The American father who took his daughter from a Vung Tau resort has vowed to remain in Vietnam with his child until he has achieved at least partial custody.
Karl Werner, 37, says he intends to also sue this and other media outlets for unfair coverage of events of the past month.
Reached at the Tran Vinh Hotel in Bac Lieu City on Wednesday, Werner maintained that taking his five-year old daughter from the Lan Rung Resort was not a crime.
“This is entirely a civil matter,” he said, acknowledging that it would likely be treated criminally in the United States. “If I have to live in Vietnam in some legal limbo, I will.”
I have a responsibility to protect my daughter.”
Werner’s Indonesian ex-wife, Ela Herawati, 35, and her lawyer, Nguyen Thi Diem Phuong, 33, began publicly accusing Werner of concocting a false narrative about suffering from bone cancer to lure his ex-wife and daughter to Vietnam.
During an amicable trip to Vung Tau on July 15, they say Werner took the child without Herawati’s knowledge.
Werner largely acknowledged that version of events, but maintained he'd committed “a rescue” rather than an abduction. He also denied allegations that he and his fiancée had stolen Herawati's personal property.
“I have a responsibility to protect my daughter,” he said, adding that intermittent Skype calls with his ex-wife over the past year had led him to believe Herawati's boyfriend had abused their child in Manila — where the mother and daughter now reside.
Herawati denied the claims and pointed to smiling photos of her boyfriend and the child as evidence.
Not going anywhere
During a protracted interview with Thanh Nien, Werner and his pregnant fiancée, Nguyen Phuc Quynh, 30, emphatically denied allegations that they had stolen Herawati's telephone, cash and personal effects.
“I don't know what happened to her things,” he said.
The couple described Herawati as mentally unsound and generally unstable; they also offered to reimburse her for any money or property lost during her trip to Vietnam.
“I make thousands of dollars a month,” said Quynh, who said she sold cosmetics online. “I don’t need to steal anything from anyone.”
Herawati has likewise attempted to paint her ex-husband as mentally unsound and dismissed his claims as lies.
Werner and Quynh say they have consulted an attorney about suing various Vietnamese media outlets for their coverage of the events. The couple intends to marry and start a family here — Werner says he just wants some assurance he can see his daughter again.
“I'm not going anywhere,” Werner said.
During Herawati's three-week separation from her child, she has distributed missing persons posters and petitioned the Vietnamese media and both the American and Indonesian Consulates for help in recovering the girl.
Werner and Herawati were married and divorced in Indonesia and she insists that a 2014 Indonesian court ruling granted her full custody of the child.
She and her attorney maintain that the ruling should serve as reason for the child's immediate and unconditional return to her custody.
Werner maintains that the Indonesian ruling was predicated on false testimony and bribery orchestrated by Herawati and described the past year as deeply painful.
“It was legal abduction,” Werner said, acknowledging that he had never paid the $500 in court-ordered child support. “I was lied to, I was cheated and I lost my kid.”
Werner claims that scurrilous media coverage had cost him his job at the American International School. Until Friday, he had declined to speak to Thanh Nien News or other media outlets seeking comment.
Werner also dismissed any public outrage the coverage has engendered as spurious.
“When people drop into your life and want to make judgements on you, that’s fine because they’re over their Cheerios,” he said. “The US Consulate says this isn’t an abduction.”
Not a crime
Ela Herawati, 35, (R) and her lawyer, Nguyen Thi Diem Phuong, 33, spent most of Thursday night petitioning police in Bac Lieu City to remove her child from a nearby hotel. Photo: Calvin Godfrey
The US consulate declined to send anyone to Bac Lieu to assist Werner and cautioned third parties from getting involved in the dispute.
Seated at the Tran Vinh hotel in downtown Bac Lieu City on Friday morning, Werner pointed out that Vietnam isn’t a party to the Hague Convention on International Child Abduction and remained confident that he would not be arrested in Vietnam.
He may prove right.
Police in Vung Tau, where the incident first began, refused to contact or send a representative to present allegations of theft and abduction to police in Bac Lieu City on Thursday.
Herawati and Phuong spent that evening filing handwritten petitions at ward and city-level police stations just a few blocks from the Tran Vinh Hotel where Werner, Quynh and the child at the center of the dispute were staying.
After filling out the reports and making phone calls to higher-ups, the officers at the station declined to take action citing the complicated nature of the case.
Late that evening, a representative from Bac Lieu's Department of External Relations arrived and declined to intervene.
A mob scene
A representative of the Indonesian Consulate arrived at the Tran Vinh hotel in Bac Lieu City to petition the local authorities to intervene. Shortly after this picture was taken, a mob attempted to take the child away from Karl Werner, leaving scratches on the arms of the child and her father. Photo: Calvin Godfrey
The following morning, Herawati's attorney drove to Quynh's parents and demanded that they assist her in recovering the child.
By Friday afternoon, Thanh Nien's attempts to broker an amicable reunion between Herawati and her daughter failed largely because Werner and Herawati both refused to trust the other not to abscond with the child.
Eventually, a representative from the Indonesian Consulate arrived from Ho Chi Minh City and asked the local authorities to intervene on the child's behalf.
Outside the hotel where all this was taking place, a crowd of mostly women gathered to watch.
By 2 p.m., police and militiamen had been dispatched to maintain order as the group of onlookers swelled to an angry mob of nearly 100 that spilled into the street, blocking off traffic.
Ostensibly exasperated by the scene, the owner of the Tran Vinh Hotel asked Werner, Quynh and the child to leave the premises.
Pushing past police, members of the mob attempted to pull the child out of Werner's arms as he tried to enter a taxi, forcing him to retreat back into the hotel.
The encounter left scratches on both Werner's and the child's arms.
Soon after, police and members of the Department of External Relations formed a human wall around cars that took Werner, Herawati, her attorney, the child and Quynh to a local government building.
Reunited, for the moment
There Dinh Xuan Phuong, the deputy director of the provincial Department of External Relations, heard all sides and advised everyone to travel to the Indonesian Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City to negotiate the matter in the presence of the US government.
Werner initially refused, citing the US policy of not getting involved in civil matters.
When Phuong, the department head, asked Werner if he considered his course of action “right,” he answered no.
“But it was justified,” he said, while holding the child in his arms.
At around 7 p.m., after hours of deadlocked negotiation, everyone agreed to travel to Ho Chi Minh City.
Werner and Herawati sat in the same car with the child giggling happily between them — reunited, if for a moment, with both her parents.