Jimmy Kelly’s story is broadcast this week on National Geographic’s hit TV show Banged Up Abroad. It shows how things can go badly wrong for foreigners in Thailand through playing fast and free with Thai law or engaging with illegal drugs. The UK man was amazingly lucky to find himself a free man, back in the UK, after spending only three years and four months in a ‘hellish’ prison after initially being handed down a 30 year jail sentence in Thailand for drug dealing. His salvation came through pursuing the Thai appeals court process and a loving brother who gave his life savings to see his sibling return home to Britain.
A popular TV show Banged up Abroad this week shed light on the amazing story of Jimmy Kelly, a UK man who came to the exotic Thai southern island of Koh Samui a decade ago and became the successful entrepreneur behind Jimmy Changs, a popular bar in the red light area. At first a front for prostitution but then the centre of a thriving drug dealing business, it all came crashing down in a Thai police raid. Jimmy Kelly was sentenced to 30 years in Thai prison eight years ago. However today, against all the odds, through luck, good lawyers and most of all, a loving brother, he is a free man living back in Britain. He was freed from Wandsworth prison in 2014 after being transferred earlier from Thailand to finish a reduced sentence. His story shows starkly the dangers for foreigners in Thailand who lose their sense of judgment and breach Thailand’s laws. It is also a fascinating insight into the lethal danger posed to everyone from illicit drugs and in particular methamphetamine or crystal meths.
A UK man who lived the ultimate fantasy life in Thailand has been featured this week on the amazingly popular Banged Up Abroad series. The story of Jimmy Kelly from Watford in London is similar to many other foreigners who move have moved to Thailand except that most expats manage to stay on the right side of Thai law. However, for a few and actually a significant few, the story often turns from dream to nightmare and it often seems to happen in an instant.
Moment of downfall of a UK expat living the dream in Koh Samui
For Jimmy Kelly, the moment of downfall was a police paramilitary raid on his highly successful bar in Koh Samui when cheering Thai police officers discovered his cache of drugs and cash as money fell from the ceiling of his bedroom. From being a successful entrepreneur who had it all, business, wealth, party lifestyle and surrounded by beautiful women, he was taken to a grim, violent and overcrowded Thai prison where he was sentenced by Thai law, to 30 years behind bars.
UK Post Office move was Jimmy’s opportunity to establish himself in Thailand
Jimmy Kelly’s change of life happened in the United Kingdom. He was an ordinary postie or postman working at a job he hated and which he described in the TV documentary as ‘mundane’. His opportunity came over 10 years ago when the UK Post Office began to rationalise ahead of privatisation. For Jimmy Kelly it was an opportunity. The unmarried UK man was still living in Watford with his parents, already in his late forties, when he suddenly had the prospect of a £33,000 windfall or at that time over ฿1.7 million through a redundancy payout.
A new life in Koh Samui for former UK postman
Jimmy had a plan, he was heading for sunny Thailand and the land of smiles. He had been to Koh Samui in Thailand before, an island paradise to many, and a friend living there knew just how he should use the the money to do something with his life, indeed to make a new life. His friend, John, had live don Koh Samui for many years would not put him wrong.
UK man wanted to be a businessman in Thailand: ‘I hated the job, I hated everything about it’
Jimmy Kelly is not the first westerner to end up in a Thai prison because of drugs or a life in Thailand gone wrong. Part of the reason for the downfall of most westerners in Thailand stems from an earlier abhorrence of their life back at home. In Jimmy’s story, it is is quite pronounced. He tells the interviewers that he ‘loathed’ his life in Watford as a postman. Jimmy wanted to be his own boss, a businessman. In fact, the passion is still there. ‘I was a postman,’ he says. ‘I absolutely loathed it, I hated the job, I hated everything about it. I wanted to make something of myself, to own my own business.’
A new start, new life and maybe love in Thailand
The UK man’s choice of the beautiful and exotic island of Koh Samui in the south of Thailand was not an unusual one. It was in the midst of a huge surge of visiting UK men as well as men from all over the western World who discovered Thailand both as a playground and a chance to find love at a time when UK women had gone off the idea or were more interested in a career or at least a man with a career. In Jim’s case, as with other UK man, Thailand was a chance for a new life altogether. The very opposite of his humdrum life in dreary England.
Living the dream in Thailand – how Jimmy Kelly became Jimmy Chang, an expat playboy
The transformation was swift, it was everything that Jimmy had wanted and hoped for. After years of being a grey Mr Nobody working in large institution, it was all different. His inner desire was always to be a businessman, an entrepreneur. Within months, Jimmy Kelly was the proprietor of Jimmy Changs, a well known bar in Koh Samui on the popular strip and frequented by foreigners and locals alike. He had the free wheeling touch, he was living the dream in the all year, warm, balmy climate of Thailand surrounded by good times and beautiful Thai girls.
Jimmy Changs was also a front for prostitution in Koh Samui and Jimmy had become a pimp
And they weren’t just any girls, part of the business model for Jimmy Changs was to rent out the personal services of bar girls or hostesses to eager customers. It is strictly illegal in Thailand but in practice, it was how Jimmy’s new business operated. It was prostitution with the bar as a front. ‘Months ago I was a postman living an ordinary mundane life,’ Jimmy said. ‘Now, I’d taken a bar over and I’d become a pimp. I didn’t realise what I was getting myself into.’
Jimmy was proud of his new Thai life
Jimmy describes a familiar sensation for westerners who first discover Thailand. He describes his new life in Thailand as more than satisfying. ‘When I first got to Thailand, I went into partying mode and it was the first time I’d felt happy for a really long time,’ he explained. ‘I felt special, not normal Jimmy the postman.’ Even though Jimmy’s bar was operating in the strip, a euphemism for the island’s red light area, Jimmy did not feel at all concerned about the shady nature of the business when viewed through the prism of western sensibilities and eyes. In Thailand, things felt different. The business was thriving and Jimmy was proud of Jimmy Changs. ‘I felt really proud of what I’d done,’ he insists, ‘Finally I loved my life’.
Jimmy at first tried to stop drug use in his Koh Samui bar but was soon confronted with a gun
Whatever qualms Jimmy, the hitherto decent lad from Watford, had at the pimping of Thai girls in his bar, he initially tried to stop his bar customers using drugs. Everyone knows that drugs and Thailand are not a good match. However it is not so easy when you are a bar owner. As Jimmy soon found out. In one memorable scene from the Banged Up Abroad episode, which aired this week, Jimmy has a gun put to his head by a crazed methamphetamine user. As anyone who studies Thailand will know, Thai people can completely lose their judgment and sense of reason over methamphetamine or crystal meths. It does not pay to argue with them.
UK bar owner went from acceptance to testing the crystal meth drug to being an enthusiastic user
The stories of murder at whim using firearms, driven by a drugs high or aberration from withdrawal of drugs, already litter the pages of the Thai Examiner. Jimmy relented. He was forced to accept drug use on his premises. It wasn’t long before the bar owner decided that if you can’t beat them, then you can only join them. He started by trying out crystal meth or methamphetamine for his own use. And he liked it.
Ice or crystal meth or methamphetamine is an explosively addictive and destructive drug
It gives the user a high, sense of power and focus initially. It is only later that it completely distorts reasoning or after a hit when the effects begin to wear off, the drug can have a devastating effect on the human psyche. Small wonder that leading experts have been highlighting the dangers of the drug in recent years as the flow of the substance to world markets is growing and the effects everywhere are devastating, not least, in Thailand where 80% of arrests are now believed to be linked to the drug.
Jimmy becomes a drug player on Koh Samui
For Jimmy or Jimmy Chang, as he was now known in Koh Samui, the drug was the perfect accompaniment to his new found success as a colourful expat businessman and bar owner on the paradise island. He got to be seen on the Koh Samui party scene, he hired out more Thai bar girls for sex and it wasn’t long also before he became an active player in selling crystal meths. After all, he was fast becoming an enthusiast of the substance.
The point where Jimmy went wrong in Thailand – he got greedy and became a target
Like everything in Thailand for foreigners, it is often what is so attractive and feels so good that can ruin and devastate the man. Jimmy had been introduced to the undercurrent of a more corrupt world when he became involved in the prostitution business on the island. However, in the midst of the sunshine and partying, Jimmy began to let his guard down. He began heavy dealing in drugs and in particular, the hugely popular crystal meth or ice. He recalled that at first he was only dealing in ‘bits and pieces’ as a new profit channel to his growing business hiring out Thai bar girls for prostitution and selling alcohol. It began as an extra income source for his business which was doing nicely. He recalls now that this was the point where it all went wrong for him. ‘It was only low key but I wanted more and I became a bit greedy,’ he tells his interviewer. ‘In hindsight it was a terrible idea.’
UK man played a dangerous game and was aware that he was a marked man on Koh Samui
Jimmy’s bar was going from strength to strength in 2010/2011. Jimmy Changs had a good feel about it and Jimmy was finally an established player. Unfortunately Jimmy’s personal life was changing as it does with people who grow to like crystal meth or ice. Life was a whirl of parties and excitement, the dream getting always bigger and better.
Jimmy had begun to sell more crystal meth and he was well aware that he may be in danger because of it. He was the only significant drug dealer on the Koh Samui strip who was a western foreigner. Even more so, the stakes were raised when he began to undercut the price because he was buying the drug in bigger quantities and had more customers. He recalls how he quickly turned over one consignment of 200 grams of the deadly drug in 5 days and made a handy £26,000 profit (฿1.3 million). It was enough to buy the bar next door. Jimmy Changs was expanding. ‘I was the only westerner along the strip,’ he said. ‘I was playing a dangerous game.’
Thai woman led to UK man’s downfall in Thailand
However the seeds of his destruction had already been sown. His ice habit meant he was consuming more of the drug and his ultimate downfall, like so many other foreigners in Thailand with impaired judgment, was a Thai woman. A Thai femme fatale. Now Jimmy had enemies in the local drugs world and a Thai mistress who was really an undercover intelligence source for the Thai police, who are always in pursuit of bad guys dealing in drugs. Jimmy tells the documentary he felt, at the time, that his life was out of control.
Sudden end as Jimmy wished it really just was a Thai dream when Thai police found his stash
It was and it all ended with a bang. Hours after a large drugs deal, the proceeds of which Jimmy Kelly had concealed in the fake ceiling of his bedroom within his bar, there was a large police raid including paramilitary police with automatic weapons. This was the sudden moment when Jimmy Chang almost wished that he had never changed from being Jimmy the Postman in Watford.
Jimmy watched his own downfall handcuffed and looking at the ceiling of his bedroom
Armed police officers cheered and gloated in front of him as Jimmy, hands behind his back, watched money fall from the ceiling of his bedroom. He had been busted for drugs in a big way in Thailand, a chilling prospect for any western man. The punishment can be and often is, the death penalty. The dream life in Thailand had flipped to an ugly nightmare and for Jimmy it had only now just begun.
He was sentenced to 30 years in a Thai prison, a fate and endurance test that often proves too much for some western men including many who also searched for the dream life in Thailand. ‘I knew I wouldn’t be seeing friends or family for a very long time. I wished I could go back to boring old England. I had it all. But that’s the end of it. That’s my dream totally shattered.’
Thai Prison for the UK man was hell on earth
It was time for Jimmy to meet the harsh reality of life in the Thai corrections system. He was sent to the local Koh Samui District Prison. Like many foreigners in Thailand, he had read the stories of life in Thai prisons and the nightmares that some westerners, including women, had been forced to endure. ‘I read horror stories about Thai prison. I never in my own mind thought I’d end up in one. I’m really frightened at this point,’ he told the hugely popular TV show.
Prison in Thailand was worse than The UK man ever imagined – he could not believe it
It was even worse than Jimmy could have imagined. ‘The first time I saw my cell I couldn’t believe the size of it. It was like 20 ft by 20ft and there was 30 of us,’ he revealed. Jimmy explains that it was difficult, at times, even standing in the cramped concrete cell. He said that there was one squat toilet in the ground in the corner of the small box cell which served everyone and from which, a foul odour emanated.
Overcrowding in Thailand’s jails caused by crystal ice epidemic causing up to 80% of arrests
Overcrowding in Thai prisons is, ironically, caused by the crystal meth epidemic. It is currently reported to be at 300% and is becoming a key source of concern for Thailand’s prison authorities. Jimmy was sharing the his cell with many Thai men who had been convicted of murder and who were, in fact, more likely to be released sooner that he would be at the beginning of his ordeal.
A foul smell and as hot as an oven – Jimmy’s prison cell in Koh Samui, what he can never forget
Jimmy describes his spell in a Thai prison is literally ‘hellish’ and ‘torture’ although he admits on the program that he was guilty. He describes his first moments entering the small 20 ft square cell. ‘I couldn’t believe what I was walking into or how many people were in there. All eyes were on me.’ Unlike some western inmates in the Thai prison system, Jimmy could not adjust and felt that he was not going to make it. He describes two key features of his incarceration which stuck with him. One was the awful smell that lingered in his cell and the second was the overwhelming heat which he describes as ‘like an oven’.
Prison conditions in Thailand left UK man traumatised and feeling ‘caged like an animal’
Jimmy continued in state of shock, reeling from the conditions in the prison which also included outbreaks of violence on a daily basis. ‘I was caged in like an animal. I felt dead inside. It was torture,’ he tells the TV show. For balance it should be noted that there are some foreigners, including a few UK nationals and Australians, who feel, after serving decades in jail in Thailand, that the Thai prison regime, particularly in remote provinces outside Bangkok, is more relaxed that prisons in western countries or the UK. They have suggested that prisoners can spend a certain amount of their time outside every day in the sunshine. However in recent years, reports from western inmates in Thailand have painted a darker, grimmer picture of longer times spent locked up in cramped cells without food and chronic overcrowding. Most people now agree that time spent in a Thai prison is very hard time indeed. Kelly describes fighting at the prison between two rival gangs.
Rock bottom, a baton in the mouth and loss of three teeth for the UK man banged up for drugs
But Jimmy had not yet, in fact, even reached rock bottom. It occurred one day when in the midst of a violent rampage, a Thai prison guard hit him with a baton. His teeth were knocked out of his head. ‘I turned around and all I could feel was smash, in my face. How the hell am I going to get through this? Is this where I die. Three of my teeth had been knocked out of me. I was in shock. I couldn’t believe what happened to me. I’m just starting to lose it. I really don’t know if I can carry on with this,’ he said.
A prospect of going home to the UK opens up for Jimmy – it was a miracle escape from hell
Then at last, some hope. An appeal against his sentence was pursued in the hope of getting it reduced. The prospects looked good, the arguments sound. A British Embassy official had told him that if it could be reduced substantially as his lawyers thought possible, then he could be sent back from Thailand to serve the remainder of his Thai prison sentence in a UK prison. Jimmy was extremely fortunate, unlike many western drug dealers who must serve a third or at least eight years before such request can even be considered.
In fact, the difference for western prisoners in Thai prison is often the support of their extended family. Initially to keep them going through visits, organising and funding legal defenses or appeals. Not least, paying for added food stuffs and comforts in jail without which many inmates would languish and die. Such efforts can not only be the difference between imprisonment and freedom but also and in the short term, between life and death. Jimmy was two years into his sentence when this hope and prospect opened up: ‘When I heard the news I’m over the moon. This is me getting out of hell,’ he recalls now.
UK man’s brother saved his life and got home from Thailand to England by paying fines
Jimmy Kelly was very lucky. His sentence was reduced to five and half years. Next he had to pay the substantial legal costs and court fines before he was eligible for transfer to the United Kingdom. His loving brother spent up £85,000 (฿4.2 million) to bring him home to the United Kingdom. He was finally released in 2014 after serving nearly three and half years in prison. His brother, by paying over his life savings had saved his life. Jimmy sincerely believes this and explains how he next met his brother at Wandsworth prison in London, which is where many UK prisoners from Thailand are transferred to serve out the remainder of their sentence imposed by Thai authorities under an agreement between the two states and also the prisoner. ‘He saved my life. I wouldn’t be doing this interview if it wasn’t for him.’
UK man would not do it again in Thailand
Today, Jimmy Kelly is happy to be living back in the United Kingdom where he is reported to have become a champion at pub darts. He says he would never go back and do it again. He is remorseful for his actions in Thailand. ‘I’ve paid for it, and it’s not just me who’s paid for it, it’s family,’ he said. ‘It’s selfish what I’ve done. People have said to me, would you do it again? Nope.’