Editor's note: This story is being reprinted with permission from the Houston Chronicle.
Tanya Keller isn’t going to stop seeking justice for her husband, Fort Bend County native Derrick Keller. He’s been imprisoned in Thailand for a year, accused of crimes she says he did not commit.
“I’m very sad. I love my husband and I miss him very much, but I am really angry now,” said Keller in a recent interview.
Last August, the Kellers traveled to Thailand for a vacation but didn’t make it out of the airport in Phuket, an island off Thailand’s west coast, before they were detained at an immigration office inside.
That’s when the couple learned there was an arrest warrant out for Derrick Keller, 44. They spent 10 hours overnight at the airport detention facility with no water, Tanya Keller said.
Her husband, who was born in Fort Bend County, was eventually taken into custody and charged with transnational organized crime, making a loan through fraud, and fraud.
The Bangkok Post reported that Keller was among 32 suspects — 23 Thais and nine foreigners — accused in a cross-border investment fraud scheme. Victims in Thailand lost more than 200 million baht, or roughly $6.4 million, in the operation, the newspaper said.
Keller hasn’t seen her husband since his arrest. His criminal trial in Thailand will finish this month, and she believes he’ll be found guilty unless the American government steps in.
“We have given them all this time to do something about it and now we are begging,” said Debra Keller, his mother. “We are reaching out for help because we know no one’s helping him. His life is (in) jeopardy and his health.”
Linda Deptola, Tanya Keller's mother, who lives in Citrus County, said Friday she's been reaching out to local and state lawmakers for help, but red tape and other priorities have taken up their time.
"It's been very difficult to get them to pay attention," Deptola said about her recent communications with U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio's office. "I just want (Keller) to be allowed to come home ... he didn’t do anything fraudulent."
Deptola said her family moved to Crystal River in 1984. Her daughter graduated from Crystal River High School in 1988 before pursuing a Ph.D. in dance from Women's Texas University.
"I can't tell you how many people my daughter has spoken to," she said.
Enjoying life in China
Before Derrick’s arrest, the Kellers were enjoying their lives in Shenzhen, China.
Tanya, 49, took a job at the largest ballet school in the city in 2015. Derrick, who has enjoyed acting since he was in middle school, took on occasional acting jobs.
He was hired by Eagle Gates Group Co. Ltd. to act in promotional videos that would be posted on YouTube. The acting gig was based in Thailand, so he traveled there to take the job, then rejoined his wife in China.
Two years later, returning to Thailand for a vacation, he was charged with crimes connected to the company.
“The time that he was working for them, there were no charges, nothing to signal that anything illegal was going on,” said Tanya. “He wouldn’t have known, anyway, because he wasn’t involved in that side of it.”
The Bangkok Post, however, reported that Keller was hired by a suspect in the case to pretend to be an executive of a company claiming to manage assets and invest in index futures. Thai investigators found that the company was not licensed to operate a securities business and was in fact a transnational crime syndicate, according to the newspaper.
Missionaries have visited Keller throughout his imprisonment. The family has received letters from him during his trial.
Deptola said she's found comfort in her congregation at the Shepard of the Hills Church in Lecanto.
"They have just been my biggest support, and everyone at my church has been praying for (Keller)," she said.
Deptola said her church's priesthood has a contact at a similar Episcopal church in Bangkok, where the churchgoers there have been checking on Keller's condition, give him food and religious materials.
"They visit him as much as they will be allowed," she said. "It’s been really important to her daughter; they write to her."
The U.S. State Department confirmed that Derrick Keller had been detained in Thailand since Aug. 20, 2018.
“We have visited Mr. Keller 11 times since he was first detained, and continue to provide appropriate consular services to him,” a department official said.
The official said consular assistance could include ensuring that a detained U.S. citizen receives a fair and transparent legal process with access to counsel, visiting the person in prison to make sure they are receiving humane treatment and medical care if needed, and facilitating communication with family members or others.
However, Americans are subject to the laws of the country where they are imprisoned and the embassy cannot represent U.S. citizens in foreign courts, the official said.
Zachary D. Kaufman, associate professor of law and political science at the University of Houston Law Center, noted that the U.S. Embassy in Thailand does not have a Senate-confirmed ambassador in place, which can affect cases like Keller’s. Peter Haymond has been the acting ambassador since October 2018.
“There’s been a pattern since President Trump took office of his administration being slow to fill vacant ambassadorial posts,” said Kaufman. “The downside of being so slow is that when you have a sensitive situation like Mr. Keller’s case, the embassy is not at its full staff and strength.”
Keller has lost 70 pounds in confinement, his family said.
“I don’t even know if when I see him, if I will recognize him,” Tanya Keller said. “I want proof that he’s being treated humanely.”
Hunting, fishing enthusiast
The Kellers said Derrick is a U.S. Navy veteran who loves fishing and hunting. They describe him as a dedicated father to his daughter Beverly and son Mark.
Keller’s case recalls the 2018 arrest of Houston native William Nguyen, who spent 40 days in jail for taking part in a protest in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
Nguyen said he believed national attention focused on his imprisonment helped him significantly.
"To say that their treatment of me was kind is true, but we also have to take into context the fact that they knew that the world was watching," Nguyen said. "They knew that they had to treat me with a certain form of decency."
U.S. Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, along with Reps. John Culberson, Al Green and Gene Green, joined others in sending a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to ask for Nguyen's release.
Tanya Keller is seeking that same help for her husband. She said she’s reached out to the offices of President Donald Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz and other elected officials but to no avail.
Cornyn’s office said in a statement that the senator had been in touch with the Kellers and had contacted the U.S. Embassy in Thailand to ensure that it was doing everything it could to assist the family.
Congressman Pete Olson's office said in a statement that Olson has been working to free Keller for nearly three months.
"His efforts include frequent communications with the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok, as well as the Thai Consulate in Houston to ensure he is receiving proper care and medical treatment," the statement said. "Mr. Keller's wife Tanya also requested and Olson helped secure, a consular officer to monitor Mr. Keller's upcoming trial to keep us abreast of every update."
Earlier this summer, the Kellers decided to wage a social media campaign to make the public aware of Derrick’s situation in Thailand. They started a petition on change.org which has gained over 17,000 signatures.
But they believe the U.S. government must step in before his trial ends at the end of August.
“I’m hoping and praying he knows that we are all fighting for his life,” said Debra Keller.
Deptola is urging people to write directly to the Thai government.
"He’s being unfairly treated, and they're not listening," she said. "So whatever people can do...I just want him home."