1994 made it illegal for a U.S. citizen to leave the country with the intent of sexually abusing minors in foreign countries. It had been passed along with other, far more heavily publicized bills taking aim at sexual predators in the United States following a string of headline-grabbing crimes.

"There's no doubt that if you look at the history of the law, it's as strong as pepper that this is exactly the kind of conduct it was meant to reach," says Linda Groves, the assistant U.S. attorney who took up the case in Dallas. Groves, a veteran prosecutor who won convictions against thieving savings-and-loan officials such as Tom Gaubert a decade ago, began developing expertise in cyber-crime and child pornography as the technology caught on in the mid-1990s.

Reports and pretrial testimony in the case show that Groves and federal investigators were hopeful that the Bredimus arrest would provide them a window into wider child-porn circles. Deep in U.S. Customs files was a record that an "N. Bredimus" was listed on a mailing label of a package of child porn intercepted on the way into the United States from Denmark.

While the tapes and testimony indicated Bredimus gratified himself during the molestations in Thailand, he went to great lengths to get it all down on tape and digital stills. Most child porn distributed today is trafficked in digital form over the Internet. "It appeared as if he was staging it," U.S. Customs Special Agent Brian McGaha testified during a bond hearing. "[Bredimus] would molest the child, get up, readjust the camera and zoom in to another part of the child's body. He would also stop during various stages of the molestation and take what appeared to be digital pictures."

Child-porn consumers tend to be compulsive, urgently collecting large numbers of images, he said. So shortly after the feds filed a sealed complaint in Dallas in early February last year, they went after Bredimus' computers.

"We didn't find anything," Groves says. Which is not to say it never existed. "He's technically very sophisticated," she said. He had plenty of time to tidy up.

Since 1998, Bredimus has owned a home in a seaside village in Maui valued at more than $750,000. He was there when federal agents arrested him in late February. Deemed to be wealthy enough to pose a travel risk, federal judges denied him bond in two heavily contested hearings. Last spring, agents transferred him from Hawaii to a federal detention facility in Seagoville.

In Hawaii, Bredimus told U.S. authorities that he wasn't going back to Thailand because he "had already paid too many bribes" and wasn't going to pay more. Bredimus, who today is incarcerated in a federal prison in Kentucky, did not respond at the time of publication to a written request for an interview or to a series of written questions about the claim that he'd forked over bribes.

Mills says Bredimus was referring to the practice of paying jailers for bond hearings. "You get arrested over there, and apparently you have to pay the jailer for the bond hearing. If you don't have money, they say, 'Hey, I'll take you to the cash machine.' At least that's his allegation." Groves says there is no evidence of corruption in the case, and that the defense had done nothing in court to prove those allegations.

As he began preparing his defense, Mills says, he began to think, "Maybe they are corrupt. Maybe they won't come over here to trial. They didn't follow their book on him in Thailand, but the question was, 'Did he violate U.S. law?'"

That question would be answered loud and clear if Groves, using Thai witnesses to establish the necessary chain of custody, could get the videotape and stills into evidence, Mills says. "It's 30 minutes of Mr. Bredimus having sex with underage boys. If that's in evidence, there's gonna be outrage. The jury is gonna want to kill me, and somebody's going to prison."

Today, the life of Nicholas Bredimus is largely hidden by a wall of shock and shame. The people who know him best want to talk about him the least.

Bredimus Systems, with its worldwide net of consultants selling software to the battered, post-September 11 airline industry, changed its name last October to Airlogica Corp. and reorganized with new officers and a new board. It isn't clear whether ownership of the privately held company has also changed.

"It's been a difficult year, to say the least," says David Harms, the company's new Atlanta-based president. He declined further comment, except to ask when this story would be published. "We'll hear about it, I'm sure," he said.

Harms, testifying at a hearing in Dallas last spring, said Bredimus "primarily is the business in terms of both personality as well as his contacts, his knowledge. He's built the systems, designed them, basically architected them." It took "Nick" 10 years to establish his software in the marketplace, sell it and support it, Harms said. "He is well-regarded in what we do."

A University of Phoenix graduate, Bredimus married a Phoenix clinical psychologist, and they had one son, Jason, now 33. About 15 years ago, they divorced, and Bredimus remarried. In the mid-1990s, he, his second wife, Kyong, and her two children, now college-age, moved into a spacious creek-side home in an executive-class subdivision of Coppell.

In this neighborhood, he was perceived as considerate and cordial, although several neighbors say he was rarely home and not part of the street's child-centered social life. When he was in town, he was known to leave for work at 6 a.m.

Bredimus had no criminal history and only a shred of evidence to suggest he lived life off the square. At a 1999 meeting of airline executives in Los Angeles, one of Bredimus' former co-workers at AMR called him "shady" and "unscrupulous" in front of several potential clients. Bredimus, who called the man a "wanker" in response, sued for defamation. Before the legal contretemps got very far, the two sides reached a mediated settlement.

Last spring, before he saw the tapes, Jason Bredimus was calling the allegations against his father "ludicrous." There was never a hint of that type of behavior, he said in a preliminary hearing, and his father was frequently around children, including his stepchildren.

Ralph Romberg, a 72-year-old retired vice president of Neiman Marcus and longtime social friend of the Bredimus family, flew in from San Francisco to testify as a character witness. Romberg said he was so certain of Bredimus' upstanding nature that he wouldn't believe his friend molested children even if he saw him doing so on video.

Why so certain?

From the time he was arrested, it turned out, Bredimus had a story for his family and friends. It was far-fetched, but they were all ready to believe. Shortly after his release from the Thai jail, Bredimus telephoned Romberg from Bangkok and told him that he'd been abducted by police and drugged. "He told me that he had been arrested and that he had been taken to some small town away from Bangkok and that he had absolutely no recollection of what happened to him there." It was a drugged zombie, not him, doing those unspeakable things on the tape.

Bredimus told Romberg he'd posted bail and paid bribes in order to get out of jail. He was "going to try and get out of Thailand as soon as he could, because he was afraid for his life," the retired retail executive said.

Mills sent an investigator to Thailand to probe those issues as he dug into the case last spring and summer. In fact, he says, he was more interested in testing whether the government could get the damning tapes into evidence, but just in case, he was beginning to prepare a trial defense based on Bredimus' drugged/abducted story.

Bredimus didn't intend on leaving so much to chance.

Around the same time Bredimus hired Mills, he launched a clandestine second defense to make certain Mills would prevail, two sources with close knowledge of the case say.

"Mr. Bredimus was talking on the jail phone [in Seagoville]. The one that has a sign above it saying all jail conversations are recorded. That phone," says one of the sources. On it he was heard ordering his wife and son to help him make certain some key witnesses in Thailand, such as the pimp Pensri, did not come to Dallas to testify against him.

"Nick Bredimus was very clearly a drowning man who wanted to be rescued and was capable of drowning everyone around him," says Jason Lamm, a criminal defense lawyer in Phoenix. "You hear of wealthy, successful people who think they're above the law, that was him. He's very bright, very charming, very manipulative, and how can you not want to believe your father?"

Lamm got involved in the case when Jason Bredimus, a social friend, learned that federal agents had obtained legal authority to search his e-mail. Bredimus' phone conversations had led the feds into a new investigation, this one involving witness tampering and obstruction of justice. "The government cast its net very widely," Lamm says, and it caught his client in an investigation that he believes is ongoing. "Frankly, Jason was duped by his father; he was very much a victim in this," Lamm says, explaining that Jason believed his father's story that he was drugged and set up.

But Jason Bredimus was also apparently in the thick of his father's back-channel defense, along with Kyong Bredimus, who Lamm described as a "true believer" in her husband's innocence. Contacted at their stately pink brick home in Coppell, she declined to comment.

Three sources with close knowledge of the case say that Bredimus hired a Dallas lawyer, William Chu; an unidentified lawyer in Thailand; and a colorful El Paso investigator named Jay J. Armes in connection with the case. In all, Bredimus said at his sentencing, he spent $1 million on his defense. "He told them not to let anything get back to Mills," says one source.

Armes, who refers to himself as the "world's greatest detective" and hawks on his Web site a line of toy action figures in his likeness, including his prosthetic metal-hook hands, declined to take calls from the Observer. His secretary referred all questions about the matter to his lawyer, Carl Green, who also declined to comment except to acknowledge that Armes worked for Bredimus. "He has no knowledge of an obstruction investigation," Green says of his client.

Armes reportedly sent a crew of operatives to Thailand for what sources say was a six-figure fee, money Bredimus' wife is now trying to get back.

Chu said he had no knowledge of an obstruction-of-justice investigation, either, and declined to answer questions about the case. "We were part of the defense team," he says.

Groves, the prosecutor, says she is compelled to set the record straight that Mills, the only lawyer court records attach to the case, was unaware of any efforts to tamper with witnesses. "There is nothing that implicates Tom Mills or any associates in his firm with obstruction," she says. Groves declined to give any other details of the investigation. No federal sources named Armes or Chu as targets of the probe.

About a month before Bredimus' September 9 trial was to begin, Mills says he learned the government was deep into its obstruction investigation, and they had succeeded in clearing all the diplomatic and procedural hurdles to bring witnesses from Thailand. "I started talking to the prosecutor about a plea," he says.

Groves says eight people were set to come to Dallas to make the case against Bredimus: the three victims, a chaperone, Pensri and three Thai police officers. At $6,000 each for airfare, plus hotels and meals during what promised to be a long trial made longer by Thai translators, "it was going to be costly," she says. She'd also lined up experts to knock down the notion that the molester on the videotape was under the influence of some mysterious drug. Taken together, the witnesses were expected to establish the necessary chain of custody for the videotape, which was kept in a secure area by Thai police.

The digital camera, however, was another story. It contained pictures, in sequence, of the suspect with his family in Southern California, naked boys, then a few shots suggesting the camera was rather loosely handled at the Mae Sai police station. At one point after Bredimus' arrest, the Thai cops took it out and shot a few pictures of a drug bust. "There was a bus...and a little picture that appears as if they had interdicted a load," U.S. Customs Special Agent Gerard Cote said.

Mills' client faced a maximum prison sentence of 15 years, but the lawyer had room to deal. Bredimus could agree, as he did, to give truthful testimony about "any conspiracy to obstruct justice or tamper with government witnesses." In return, the government promised that it would recommend a reduced sentence if his help was productive. Two months after the plea deal was struck, Groves filed paperwork asking for the reduction.

The plea agreement also exempted Bredimus, his wife and son from facing charges in the obstruction matter and allowed Mills to continue to pursue an appeal on the constitutionality of the law under which Bredimus was charged.

Bredimus in turn pleaded guilty and signed a statement of facts that he traveled to Thailand, hired the pimp and "engaged in sexually explicit conduct" with a 13-year-old boy in Mae Sai.

In November, U.S. District Judge Sam Lindsay sentenced Bredimus to five and a half years in prison and assessed a $30,000 fine. "I'm here with a tremendous amount of shame and regret," Bredimus told the judge. "I've destroyed everything that's dear to me. I have no excuses."

Before the plea agreement was finalized, Bredimus' son and his lawyer flew to Dallas during a hot week in late August and, in what the lawyer says was the son's best interest, lent their help to the government's obstruction probe.

Jason Lamm, the lawyer, says he viewed the Bredimus videotape during the visit and knew that if he played it for his client, it would disabuse him of any notion that his father was innocent or acting under the influence of drugs. "I've defended a lot of sexual offenders and even in my experience, I thought this was sick as hell," Lamm says. "I knew I had to do it delicately."

So Groves gave the two men an empty office, and they sat down together. Lamm started the tape. The 30-second segment he chose showed the father working away with one of the boys. After a few moments he stopped, turned to the camera and smiled. "That's all Jason needed to see," Lamm says. "He said, 'Yeah, that's my father's smile.'"

Federal officials say they hope Bredimus' conviction will send a message that sex tourists from the United States run risks of being nabbed by extra-territorial laws and tried once they come home. Yet the numbers of prosecutions and convictions are so low that children's rights workers say it is a faint warning at best.

Carol Smolenski, head of the U.S. arm of ECPAT, a global non-governmental organization fighting child porn, prostitution and trafficking, says enforcement is dwarfed by the growing global problem.

"Numbers are difficult, but our surveys indicate that about a quarter of the sex tourists in the world are from the United States," she says. "Men who wouldn't think of doing something with the next-door-neighbor kids think it's OK if they do it with kids in Thailand or Costa Rica for pay."

Besides Bredimus, prosecutors say only two other men have been convicted in the United States of having sex abroad with minors. Last May, a former Silicon Valley executive, Michael Rostoker, was convicted of traveling to Vietnam to have sex with a minor and using the Internet to induce a minor to commit various sexual acts. The millionaire pedophile, a top California patent attorney, paid a 13-year-old girl and her family more than $150,000 and arranged falsified immigration papers to sneak her into the country.

In 2000, Marvin Hersh, a former Florida Atlantic University professor with a 20-year history of pedophilia, was sentenced to 105 years in prison after his conviction for smuggling a Honduran boy into the United States to serve as his lover. Hersh, who was convicted on 10 counts under various laws, was the first to be convicted under the 1994 statute making it illegal to travel abroad for underage sex. He molested four Honduran siblings, ages 10 to 18--part of a family of 14 living in a one-room hut with a palm-thatched roof and dirt floor. Hersh brought one of the boys to live with him when he was 15 by faking his birth certificate and passing him off as his son.

The Tourism Authority of Thailand, which did not respond to e-mail questions but provides a host of information on a Web site (http://newsroom.tat.or.th/tat_news/1482.asp), acknowledges that poverty in rural Thailand fuels the country's sex trade. "Social pressures, parental expectation, poverty and a lack of educational and employment opportunities put children at risk of economic and sexual exploitation," the organization states. On the demand side, foreigners find themselves encouraged by anonymity and the availability of children, and often justify their behavior by saying that it is culturally acceptable, or that they are helping minors by giving them money.

Smolenski, who sees her role as educating Americans and stemming demand, testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last year that the U.S. travel industry is doing far less than its European counterparts in warning its citizens about penalties under current laws.

"Nine European airlines show or have shown in-flight videos advertising the laws against child sex tourism as a deterrent to the situational sex abuser," she said, referring to men who, while not pedophiles, may find themselves tempted by the ease and availability of child prostitutes. "Every single U.S. airline, even though requested by the Federal Aviation Authority, the president of Air France and ECPAT, has refused to get involved," she says.

Sex-tour companies operate with impunity, she said. Their Web sites promise a night of sex "with two young Thai girls for the price of a tank of gas," or trips to clubs where "every girl is available...every girl is affordable."

For its part, the Thai government has responded to a worldwide push by UNICEF and other organizations to curb child prostitution by hiking penalties for customers of child prostitutes. Under Thai law, Bredimus could have faced up to six years in prison--nearly the same sentence he received in Dallas.

Non-governmental groups and even the U.S. State Department acknowledge that police corruption is a problem, but one that is recognized in Thailand. "Non-governmental organizations are putting a lot of pressure on the police to crack down and cooperate," Groves says. "I don't know how it always works, but Thai police were very cooperative in this case."

That meant at least one man with a sky's-the-limit budget could not pay for his pleasures, then pay his way out.

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