“Koh Tao” literally means “turtle island”, but this picturesque divers’ haven just off the coast of Thailand has developed a reputation for something else in recent years: mysterious deaths.
This is the story of how a quaint, comma-shaped key popular with foreigners fell under a shadow of suspicion. It’s a tale of powerful families, bungled investigations, locals who won’t speak publicly about what they know, and details that don’t add up.
Welcome to Thailand’s “Death Island.”
Not What It Seems
Koh Tao is part of the Chumphon Archipelago in the Gulf of Thailand. It is the smallest, most remote, and perhaps most obscure of the tourist islands in that chain, of less renown than the infamous party islands Koh Samui and Koh Pha-ngnan.
Koh Tao first became seriously popular in the 90s, particularly with younger backpackers. Since those days, tourist ages have trended older as guests who first came in their youth return with their spouses and families.
Some expats even grow so fond of the island that they decide to settle here. The area is a major breeding ground for turtles, and an ideal environment to earn a scuba certification. If you’re a diver, this is prime real estate. With a permanent population of less than 1,400, Koh Tao entertains hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.
But at least 8 tourists have died in suspicious circumstances on the island since 2014.
Now, families of the deceased are warning tourists not to visit because they feel the tragedies that befell their loved ones may not be isolated incidents, while residents warn reporters that their little slice of paradise is not what it seems, practically begging not to be quoted by name.
What in the hell is going on here?
“You Will Die Tonight”
The story begins on 15 September, 2014, when two British backpackers were found dead on the beach after a night of partying. The duo had come to Koh Tao with separate groups of friends, and were heading back to their hotel rooms when they were attacked.
24-year-old David Miller and 23-year-old Hannah Witheridge were beaten to death with a garden hoe, their bodies left half-naked behind some rocks. Witheridge was sexually assaulted.
Local police arrested two Burmese men for the crime. The pair confessed but later recanted, claiming that their statements had been extracted under torture. They were sentenced to death regardless, and remain on death row.
Many Burmese come to Thailand to work, often illegally, and they are frequently used as scapegoats by corrupt or inept investigators. Thousands of Burmese migrants make their way to Koh Tao to work for appalling wages in the burgeoning tourism sector.
Few on the island or elsewhere believe these men are guilty, least of all Sean McAnna. McAnna, who previously spent 18 months living on Koh Tao, was a friend of Miller. He claims he tried to meet up with his friend the night he was killed, but couldn’t find him.
In the days following the double-homicide, McAnna drew a little too much attention to himself. Two Thai men overheard him talking about the slayings in a local bar, and pulled him aside. McAnna told The Sun the men threatened to kill him and make it look like a suicide.
“They just said to me, ‘We know you killed them. You’re going to hang yourself tonight and we are going to watch you hang. You will die tonight’. So I just ran.”
McAnna fled into a nearby grocery store, posting a plea for help on social media, but the suspicious men pursued him. He was only able to leave when the police arrived. The men were not arrested.
“They need a scapegoat and they don’t want it to be locals,” McAnna said. “They want it to be a westerner. So if I kill myself here then it is easy to say, ‘See, it was him’.”
McAnna hid out in the jungle a while, then left Koh Tao at the earliest opportunity.
Since the night Miller and Witheridge were killed back in 2014, the suspicious deaths have piled up.
“Her Body Has Never Been Found”
Here’s a timeline of the other suspicious deaths and disappearances on Koh Tao:
On New Year’s Day, 2014, before the Miller and Witheridge case first brought infamy to Koh Tao, 25-year-old Brit Nick Pearson was found dead in the water not far from the scene of that subsequent double murder. Local police claimed he had fallen 50 feet and drowned in the surf, but he had suffered no broken bones. His family have made a point of tracking down and interviewing potential witnesses themselves, claiming Thai police will not do so.
On New Year’s Day 2015, 29-year-old French tourist Dimitri Povse was also found hanged on the island. His death was ruled a suicide as well, despite the fact that he was reportedly found with his hands tied behind his back.
(It’s worth singling out two common threads at this point: New Year’s or other celebrations, and hanging.)
Later that same month, 23-year-old British libertarian activist Christina Annesley supposedly died after mixing alcohol with the antibiotics she was taking to treat a chest infection. But island authorities conducted no posthumous toxicology tests.
Between 11-16 February, 2017, 23-year-old Russian diving enthusiast Valentina Novozhyonova vanished from the hostel where she was staying. After she failed to check out on 16 February as scheduled, her room was searched. Staff found that Novozhyonova had left her phone, camera, and passport. Her body has never been found.
30-year-old Elise Dallemagne of Belgium died in unusual circumstances in April of 2017. Dallemagne checked into her hotel under an assumed name and did not provide her passport number — demonstrating an obvious desire to conceal her identity. On the night of her death, an unexplained fire started in her hotel room. Dallemagne vanished and was found a week later, 1.5 miles away, hanged and half-eaten by lizards. Police on the island ruled her death a suicide.
Finally, German émigré and entrepreneur Bernd Grotsch was found dead in his Koh Tao home on 9 July, 2018. Over the objections of his family, Grotsch’s body was taken to the same facility that botched the autopsies of Miller and Witheridge, where it was determined he died of a heart attack or a snakebite. Grotsch’s family rejects this explanation.
Grotsch was a wealthy entrepreneur who had first come to Koh Tao twenty years earlier, buying up two properties and building a bike rental business. But in 2016 he decided to leave the island, allegedly fed up with corruption and animus toward foreign businessmen. He was only in Koh Tao to tie up loose ends when he died.
Who or what — if anything — is killing these people? What force is at work here?
“The Media Coverage Has Ruined My Reputation”
The deeper you delve into this strange case, the more you read about the nebulous state of terror in which islanders profess to live. Time and again, reporters cite off-the-record sources who describe Koh Tao as the dominion of a mafia-like organization. The contention is that the authorities are covering up for a member (or multiple members) of this all-powerful crime family.
But who are these alleged oligarchs, exactly? Drug traffickers? Corrupt government officials? Rogue military officers? No. It seems we’re talking about a family of bar owners, resort managers, and local potentates whose roots on Koh Tao run deeper than civil authorities imported from the mainland.
In a perplexing public statement, 49-year-old village leader Woraphan Toovichien seemed to out himself and members of his own family as suspects — at least in the deaths of Miller and Witheridge.
Woraphan is the owner of the AC Bar, where the two Brits met the night they were murdered. In 2015, he offered a “1,000,000 baht reward” if the police could conclusively tie him, his brother, or his son to the killings. His brother, Montriwat Toovichien, who owns a local resort, is one of the men who threatened to hang Sean McAnna and make it look like a suicide.
Woraphan maintains he and members of his family did confront McAnna, but only because they suspected McAnna was the killer. Bizarrely, he also claims one of his staff members had helped McAnna wash blood off his face the night of the murders, though no one came forward with such information at the time.
By their own suggestion, it seems likely the Toovichien clan are the ‘mafia’ family locals fear so much. But Woraphan strenuously denies the substance of the accusations.
“I would never protect anyone who has committed a crime,” he told a Thai media outlet, “even if it was a close friend, my own brother or son. I am an honest and straight forward [sic] person.” He later added: “The media coverage has ruined my reputation.”
Woraphan is a village ‘headsman’ on Koh Tao, a sort of hereditary mayor or minor aristocrat who wields considerable influence in the community.
Two of these deaths are definitely murders, but the rest? It’s hard to say for sure, though there are enough inconsistencies to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.
It’s unlikely we’ll ever know the whole truth of what has and hasn’t happened on Koh Tao. But for the time being, it’s probably best to avoid any place worthy of the nickname “Death Island.”