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Holiday and marriage: Jill St Onge and Ryan Kells had plans as partners

Phi Phi Riddle: Embassy 'Fails to Ease Ryan's Pain'

Wednesday, January 27, 2010
Phuketwan UPDATE

Michael R. Turner, Press Attache at the US Embassy, responds: Jill's death was a great tragedy and our hearts go out to her family and friends. We're very sorry for Ryan's loss and for his grief. There is no higher priority for an embassy than protecting American citizens overseas. The US Embassy worked very closely with Jill's parents during that extremely difficult time and also provided assistance to Ryan and his father. While we understand Ryan's and his parents' frustration in not being directly involved throughout the process, there were a number of matters that only her parents, as her next of kin under US law, could legally be responsible for.

Original Report

JOHN KELLS, father of Ryan Kells, one of the survivors of the Laleena Guesthouse tragedy on Phi Phi, has highlighted a fresh perspective in the riddle of last May's two mystery deaths.

He makes the point that while Ryan and his fiancee Jill St Onge were partners, the US embassy in Bangkok denied help to Ryan because the couple were not officially related.

Mr Kells raises serious ethical and moral issues for the US embassy and other embassies to consider. Ten years into the 21st century, perhaps it's time the system was updated.

The email from Mr Kells is an impassioned plea, looking back on a nightmare experience, for action. He makes the point that other innocent travellers may suffer unless change comes.

Here is his message:

''What killed Jill St Onge and Julie Bergheim? What lethal gas almost also killed their companions Karina Refseth and Ryan Kells? The two absolutely linked deaths, hours apart, separated by a common wall less than six inches thick, in two back facing air conditioned rooms of the Laleena Guest House, rooms No. 4 and No. 5, one Norwegian, one American, unknown to each other, were apparently caused by the lethal inhalation of a toxic gas that has not been identified.

''Young adventurous explorers like Jill, Julie, Ryan and Karina, from countries all over the world, travel to the island of Kho Phi Phi, described as one of the most beautiful spots on earth as featured in the film 'The Beach', staring Leonardo DiCaprio, believe that they are safe and expect to travel home with exotic memories and not the ashes of the love of their lives or the one that they intended to marry.

''One thing we do believe is that both Julie and Jill had elevated blood levels of cholinesterase inhibitor, a likely sign of pesticide gas poisoning, as suggested by a couple of research experts asked to comment on the blood results.

''We also know that the implied causes investigated by the Thailand authorities such as alcohol and drugs have been eliminated as potential causes of death. All of the investigative effort thus far has focused on life style causes and to our knowledge no effort has been expended to determine if a pesticide might have been the lethal agent.

''We are Ryan's parents, Beby and John Kells, living in Los Altos, California, USA. We flew to Thailand to bring Ryan and Jill home. Jill was cremated in a Buddhist temple in Bangkok and her mother met us at the San Francisco airport to retrieve her daughter's ashes. Jill was 27 and she had just agreed to marry Ryan who had proposed to her under a Bali sunset a couple of months before her death.

''Jill and Ryan had lived together in Seattle, Washington for five years before embarking on the trip of their lifetime, taking them to Thailand, Malaysia, Bali, Cambodia and Vietnam, with a final destination of Kho Phi Phi, which was to be less than a week before their planned return trip home.

''Imagine Ryan, denied access to a wheel cart by an employee of the Laleena, which he confiscated. Imagine him in the early hours of the morning running through the streets of Kho Phi Phi screaming for help with his dying fiance hardly breathing, having turned blue and her eyes bulging in trauma? Imagine him attempting CPR in the emergency room and his phone call home to tell his parents that Jill had died.

''Imagine his parents' despair and helplessness with 6000 miles between them and their son. As unimaginable as it might seem, Jill was placed in a power boat, secured by the island's ''chief'' at a market rate which Ryan was required to pay. It broke down in high waves on the trip to Phuket.

''Imagine Ryan cradling her head from being bumped as the boat encountered high waves. Imagine a transport truck waiting at the dock to take her body to a Phuket hospital. Nothing of these experiences reflects life or death in Norway or America.

''Since we, as parents, cannot bring Jill and Julie back, the least we can do is find out what likely act of man caused their deaths. We owe it to them to make sure that no other parents, no other best friends, no other couples planning marriage, suffer a similar fate.

''We would like to extend our love and heartfelt sorrow to Karina and Julie's family for their loss. If there is a way to combine the collective resources of those that lost a loved one, a way to coordinate the efforts of the governments of Norway and the United States, then let us try.

''While we were in Bangkok, the Norwegian embassy was cordial and helpful to us which was in complete contrast to the Unites States Embassy which refused us access to any assistance because Ryan was not related to Jill. This is a major problem for unmarried couples traveling abroad.

''In Jill's case she had casual contact with her family and had lived with Ryan, for all intents and purposes, in a civil union. Further the US Embassy told us on the telephone that, 'They did not have the time to lend assistance to every family that lost someone in Thailand; they were too busy with the approximate 150 other Americans that die there each year while traveling.'''

Phuketwan has asked the US embassy in Bangkok for a response and will seek a reply from officials on Phi Phi. The island is about an hour by speedboat from Phuket.

Phuketwan believes that while the Norwegian ambassador has consistently rejected journalists' requests for comment about the deaths, officials at the embassy were instrumental in making sure that a second autopsy was held on Miss Bergheim's body in Norway.

The results of the second autopsy, announced recently, also failed to produce a cause of death.
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Comments have been disabled for this article.


I think fumes from the water treatment next to their rooms were sucked in thru the A/C. The doors and windows were closed and this is the result.

Posted by Jill's Grandmother on February 5, 2010 23:01


It has been 18mo.we have no answers to what cause the death of our Jill and Julie. We do know that the names of the Laleena guesthouse has been changed and the water treatment plant cemented. We are not giving up in finding out what killed two beautiful, vibrant, healthy young women. We need help in finding out what caused their death.

Posted by Beby Kells on November 8, 2010 01:02


I believe the US Embassy was remiss in suggesting Ms. St. Onge's body be cremated. Thankfully the tissue samples retained have provided clues and the cementing of the water treatment facility is most telling.

Condolences to the families and I hope potential travelers to Thaiand are fully informed of the country's relaxed attitude toward safety and life.

Posted by Media Watcher on November 8, 2010 12:47

Editor Comment:

Whether or not that was the advice of the US Embassy, the samples sent to the US as well as the second autopsy in Norway failed to determine causes of death. No conclusions can be drawn as to what killed these two vibrant young women in the prime of their lives.

Cementing the water channel in neither here nor there: other people who were probably closer to the channel slept on without coming to harm.

There are two points that can be made with certainty:

.. The authorities on Phi Phi acted in haste to ''make the problem go away'' when what was really required, given Phi Phi's international status, was a speedy, complete and transparent investigation. It didn't happen. From what little we hear from Krabi, nothing has changed.

.. If you are a loving couple travelling together and one of you has the misfortune to be tragically killed, the US embassy is legally bound to ignore the relationship - unless you have formalised it with a marriage. ''Next of kin'' means family, legalised family.

A week does not pass without us reflecting on this case and the totality of the tragedy and the mystery it entails. A plane crash that killed 90 and a dive boat capsize that killed seven still have unanswered questions surrounding their causes, but the two deaths of tourists who were staying in adjacent rooms at Laleena Guesthouse on Phi Phi remains the region's most comprehensive and saddening riddle.

Thursday July 18, 2024
Horizon Karon Beach Resort & Spa


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