Ela Herawati shows a copy with an image of her daughter who went missing with her divorced husband more than 20 days ago. Photo credit: VnExpress/Q.T
Ela Herawati, 35, arrived in Ho Chi Minh City in the early morning hours of July 11th and found her ex-husband in poor health.
“I was shocked to see his condition,” she said.
Once stout and sprightly Karl Werner, 37, moved slowly and favored a cane.
The pair climbed into a taxi with their chubby-cheeked five-year old daughter and rode to the Oscar hotel on Nguyen Hue Street in District 1.
Herawati, a slender, raven-haired Indonesian in Saigon for the first time remembers being glad to have the stout Mid-Westerner in tow.
Don't trust these people, she recalled him saying. Don't play with your phone on the street, don't leave it on the table.
The next morning, the estranged family visited Werner's sparsely furnished apartment in District 1. Herawati recalls Werner saying he'd put most of his things into storage and would head to Hanoi to begin chemotherapy as soon as they left.
For the next few days, Herawati says she brought her daughter to visit her estranged father every morning and picked her up every night.
Occasionally, she would tidy the apartment for her sickly ex-husband, whom she hadn't since their messy divorce in 2014.
On July 22 of that year, an Indonesian court issued a decision awarding Herawati full-custody of their child and ordered Werner to pay $500 a month in child support.
Herawati claims she received the favorable ruling after producing evidence that Werner had cheated on her. Herawati and her attorney say he never paid a cent of child support.
Werner never responded to text messages and a list of emailed questions. An official at the US Consulate likewise said they've been unable to get a hold of him.
“Creative, enthusiastic, dedicated”
Karl Werner began playing the piano at age five and took up the trumpet and violin in middle school, according to a cover letter he posted online in which he described himself as a “creative, enthusiastic and dedicated instrumental music teacher.”
As a student, Werner played violin in several regional orchestras. He first studied abroad in Cork, Ireland and took his first international teaching job at the North Jakarta International School in 2004.
He and Herawati married in 2008 and had their daughter in Turkey in 2010 where things quickly soured.
In July of 2014, long after his divorce ruling, Werner called the FBI and claimed that his wife had abducted their daughter two months prior.
“If possible, I would like [Herawati] and my daughter stopped at any border crossing while attempting to use my daughter's passport,” he wrote in an email. “I will then travel to collect my daughter […] My family and I are very distraught.”
Werner's parents didn't respond to several messages left at their home in Mt. Horeb, Wisconsin.
By the time Werner was petitioning the FBI for help, he had already moved to Ho Chi Minh City to take a job at the American International School in Nha Be District.
(The school did not respond to a phone call seeking comment, but has since taken Werner's profile down from its website).
The FBI declined to open an investigation and requested a custody order, according to correspondence provided by Herawati's lawyer. Herawati says she met with US Embassy officials in Jakarta and they decided Werner's claims were without merit.
After her divorce, Herawati moved to Manila to start a new life with her boyfriend, a French father of two.
In the Philippines, she took a job doing marketing work for an Indonesian restaurant chain and things began to look up. She even began to reconnect with Werner on WhatsApp — a messaging application.
Soon she began to imagine a future where they would raise their daughter as friends.
“Like a team,” she said.
Then things got rather dramatic.
When a Vietnamese woman contacted Herawati offering $9,000 for her daughter’s participation in a photo shoot, Herawati says she contacted Werner who denied knowing anything about it.
Soon after the incident, Werner announced he'd been diagnosed with bone cancer and feared for the worst.
“I want to make it right before I meet God,” he wrote in a screen-captured chat Herawati sent to a friend.
Eventually, Herawati agreed to bring their daughter to visit him in Ho Chi Minh City.
“If he dies and doesn't get to see her,” she remembers thinking. “I'll hate myself forever.”
On their first day together, Herawati and Werner went to the US consulate to apply for their daughter's US passport. Herawati says she agreed to do so because Werner might soon die.
At one point, she says, Werner tried to get her to sign some sort of will, but she refused.
The mother's future looked bright.
Soon, she and the girl would spend Ramadan with her family back in Indonesia. Herawati had brought $4,000 and 500 Euros in cash savings she planned to deposit in an account for her daughter.
On July 15, Werner hired a car to take them all to Vung Tau where he'd rented them rooms at the Lan Rung Resort.
They arrived at around 1PM.
That afternoon, Herawati says Werner handed her a spa voucher and tip money. When she tried to return to her room, she found it locked.
When she finally had the hotel staff open it, she found it empty with the exception of her husband's cane.
At that point, she began to suspect everything she had been told was a lie.
Herawati says it took some time for her to realize and explain to the resort's staff that she had been robbed and her daughter had been taken without her consent.
CCTV cameras showed Werner leaving the resort with his ex-wife's luggage in the company of a Vietnamese woman.
Her attorney later discovered that the woman who assisted Werner had checked in on a false passport. Werner accompanied her, paid for Herawati's room in cash and left a note.
The driver that brought them to the hotel would return to pick Herawati up at around 5AM and take her to the airport.
A still image from CCTV cameras shows Karl Werner leaving the Lan Rung Resort in Vung Tau with the daughter. Photo credit: CongAn Online
Speaking no Vietnamese and having been robbed of everything but VND200,000 and her passport, Herawati called the police and engaged in a series of frantic translated telephone exchanges with the driver who finally arrived at 3AM with her luggage.
Herawati claims someone had taken her telephone, cash and jewelry.
Werner would later tell her attorney that no one took anything from his ex-wife.
Herawati claims the driver spent the next five hours circling Ho Chi Minh City before dumping her at the airport and telling her to leave the country.
Instead, she grabbed his cell phone and wrote down the last three numbers he'd dialed.
Eventually airport security detained her and told her to leave the airport.
The numbers she'd written down would prove her only link back to Werner and the mysterious Vietnamese woman assisting him.
A turtle's pace
The response in Ho Chi Minh City to this child's apparent abduction has proven nothing short of galling.
Herawati claims she used her last bank not to take a taxi to the Indonesian Consulate.
A local attorney named Nguyen Thi Diem Phuong who heard about Herawati's predicament while staying at the Lan Rung Resort found Herawati through an Indonesian client and offered to represent her pro bono.
Seeking to settle the matter without involving the police, Phuong dialed the numbers Herawati had copied out of the driver's phone.
Eventually she got in touch with a woman who identified as Nguyen Phuc Quynh and claimed to be the wife of Werner's best friend.
Phuong says a review of police mugshots never matched her purported names. Friends who contacted Phuong through Facebook say the woman's actual name is An.
After some negotiation the woman summoned Werner to the coffee shop.
When he arrived, Phuong says she offered to draft a custody-sharing agreement on the condition that he call his ex-wife and let her know their daughter is safe.
Werner allegedly left the meeting saying he'd consider the offer.
Instead he called the attorney the following day and broke down sobbing.
According to a recording of their conversation, Werner said Herawati and her boyfriend had left him unable to return his daughter.
“I'll never see her again,” he said.
Werner further claimed his daughter had drawn “terrible” pictures of Herawati's boyfriend with “fangs and things.”
“Honestly, I don't really have anything in my life except [my daughter],” he said . “If I lose my job, if I go to jail if I lose my reputation, it's OK. Because, honestly, I don't really have anything.”
At the conclusion of the call, he promised to call Herawati and never did, according to Phuong.
21 days later
The Indonesian consulate has thrice petitioned the US Consulate to take action on behalf of Herawati's daughter, an American citizen.
A source speaking on background at the US consulate confirmed that they have been unable to reach Werner and so the office has petitioned the Department of External Relations to locate the child and confirm her well-being.
“I believe the Vietnamese authorities are doing so,” she said.
The US consulate has also checked with Vietnam's Immigration Department to ensure Werner hasn't left the country.
They have no record of having left, though portions of Vietnam's land border are notoriously porous.
In the meantime, Werner's cancer narrative appears to be unraveling.
Werner had only rented his District 1 apartment a few days before Herawati's arrival.
When she finally discovered Werner had been sharing an apartment in District 7 with a Vietnamese woman, she enlisted her father and the district police to accompany her to knock on the door. No one answered, but Phuong instantly received a texted photograph taken from outside the building and a message in broken English.
“I know you guys are trying to find my place but believe me you are pushing [the child] in dangerous[sic],” the message read. “But you will see hows[sic] things will go.”
The landlord said Werner and the woman hadn't paid their July rent.
Phuong claims that Werner has threatened to release prurient pictures of Herawati if she doesn't back off--a crime punishable in Vietnam by as much as a year in prison.
Displeased by local newspaper coverage, the driver (identified only as Nhut) has insisted that Herawati and Phuong come to Vung Tau to clear up his role in the abduction.
They declined, fearing for their safety.
Meanwhile, police there have told Phuong they're only now elevating the case to the municipal department.
Several concerned citizens have suggested Herawati and her attorney take a trip to Bac Lieu Province to speak to the parents of the woman variously identified as Quynh and An.
All of this seems like the sort of thing one might do to recover a beloved bicycle, not a five year-old American citizen.
Herawati hasn't seen her daughter in three weeks and purports not to know whether she is dead or alive.
When asked what everyone should know about this case, she answered simply:
“They should be embarrassed.”