The Cold Deep Sleep: A Fresh Look at the Murder of Charles E. Ditlefsen and the Crimes of Herbert Craig La Fon
A murder-mystery for the ages landed in the laps of Thailand's expats in 2016: a frozen chopped up body; passport forgery gangs; Patpong and Soi Cowboy frauds; and a man who claimed he was CIA.
That was just the tip of the iceberg.
As sordid details leaked to the press — crime scene photos of a decapitated head on Stickboy Bangkok’s site, even — from late September into early October, the sands of the story kept shifting so much that it was hard to tell truth from fiction.
Arm-chair sleuths hit the forums hard. ThaiVisa and TeakDoor lit up with comments from forum warriors who did a couple Googles and thought they’d cracked the case. Well, at least they were more competent than the BiB, am I right?
The story had it all. A frozen chopped up body of a former publishing executive from California. An FBI fugitive on the lam for nearly 4 decades who claimed to be CIA in Patpong’s bars. A shootout with police. Truth serum, lots of meth, and fake passports that tied back to known terrorists working with Al Qaeda.
But around mid-October 2016, the story blinked out of existence. Nothing but radio silence from both the Thai and English language press until December 2017 when the main suspect was sentenced to 43 years in Thai jail for concealing a corpse, weapons charges, narcotics, and fraud.
The story has sat since then in a cold deep sleep.
It’s been over 3 years since any life’s been given to the story.
After writing the stories of two Thai serial killers who liked to chop up their victims and send them down the water’s deep, a reader asked me to write about this case.
What I found has — and I say this with a dead straight face — given me chills.
Everything you thought you knew about the 2016 case of Charles E. Ditlefsen, the victim, and Herbert Craig La Fon, the man who concealed the body? Throw it out the window.
If you’ve got the balls, read on. It’s a doozy, clocking in at 15,000 words.
I pored over 100 sources to get the meat of the story — Thai and English press about the case; court records; home sales; archived website captures; forum and Facebook comments; and old magazine advertisements.
I establish timelines, I explore motivations, I separate the truth from the fact in this stunning mystery.
After you’re done, you won’t be able to think about this case the same way again.
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Those Magnificent Trains
The October 1984 issue of Pacific Rail News featured a front page advertisement selling train calendars. In a bold serif font, made just for the 80's, the headline read "Those Magnificent Trains" with "1985 Calendar" beneath.
The ad copy tells a brief history of the calendar. "Now in its sixth year, Charles Ditlefsen's Those Magnificent Trains calendar for 1985 is a striking work of art that you will want to have."
That would put Charles Ditlefsen's first launch of train calendars at 1978. Precisely 3 decades before he was allegedly murdered in Bangkok, Thailand, his body chopped up into a half dozen pieces, stored away in a freezer.
Nobody knew the fate of Mr. Charles Ditlefsen, better known as Chuck, until 8 years after this murder.
Everybody who loved his calendars, his friends and associates that he'd met over the 3 decades of running his publishing business — which he built up at one point to a 250 employee, $48 million annual revenue operation — just thought he'd went missing. Or died of cancer quietly.
Comments on a popular train forum popped up from time to time.
In January 2009, at least 3 months after Chuck had disappeared, a user with the handle PERichardson posted on the TrainOrders.com forum:
Anyone know what happened to Chuck Ditlefsen's calendar outfit? Looks like some outfit back east is publishing some of them for 2009, without the usual quality.
A discussion of Chuck's calendar business and publishing operation followed, ending with a comment from a user with the handle El4Short:
Unfortunately, Chuck went bankrupt last year (again) and left the photographers unpaid for the 2008 calendar line. If he ever brings back the "Magnificent Trains" title, he's going to have a tough time getting photos from any of us.
This was a man who'd once been an engine driving the train calendar business, leading with innovation and quality, his brand synonymous with the magnificent shots of locomotives criss-crossing a picturesque American landscape.
By the end Chuck was a man sunk with bankruptcy, business failures, and massive personal debt.
It's a common enough story.
These beaten, world-weary men past their prime seek out a new lease on life, a fresh start, in the Land of Smiles. What with the cheap beer, tropical heat, and friendly girls always at the ready, who could blame them?
And so Chuck set off for Thailand. His bank account flush with $1.355 million dollars after selling his home in Mill Valley, California. And at some point between August and October 2008, Chuck landed in Bangkok.
Every detail I bring up in this story I've found sources for, much of them original and never discussed in any other article or report on Charles E. Ditlefsen's life. I've been able to construct a timeline of his last known living months after surfing through business records, archives of websites he ran, property sales, train forum comments, and court litigation. It's my conviction that a closer look at the last known years of this man's life will shed light on the motives of his alleged killer, Mr. Herbert Craig La Fon.
Because as it's been told so far, La Fon's motive doesn't add up for the grisly crime.
The way it’s been told, Chuck's frozen, dismembered body was found on September 23rd, 2016. Police raided the home after a tip off from an American man, Donald Kramer, who had been nabbed with a forged passport on September 15th, 2016.
Donald told Thai cops he bought the phony document at a shop-house on Sukhumvit Soi 56. The cops raided the home, and were only looking for the passport forgery operation. What they found shocked them.
First, they knocked. La Fon answered and once he saw it was a raid, the cops were greeted with gunshots. La Fon managed to wound one tourist cop.
Officers found the fake passports, equipment to make them, along with firearms, and a lot of drugs.
Two other Americans were in the shop-house, too: Aaron Gabel, a 34 year old family man with a Thai wife and luk-khrueng (ลูกครึ่ง) daughter; and James "Jim" Eger, 67, a former oil exec who'd moved to South East Asia to become a palm oil consultant. Yeah, I believe that one... and I came to Thailand to report crime.
But the big surprise came when officers cracked open a freezer in the backroom. There was the body in 6 pieces, frozen solid, stuffed into black trash bags.
Herbert Craig La Fon, Aaron Gabel, and Jim Eger were all arrested on charges related to the weapons, drugs, and the dead body found at the house.
Photos from the bust and the grim discovery hit the internet and the story took a life of its own.
The expat forums from TeakDoor.com to ThaiVisa.com were abuzz with speculation from armchair sleuths and skeptics of the Thai police's ability to solve the crime.
Details and misinformation swirled about the case, which had all the ingredients for a thrilling murder mystery.
The press, both English language and Thai, couldn't get the basic facts sorted out. Nor could the cops. There were so many passports found at the home, many of them belonging to La Fon, that identified him as British, then Irish, then finally American, across a few assumed aliases. The cops struggled for days to identify who this man really was.
Then it took a couple weeks for Thai police, working with American law enforcement, to conclude that Chuck was the victim. Even after 8 years in the freezer, one little clue fueled early identification efforts: the frozen corpse was wearing a shirt with the Cedco logo.
Regarding La Fon's motives, one Thai police psychologist said early on that the killer had a homosexual affair with the victim and his attachment to his murdered lover cast a dark, bewitching spell over him, making it impossible for La Fon to dispose of the body.
That little detail certainly got the jollies for the forum trolls.
It even gave me a much needed laugh.
Even after an intense police interrogation, La Fon could only muster this for a motive: Chuck owed him $60,000 (about 2.1 million baht at the time).
But how does a man who's been in Thailand for at most 8 weeks owe a guy like La Fon that much dough? The motive doesn’t add up.
And who was this Herbert Craig La Fon, anyway?
Much has been written about La Fon, a fugitive who had been wanted by the FBI for credit card fraud since 1979, when he fled the USA and set off for a life of crime abroad. FBI bulletins informed the public that he may have been living under one of 16 aliases, most likely in Mexico, running a sporting goods shop. When La Fon landed in Thailand is, to this day, a mystery.
La Fon was a big talker.
Around the Patpong bars he often dropped word that he was a CIA operative. Doing what, nobody knew — but most could smell the bullshit stink a mile away. Most thought the guy was a harmless crank, not uncommon in this part of the world.
But when police tried to bring his ex-wife in for questioning, to at least build a little background and character on La Fon, the main suspect, she refused, citing the threats he'd laid on her in the past. She was deathly afraid of the man.
La Fon stuck with his story of Chuck's debt being the motive for the killing, but added that he only helped chop up the frozen body. La Fon insisted that the killer was a man named Robert Logan Grandey, who had died earlier in 2016 from cancer, his body already cremated, his bones and testimony turned to ash.
And mostly, that was the whole story.
The story fizzled out in early October 2016 in both the Thai and English language press. After the initial flurry of articles and buzz in both the press and online expat forums from late September to mid October, there was near radio silence on the case until December 2017 when La Fon was sentenced to 43 years for “attempted murder of a police officer; transporting a body without proper cause; and narcotic possession with intent to sell.”
There was no murder charge for killing the dead man in the freezer.
The two other Americans that were with La Fon during the raid were acquitted of all charges: drugs, murder, weapons, concealing the body — none of the charges stuck. As an aside, however, Aaron Gabel, despite being acquitted of all charges, is to this day stuck inside a Thai prison. A sad fact that I'll address later on.
Back to the main culprit.
A lifetime criminal, La Fon, who'd been forging passports and other documents for years, who'd been able to purchase the shop-house on Sukhumvit Soi 56 for 7.5 million baht in 2015, who'd raised a family in Thailand with an estranged wife, who by all accounts did very well for himself all these years on the lam from the FBI — he was all but convicted of Chuck's murder.
La Fon stayed off the radar of Thai police until a guy got caught with one of his phony passports and grassed.
He was, at the end of the day, a lifetime crook. A man who likely defrauded others, forged passports, dealt in narcotics, but had managed to never cross the foul side of the law in Thailand. There were no other murders attached to his name that we know of, no other arrests.
Just another bar stool warrior, nursing Sang Som deep into Bangkok night, always the one to pick up his table's tab.
But the more I read about the case, the more I became intrigued with the alleged victim, Chuck. The more I read, the more questions bubbled up in my mind. The case became a real head-scratcher.
How did a former train calendar publisher get mixed up with a crook like La Fon within weeks of landing in Thailand?
I got involved with researching and writing this story after a tip from a True Crime Thailand reader. He asked me to take a look at the case. At first I thought it'd be another rehash of La Fon's antics, which were interesting and numerous in themselves. Then I found out about Aaron Gabel still sitting in Thai prison even after acquittal. But the more I went down the rabbit hole, the more Chuck's story kept creeping up in the back of my mind.
After poring over every bit of spilt ink on the case, and even finding new clues to add to the story, I needed to confront my own bitter cold questions:
How did Chuck, a fresh-off-the-plane expat, meet the old hand expat La Fon? Why was a frozen body chopped up in a half dozen pieces found in a freezer in La Fon's home? How did Chuck die? And what was the real motive for his murder?
More importantly, why was Chuck in Thailand in the first place? When did he arrive?
What did his last months really look like?
For some of these questions, I do have conclusive answers. For others, I'll simply lay out my angle based on all available evidence.
And as the story is told, as I address the questions and gaps in the story and bring new evidence to light, keep in mind that just like in Thailand, nothing in this story is at it seems in the end.
What follows is the full untold story of Charles E. Ditlefsen.
Charles E Ditlefsen, Inc. vs. Dai Nippon Printing Co., Ltd.
The following details might seem tedious and boring to some. They’re primarily concerned with a lawsuit that Chuck's company filed against a Japanese printing conglomerate, who had a long standing business relationship with Chuck.
I will detail the facts of the lawsuit in a simple and efficient manner so that the facts are on the table. It is my view, after analyzing the mystery surrounding Chuck's alleged death, that this lawsuit was a catalyst in a downward spiral that he suffered in business and finances, which ultimately led him to Thailand.
The facts follow.
On January 2nd, 2002, Charles E. Ditlefsen Inc., a Nevada corporation doing business as Cedco Publishing Company filed a lawsuit against an American division of the Dai Nippon Printing Co., Ltd. in the Superior Court of the County of San Francisco.
The complaint hinged on a breach of contract on the part of Dai Nippon, a Japanese printing company established in 1876. The complaint put forth claims both fraud and negligence. The plaintiff, Chuck's company, which was doing business in San Francisco, sought punitive damages in relation to a business deal between the two entities that took place between November 1999 and June 2000.
Chuck hired Dai Nippon to print calendars for his business at Dai Nippon's Hong Kong printing facilities, and according to Hong Kong printing standards.
The lawsuit alleged that the breach of contract started around January 2000 and continued for two years. Dai Nippon didn't print the calendars in Hong Kong. They ended up printing them in mainland China, and delivered an ultimately inferior and unacceptable product to Chuck's calendar business.
The calendars were of such poor quality that they were returned to Dai Nippon for reprinting, which resulted in delays for Cedco to deliver product to his clients and customers. Sales of the calendars went south due to these delays.
According to the first document in the lawsuit, it's alleged that Dai Nippon knew that they intended to have the calendars printed in mainland China, as opposed to Hong Kong, which they promised to Cedco when signing the initial contract.
Dai Nippon was fully aware that the standards in China would not be the same as the printing standards in Hong Kong.
The lawsuit follows that if Cedco knew that the calendars were going to be ultimately printed in China, that they would not have entered into the contract with Dai Nippon.
Cedco claimed that they tried selling the calendars, but they were of such inferior quality that they could not ship them out to retail stores, and this significantly reduced their sales.
The plaintiff, Cedco, sought to recoup a judgement for costs including damages, interest on the damages, attorney fees, and punitive damages due to the fraud.
The amount that Cedco ultimately sought was unspecified in all the 98 court actions that followed over the next three and a half years.
What did follow three weeks after Cedco filed the initial lawsuit, however, was a cross-complaint by Dai Nippon alleging that Cedco breached the contract they'd established. Dai Nippon also filed an answer to Cedco's claims, and with 18 points of defense, that denied any and all wrongdoing.
The counter-complaint filed by Dai Nippon had legs.
The court document filed on January 31st, 2002, states some very revealing facts about Cedco's business operations. It is exactly why I am including them in this full story of Chuck's mysterious demise.
The document states that Cedco's revenues for 2001 were approximately $28 million. As an aside, these revenues were down from 1997’s revenues of $45 million that Cedco posted.
The lawsuit also claims that Dai Nippon is ultimately unaware of all of the business names the Cedco may have been operating under.
Let's pause here for just a hot second. The paragraph above is very revealing, as when I researched Chuck's business structures, I found a labyrinth of businesses registered in various jurisdictions, addresses, and counties in California and Nevada. They were all tied back to Chuck or Cedco in one way or the other.
I could list them all here for you. But it'd be a jumbled mess. It’s not a critical point in the story, but it’s interesting and appeared enough in my research to note for you.
Moving on then.
The facts in the cross-complaint follow that on July 26th, 2000, Dai Nippon entered an agreement with Cedco to print and deliver 125 separate calendar titles for the year 2000. At this time, Cedco had moved well beyond just train calendars. I will discuss Cedco's full offerings a little further down, but for now, let's stick with the facts of the lawsuit.
The 2000 sales agreement between Dai Nippon and Cedco was nearly identical to a sales agreement between the two parties in 1999.
The agreement detailed a timely payment plan for the products and services that Dai Nippon would deliver. The sales agreement stated that if there was a default on payment, then Dai Nippon would be able to secure collateral from Cedco in the form of "cash, accounts, contract rights, inventory, in connection with calendars or other products in the business" and that Dai Nippon had the right to inspect the collateral and financial records of Cedco.
Other products and printed stationary were ordered by Cedco as well. The lawsuit detailed that Cedco's usual business practice was to send purchase orders for the products and services they needed. Between November 2000 and December 2001, Cedco issued multiple purchase orders under the 2000 sales agreement.
Dai Nippon would then issue an invoice at the time the purchase orders were received and completed. Payment was commonly due 120 days after the bill was issued for that purchase order.
Cedco, however, failed to make timely or complete payments on the invoices submitted during this time. This is a foreshadowing, an omen, of the business problems that Cedco seemed to be getting themselves into as the 2000's crept along.
In August 2001, Dai Nippon notified Cedco of its default under the 2000 sales agreement, and sought payment for all amounts owed at that time. Cedco offered a payment schedule, which would fulfill their debt obligations by March 2002 — a full 8 months later.
Indeed, Cedco did make partial payments under this schedule, totaling $352,089, but did not make timely or full payments as they'd promised.
At this point, I want to pause again. There are two things that could have been happening here. What follows is a little diversion from the lawsuit with a closer look at Cedco’s business health and operations.
First, it could very well have been true that Dai Nippon delivered a shoddy product. In fact, it's very likely that they did. And thus, Chuck and his company didn't want to pay for the product in full, as stated in the contract. They wanted to get out of having to pay by claiming Dai Nippon printed the calendars in China, as opposed to Hong Kong as agreed. This is a likely scenario.
Another scenario, equally as likely, is that Cedco was already facing financial difficulties. This could have been due to retail sales slowing. In fact, there is good evidence of this as the only actual interview of Chuck that exists on the record is from a December 2003 article on Cedco's operations and Chuck's entrepreneurial background published in the San Francisco Business Times.
The article and interview have a few contradictory claims. It starts off by saying that Cedco, as of 2003, was on track for its best performance since 1997. Amazing!
A business that Chuck, an engineer by training and a transportation planner in Marin County, had started in his spare bedroom 25 years prior (1979, in fact) had gone on to turn into a $20 million business ($45 million annual revenue by 1997, in fact; and now down to $28 million by 2003).
But later on in the interview, Chuck paints a different picture with the details of his operations. He goes on to say that the company hit a buffer that derailed much of the Bay Area economy.
Chuck said that, “When I started doing this [Cedco], I was working out of an extra bedroom in my house. Then I had 140 employees five years ago . Now we have 50.”
A meteoric rise, and an Icarian fall. As of 2003, the article stated that two-thirds of Cedco's business was calendars, which they produced 200 different ones per year.
What were their most popular lines?
Well, not the train calendars that have most often been associated with his name, both in the press after his murder and the online commentary around his business from the old railroad and train fans that populate and comment in forums with the same devotion and fervor, and with equal speculation, as the commenters in Thailand expat forums.
But I digress.
The 2003 articles goes on.
The most popular lines were the Star Wars calendars, which was Cedco's first major license. Chuck won this license by calling Lucas Films himself around 1989, before the films had been re-released on video. Chuck put up 10 grand to secure the deal, and he sold about a million Star Wars calendars in 2002.
Licensing products and popular intellectual property actually became 70 percent of Cedco's business. Not trains, but rather: Star Wars; Queer Eye for the Straight Guy; and babies sleeping in flower pots, a phenomenon from the New Zealand photographer, Anne Geddes, famous for her baby shots.
Cedco held the license on Geddes's work from 1994 to 2000. At the height of popularity of these baby calendars, Cedco's staff swelled to 140. But things change, and Geddes changed the style of her work. She got artsy-fartsy. She wandered away from cute and middle America. Her newfound creative style couldn't sell at Walmart, and thus sales fell and Cedco and Geddes parted ways.
A local paper that goes unnamed in this 2003 article, but which I believe is the Marin Independent Journal (as they also ran a story about Cedco in 2005, which I will get to later), ran a story that said Cedco laid off 50 people in one day. This was directly attributed to the loss of Geddes and the babies in flower pots calendars.
The article finished off with future plans, which in comparison to the big wins of Star Wars and Geddes, seemed like pale revenue drivers for the company.
Again, this article in the San Fransisco Business Times was published on December 7th, 2003. By coincidence or by design, this was just about one month after the Superior Court of California in the County of San Francisco ordered the case of Charles E. Ditlefsen, Inc. vs. Dai Nippon Printing Co. Ltd. off the calendar.
That is to say, the court decided on November 13th, 2003, to not hear the case that Chuck's company had brought to the court.
In essence, Chuck lost. Dai Nippon won the fight that Chuck and Cedco started.
I'm going to step in and throw my two cents into the ring: psychologically, this was a crushing blow to Chuck. Financially, it crippled Cedco, which only two years later filed bankruptcy and stopped delivering calendars after nearly three decades in operation.
But the hurt wasn't complete.
Remember, Dai Nippon had waged their own offensive against Chuck's company. The cross-complaint that alleged Cedco did not pay the full amount of invoices Dai Nippon had sent for products delivered.
And thus, on August 10th, 2005, the court ordered a judgement against Charles E. Ditlefsen, Inc., doing business as Cedco Publishing Company in the total amount of $470,631.32.
Ouch, that one hurt. And bad.
The cross-complaint stated that in December 2001, a manager from Dai Nippon's American office met with Cedco's president, which would be Chuck himself, to discuss Cedco's overdue debt. At that time, Cedco requested an extension to the payment arrangement, which would allow for payments of just $50,000 weekly.
Under this plan, Cedco's debts, which totalled $2.6 million, wouldn't be paid in full until at least October 2002. Needless to say, Dai Nippon rejected the offer. They simply didn't believe that Cedco could even generate enough sales at that point to cover the debt obligations.
It was exactly at this time that Dai Nippon sought legal recourse to reclaiming debts owed. Cedco failed and refused to provide income statements, accounts, and other financial documents as agreed in their 2000 sales agreement.
And, at the end of the day, the court decided in Dai Nippon's favor.
Let's take a quick look at the details of the August 2005 judgement, and then consider its full consequences.
The court levied a $1.4 million judgement against Cedco when it was all said and done, plus reasonable attorney fees and court costs incurred by Dai Nippon. Cedco had already paid $931,093.68, and thus the remaining balance according to the judgement was $470,631.32.
This was signed and stamped on August 10th, 2005 by the Judge James L. Warren at the San Francisco Superior Court.
Surely a company that had $20 million + in annual revenue could have braced and prepared for such an impact.
But I wouldn't be so sure.
In fact, on July 27th, 2005, just two weeks before the judgement against Cedco, the magazine Publisher’s Weekly ran a story of Cedco's demise.
"Sad Diary Entry: Calendar Maker Cedco Closes", reads the headline.
It stated how Cedco "quietly shut its doors and reportedly let all staff go. A main company number has a message that Cedco's office is no longer open for business and refers inquired to the company's lawyer. Calls to the lawyer have not been returned."
As of 2005, the company employed 50 people. According to the 2003 article cited above, Cedco employed 140. There are other business records that indicate that Cedco Publishing had at one point employed upwards of 249 people.
The Publisher's Weekly article also described how according to Cedco ex-employes, Ditlefsen engaged in erratic behavior for six weeks leading up to the company's closure. He called company wide meetings to announce his retirement, and called another meeting to claim that he was fighting against a hostile payover.
He even said he'd cover payroll himself.
Employees were shocked when the HR manager told everybody to leave the Cedco office.
The article said that employees stormed Ditlefsen's locked office. He rejected a deal for minority stakeholders to buy the company. And the employees claimed they hadn't been paid for two weeks.
These were desperate times for Cedco.
And trying times for Chuck.
That much is sure.
That was a hard fall for a company whose name was once associated with train calendars and who dominated the middle America calendar market, licensing everything from Star Wars to Lord of the Ring to Charlie's Angels to those cute little babies in flower pots.
Chuck must have taken the business failure hard. Anybody would.
One just needs to read biographical accounts of business leaders who faced failure. He ran Cedco for three decades.
It was his baby, an operation he started as a side hustle in a spare room as he worked as a transportation planner in the Bay Area.
He was a man that took a risk and followed his passions publishing the best, high quality train and railroad calendars that the American public had seen. He'd nurtured the business into a full-fledged calendar publishing empire.
The empire had waned, and the lawsuit dealt its death-blow.
I'd imagine that the loss of such a business is akin to losing a child in its gravity and the process of grief that follows.
But the best entrepreneurs keep fighting. They reinvent themselves. They don't give up.
And, in fact, Chuck was just that. A fighter.
We only have one single interview of the man, the 2003 article cited above, but the actions Chuck took after the demise of his baby and once thriving calendar business, Cedco Publishing, tell the true character of this man.
He was not going to give up.
Was this going to be an easy fight? Hell no.
On those train forums, the comments flooded in once news hit the wire of Cedco's bankruptcy.
On July 30th, 2005, right smack dab between the shuttering of Cedco's offices and the court judgement, a user with the handle jbwest started a thread on the TrainOrders.com forum.
"Cedco (the calendar company) bankrupt" was the topic.
His comment read:
My local newspaper had a front page story this morning about Cedco closing its doors. Unclear whether it is permanent, but apparently Cedco is in serious trouble. They did some nice railroad calendars. Here is the story from the paper's website: http://www.marinij.com/marin/ci_2901900
Sadly, that link to the Marin Independent Journal is a dead link. Believe me, I tried every which way I could to find the original.
But others chimed in. The user with the handle 90mac said:
That really is a shame, my wife and I used to enjoy his calendars. Tom.
Another user with the handle BrianJennison piped up, summarizing the article from the Marin newspaper.
As the article said, the calendars have been printed and are sitting in a warehouse (in Sparks, NV I think). I just received copies of 2006 SP, WP, Canadian Trains and American Trollies as I have some photos in each of these. So let's hope they get straightened out enough to ship to their dealers. But this certainly doesn't bode well for future years' calendars, or for getting paid... :-(
That line about getting paid sticks out, doesn't it? Because it's not the first time I came across anecdotes about Cedco not paying. Whether it was photographers, or in the court judgement, their suppliers, and even employees, many didn’t get paid by Chuck in the end.
In fact, another commenter with the handle KoloradoKid jumped in:
Poor sales probably did them in. I know some who boycotted the companies products due to their attitude. KK.
Poor attitude on behalf of Cedco, or a forum troll. I'll leave that decision up to you.
Because it's not all slogging in the comments.
The thread ends with a comment from Nitehostler, who said:
I've had an 18 year business relationship with Chuck & would like to say here that he has always been cordial, honest & great to deal with. Additionally, he has been one of the few people that I have been comfortable with using my slides for publication as they have always come back to me in a timely fashion and in the same shape as when I lent them to him. I wish him the best. Tom.
Another thread popped up on TrainOrders.com about 5 months later, on December 11th, 2005.
The user with the handle chichi41 starts the thread titled simply, "Cedco."
His comment stated:
What's the deal with Cedco? I heard they went out of business,but their website is still up. They do not respond to any e-mails or calls to their toll-free number. However, they will except new orders and acknowledge with an e-mail. Then,they do NOT send you what you ordered! I'm soooo confused. Ron W.
No worries, Ron. I was confused too when I first dipped my toes into this case. But believe me, it all clears up soon enough.
Let's dive right in... the water's mighty cold where we're going. Freezing, as it were.
The user Edwarjb piped up with:
A long and sorry story, not unlike a soap opera. Company is bankrupt, in the hands of a receiver, the court fights continue. I did read a fairly comprehensive summary of the situation recently. Was it in a Bay Area newspaper? Anyone have the link? Ed.
The article that Ed's referring to here is in fact the Marin Independent Journal article from July 30th, 2005. In the comments we get an actual quote from that article:
It's been a bizarre month at San Rafael calendar maker Cedco Publishing. A struggle between the company's founder and an alliance of its largest shareholder and some creditors has devolved into an ugly battle over how to get the company out of millions of dollars in debt and who will lead it in doing so. A Marin County Superior Court judge appointed a bankruptcy trustee this week to run the company's books for the next 45 days.
The thread ends with a comment from Cameraman, who simply stated that:
Ditlesfen is trying to make a comeback with a new calendar comapny (sic) next year.
My apologies for quoting your spelling error as it appeared, Cameraman. But I want my legacy to be known first and foremost for its accuracy to the historical record.
It's likely that Cameraman had worked as a train photographer and submitted photos to Cedco in the past, I'd wager.
Thus, he'd have personal knowledge of Cedco’s situation to the extent that he'd maybe have a chance to submit photos again to another incarnation of the business.
Chuck had his supporters and his detractors, it seemed. And by all accounts the man had a name, especially with that core following he'd first appealed to when it all started: the train enthusiasts that first fell in love with his title Those Magnificent Trains.
In the end, Cedco Publishing was finished. The lawsuit was the death blow.
But Chuck wasn’t finished. Not by a longshot.
And thus with wind behind his sail, and an equal cross wind at the bow, Chuck sailed forth to his next venture, landing on an entrepreneurial shore that resembled the one he'd just departed.
After all, why not do what one's always done best?
The Reincarnation of Cedco, the Alleged Death of Charles E. Ditlefsen
As an expat in Thailand, or somebody even with a passing interest in the place, you're probably well-aware of how the expat rumor mill works.
A bit of fact can be chewed up on the bar stools of pubs from Bangkok to Phuket, from Pattaya to Udon Thani, and spit back out on forums like ThaiVisa and expat Facebook groups where by the time it's all said and done, the bit of nourishment from the original fact has now been regurgitated, swallowed again, spit back up, over and over, perhaps dozens, if not hundreds of times in wild iterations fueled by piss warm Chang and alienation in a strange land.
The funny thing about that?
Thailand expat forums are not unique in this regard.
Some wish they were, as the trollish peanut gallery on ThaiVisa and some Facebook groups would make an easy scapegoat for tainting one's own superior outlook and understanding of the Land of Smiles. For we're all experts behind the keyboard, are we not?
But I digress.
The train forums frequented by those who knew Chuck and Cedco best ruminated in a similar style with rumors as they chewed on a bit of fact.
I wanted to know exactly how Chuck’s new business ventures fared. So, I went to the guys that knew Chuck best. The commenters on the TrainOrders.com forums.
On July 1st, 2006, the user with the handle Super_C posted a threat titled "Cedco Calendars."
His comment followed:
Has the reincarnation of Cedco begun? Rumors have it that there is an ad in RAILFAN regarding new products.
Then another comment, this one from Nitehostler, who seems to have known Chuck personally and was quoted in a thread earlier in this story. He commented
I recently got a letter from Chuck looking for submissions...he has added a few new railroad titles, the exact subjects escape me at the (senior) moment. Tom.
The user PasadenaSub followed up with:
There is a full-page on the rear cover of the August issue of Railfan. Charles Ditlefsen presents....The 2007 Calendar Collection! Looks similar to Cedco calendars of the past... The website name seems to allude to a Cedco past with cedrr.com.
And finally, and this is very important for the story that follows of Chuck's personal fight and motivations of his final years, the user MattMelzer replied:
Not necessarily, Rich. "CED" are Charles E. Ditlefsen's initials! EDIT: Duh, that was the CED in Cedco. Can you tell I'm jetlagged? :-)
Aha! This little clue opens up a treasure chest overflowing with motivation, at least for me, admittedly an armchair sleuth.
Cedco had been from the very beginning the namesake of Charles E. Ditlefsen. And now he launched the reincarnation of his original train calendar brand under the website cedrr.com, which read fully and aloud means exactly "Charles E. Ditlefsen" railroad.
Chuck wasn't done. Cedco Publishing might have been done. The dozens of employees at his office in San Rafael, California — they were done.
But not Chuck.
As I turned over every stone the windy path of this murder tale, I found plenty of legal records that gave a very clear timeline as to when Chuck did what and where.
And regarding his new business, it's a recorded fact that he launched it on August 1st, 2006, as he filed articles of incorporation for the Mill Valley Licensing Company with the office of the Secretary of State of California, who at that time was Bruce McPherson, who served under the Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Charles E. Ditlefsen is named as the primary agent, director, and officer of the company. The address listed is 119 Bay View Dr., Mill Valley, California 94941.
That address, in fact, was Chuck's own residential address — a beautiful home overlooking the Bay Area, perched on a verdant leafy hill, spacious and comfortable. Confirming his address is a very important key to the whole mystery that I will come back to a little later on. Keep a mental note of this fact.
Later on December 29th, 2006, further documents were filed keeping the Mill Valley Licensing Company current with California business filing protocol. And the same was done on September 12th, 2007 — no change in address, no change to the business.
As a side note, it's also in these records where we can see in black and white the ink of his John Hancock, an Americanism that I'll translate for the rest of the world's readers as “signature.”
Thus, we can conclusively say that as of September 12th, 2007, Chuck was still residing in Mill Valley, California. He hadn't moved to Thailand yet.
In fact, that doesn't come until about a year later with the sale of his Mill Valley home.
Let's not get ahead of ourselves now.
We can't follow Chuck to Thailand just yet.
Remember, Chuck was a fighter. He was still working on getting his new business off the ground.
And this is where a clue dropped in the TrainOrders.com forum comes in handy. We know what website URL Chuck was using to sell his new line of calendars, and that was cedrr.com.
Of course, that website displays a for sale sign now. You can go and buy it for $3,995 right now if you want. A hot bargain for the collectors of murder victim memorabilia. Who knows, right? This story might turn into a movie some day.
Thankfully, as the most hardy and battle-worn denizens and armchair sleuths of the interwebz are well aware of, there's a simple fix to the problem of a website being long gone: The Wayback Machine operated by Archive.org.
It's a tool that keeps a screenshot record of webpages stretching back over 15 years. It's not an exact science, as the spiders that scurry across the exponentially growing world wide web can only record so much. But for websites that existed in the quiter, halcyon Internet days of the early 2000s, there exists a fairly fine record of what was online.
The earliest record on The Wayback Machine of cedrr.com is from January 1st, 2007, which was 4 months after Chuck filed the paperwork to kick start his Mill Valley Licensing Company.
The website header is a graphic arrangement of a variety of calendars, that included train, cat, America the beautiful, and ancient civilization calendars. There was also a home with red siding and a gray sloped roof, a home that I've not been able to identify, along with the text “My Calendar Depot.com, Presented by Charles Ditlefsen.”
I will get to that second website, MyCalendarDepot.com, here in a moment.
The rest of the cedrr.com website is just standard sales copy and photo samples of the 110 calendars that customers could choose from.
There were a couple updates to the cedrr.com website over the following year.
By December 19th, 2007, the 2008 catalog of calendars started to be advertised on the website for a heavily discounted rate. Buy any four 2008 calendars, get 30% off.
Chuck wanted to liquidate his stock.
The website was live through January of 2008. And it was on the archived record captured on February 19th, 2008, that the website simply reads in plain text: “We are Closed for Business.”
No further contact information provided.
This simple message remains for two months until the archived capture on April 20th, 2008.
The text now read, “We are Closing the CEDRR.com web address. Left over stock of train calendars is still available by mail order on our main site www.MyCalendarDepot.com”.
By September 17th, 2008, the website seems to have fully gone offline.
Not many clues, but the ones that we can pick up from these dates are valuable. They establish a rough timeline of Chuck's final choices in the months that led up to his landing in Bangkok and his alleged murder.
But there are other clues. Namely, the ones left as crumbs on the MyCalendarDepot.com site.
I ran this URL through The Wayback Machine, and found much of the same as what was on cedrr.com.
Same layout, same header. Same photos. Same copy during the same span of time as cedrr.com. Everything same same.
On the March 19th, 2008 archived capture of MyCalendarDepot.com, the same simple text appears, reading “We are Closed for Business.”
The average armchair sleuth would stop right here.
But not I.
I looked at one more archived capture, this one dated May 14th, 2008.
Lo and behold, the website is mostly back online. The same layout, photos, and copy as before. That “We are Closed for Business” text is long gone.
But there's one key addition. Bold red lettering near the top of the webpage that states, “We are sold out of Stock for the 2008 Calendar line except for Train Calendars. Online ordering is not currently available. Our 2009 line should be posted sometime in August 2008.”
Another notch in the timeline.
In fact, some time between March 19th, 2008 and May 14th, 2008, Chuck (or the webmaster on Chuck's behalf) makes this update with the future promise that “Our 2009 line should be posted sometime in August 2008."“
The question I immediately asked myself, “was that update ever posted?”
And the answer: no, it was not.
At least, there's no record of it.
The next archived capture of MyCalendarDepot.com happened on December 26th, 2008. By this time Chuck had already gone to Bangkok and was allegedly murdered.
His body chopped up into a half dozen pieces, hidden away in a freezer. So the story goes.
We do know, however, that the cedrr.com website was live (mind you, with the “We are Closed for Business” text, but live nonetheless) up until May 21st, 2008 and was fully offline by September 17th, 2008 — as in, the website was no longer hosted on any server.
I'd wager that an August update never happened on MyCalendarDepot.com.
And thus the timeline then gets dialed in a notch more accurate.
Sometime between May 21st, 2008 and September 17th, 2008, Chuck ceased online sales and ordering of his newly reincarnated calendar business.
It's clear that according to the evidence so far, that Chuck was living in the United States, likely California, up until the end of May 2008.
The question I asked at this point, “is there anything else that can show his whereabouts after May 2008?”
I found my answer in the real estate transaction records of his home in Mill Valley, California.
According to the documents he filed to incorporate his Mill Valley Licensing Company with the state of California, his home address was 119 Bayview Drive, Mill Valley, California 94941. And, in fact, it's likely this was his home from the earliest days of its initial construction, which was 1972. There’s letter dated 1981 sent to his address that I bring up later in this story that supports that claim.
The home sat on a relatively private drive. One of those hidden, leafy drives that the Google maps cars don't travel down. Whether that's due to an agreement with a local HOA (“Private road, no entrance”) or simply an oversight, we don't know.
Thankfully, my sleuthing was satisfied by finding a golden nugget on Zillow.com, which if you're unfamiliar, is a comprehensive data platform for real estate in the United States.
First, there are tons of photos of the home on Bayview Drive that Google maps simply couldn't provide. There were 72 photos in total, of both the home’s interior and exterior. You can see some above (if you want to see them all, click here).
The home has a current estimated real estate value of $1.8 million. When the home was last sold on August 4th, 2008, it sold for $1.355 million.
And that my friends is the last official record we have of Chuck being in California or the United States.
He sold his home on August 4th, 2008, which was a Monday. It's very likely that the $1.355 million hit his personal bank account that week.
I want to pause here.
Allow for a deep pause.
Perhaps even take a breather from the story. Get up, stretch your legs, crack a cold beer or pour yourself a hot beverage of choice.
Because it's at this point where the facts and documents of Charles E. Ditlefsen's final days ends, and where my own careful speculation begins.
After ruminating on everything that is known about the case, and specifically about the subject of this story, Chuck, I came to what I thought was a firm conclusion about the case.
It's this conclusion, which admittedly was my own speculation, that I will lay out for your consideration as we near the conclusion of this story, one that has for 5 years now been in a “cold deep sleep.”
But life is never so neat and tidy, and neither are murder mysteries. Much of what I've written above was largely new information to have been exposed publicly. Some of it was public before, but hadn’t been specifically tied to this case: the details of the lawsuit, the sale of his home, the troubles with Cedco in the end.
It was my conviction that understanding the final months and years of Chuck's life would lead to a solid hypothesis of his demise.
Boy was I wrong.
In the midst of drafting this story, when it was about 90% complete, I stumbled upon a single post on Facebook that flipped everything I thought I knew about the case on its head.
This one post opened up a rabbit hole into the case that led me to another bit of info that may completely change our whole understanding of what happened to Chuck.
All that being said, the facts have not been exhausted on this case. For I've hardly presented the antagonist in this drama, Mr. Herbert Craig La Fon, who likely murdered the man who was hidden away in 6 pieces in the freezer in Bangkok.
It's time now to set off for Bangkok, Thailand, and the dim-lit expat bars and haunts that pepper the red-light districts of Patpong and Soi Cowboy.
And it's time for me to outlay my own pet theories, punch holes in them with their alternatives, and tell you for the first time in a story about this case what the two surviving people who knew Chuck well think about this all.
Hold onto your knickers and brassieres, boys and girls.
This story is far from over yet.
I've Got Frauds in Low Places: Patpong to Soi Cowboy and Beyond
Chuck sold his home on August 4th, 2008. That is the last official record of anything to do with the man that I can find. Perhaps the FBI knows more, and they likely do, but from what is publicly available, Chuck's official timeline ends on that summer day.
As I said, I can only outlay speculation from here, which I am happy to do. It's not my goal to convince you of my angle, but rather show you why I've come to certain views on this case, and also outlay how they could be wrong.
First, I will put forth my initial conclusion on the case.
After selling his home on August 4th, 2008, it's likely that Chuck left the United States. There's no other business he tried to start, no other calendar updates, no other contact with photographers after the summer of 2008.
In fact, people who knew Chuck simply thought he'd went missing, or perhaps passed away quietly.
In a comment on an October 2016 TrainOrders.com thread titled "Well now this is Creepy......" that started a discussion on the discovery of Chuck's body in Bangkok, a user with the handle railwaybaron commented:
I knew Charles, he used a few of my photos in a couple of his calendars. Always treated me like a professional... I couldn't figure out why Cedco went bankrupt as his calendars sold well and also featured other hobbies. I thought he had passed away from cancer...
One thing is for certain, Chuck did not die of cancer.
In the first section of this story, I gave a gloss of how the frozen body was discovered in Bangkok. I will repeat a few of the key details here and then dive deeper into the case.
On the afternoon of Friday September 23rd, 2016, police raided a shop-house in the Phra Khanong district of Bangkok.
Police had been tipped off on September 15th, 2016, by an American man named Donald Kramer who had been caught using a forged passport. When officers arrived to the home in Phra Khanong, the man who answered the door, Mr. Herbert Craig La Fon — from here on out, I'll simply refer to him as La Fon — opened fire on the officers, shooting one tourist policeman.
Officers searched the home and found weapons, meth, marijuana, plus a stash of forged passports before discovering the body of a male foreigner cut up into 6 pieces, stuffed into four plastic bags, and hidden away in a large freezer.
The people inside the home were identified as follows:
Mr. Herbert Craig La Fon, born in 1952 in Baltimore, Maryland, USA. He'd been living under the assumed aliases of Peter Andrew Colter and William Peter Johnson, among others, for many years. La Fon had been wanted by the FBI since 1979 for credit card fraud in the USA and likely fled the country around that time. He was known by the FBI to have lived and done business in Mexico for many years, and later in Thailand. The FBI put him on a 2001 bulletin listing him as armed and dangerous and included an extensive list of aliases. He'd built a life of fraud and scams in Thailand and was successful enough to purchase the 7.5 million baht, 5-story shop-house on Sukhumvit Soi 56 in 2015.
Mr. James "Jim" Eger, an American born in 1950. He was an energy consultant with a Hong Kong based firm New Times Energy Corp. He left his position as CFO at Continental Energy Corp. of Dallas, Texas in 2008. He relocated to Southeast Asia to pursue business in “palm oil plantations and the conversion of crude palm oil to biodiesel.” He had been in and out of Thailand 148 times from 2013-2016.
Mr. Aaron Thomas Gabel, an American born in 1983. He lived in Thailand with his wife, Sudarat Gabel, and he had one daughter with her. The Thai media identified Aaron Gabel sometimes as "Aaron Edo" (Thai: แอรอน เอโด), and I'm 100% uncertain as to why.
La Nanda and her husband Sor Ka Por Myin, both Burmese nationals. They were employed by La Fon as workers and maids at his shop-house.
Wacky speculation and a few facts leaked to the press starting on September 23rd and for the next two weeks.
Let's run through a few of them, in no particular order. I want to lay them all out for you because I will reference them in different speculative scenarios and theories as the story progresses.
The man who shot the tourist police officer, who was later identified as La Fon, was initially thought to be a UK national who lived under the alias of Peter Andrew Colter. He told police that he had a Malaysian wife, moved to Thailand, and was a chemist by trade. He said that he started a battery making business with the two other farang found at the home. All of this, of course, was not true. He had a Thai wife, who he was estranged from, and who feared La Fon. He'd raised a family in Thailand and the year prior in 2015 purchased the 5-story shop-house on Sukhumvit Soi 56 where the raid took place for 7.5 million baht.
On October 2nd, 2016, an article ran in ThaiRath that said the body in the freezer had finally been identified as Mr. Charles E. Ditlefsen. The report said the FBI confirmed the identification. The victim's identification was not confirmed with DNA evidence. In fact, the only thing that had been used up until this point to identify the man in the freezer was that he was found wearing a shirt with the Cedco logo. This was confirmed in a ThaiRath article from September 28th, 2016, where Thai police “already knew the name of the victim.”
It's my view that Thai police shared this with FBI officials, who confirmed that Chuck had been missing for many years — which, as discussed previously, he had been; remember, nothing is heard from Chuck after August 4th, 2008 — and thus made the assumption that they had the right guy.
From this point forward, in both the Thai and English language press, the dismembered man found in the Bangkok freezer was identified as Mr. Charles E. Ditlefsen. It's important to fully absorb this point before continuing. If you must re-read this bullet point, please do. Again: there was no DNA confirmation on the body when the press identified the victim as Chuck.
The slain man's remains were later tested for DNA evidence and a biopsy of the victim's liver was analyzed. The DNA came back with genetic markers that led authorities to conclude that the man found in the freezer was Hungarian. From this point onward, all the English and Thai language press attributed a Hungarian ancestry to Chuck.
A train magazine in the United States even wrote a tribute to Chuck, and claimed he was born in Hungary. Unfortunately, this was false. Chuck was born in Los Angeles county and he was of Danish heritage. This is another crucial detail that I will pick up later as the story continues.
Along with the DNA evidence identifying the victim as being Hungarian, the autopsy conducted at Chulalongkorn University also told us that the body was 179.5 cm tall. Yet again, this little detail really becomes important later on. Let's just say this: Chuck was much taller than 179.5 cm's. If you're starting to wonder who was in that freezer then, well, I am too.
The liver biopsy mentioned two bullet points up found that the frozen victim had lethal levels of both Sodium Thiopental and Pentobarbitol in his liver. The levels were found to be 354.84ng/g of liver tissue, which is far above lethal amounts. The press picked up on this clue and ran with stories identifying Sodium Thiopental as "truth serum", which is factual, but only used as such when administered in much lower amounts. The drug is also an anesthetic for surgery, especially used by veterinarians in animal healthcare. It is very likely that this drug was used to kill the man found in the freezer. The question becomes, where did the killer acquire the drug?
Early speculation by Thai psychologists working with law enforcement said that La Fon kept the body for 8 years, chopped up and stowed away in a freezer, because he had a homosexual affair with the victim and he could not bear to dispose of the body. He was attached and couldn't let go. It makes me wonder if this forensic psychologist got their training from watching Law & Order: SVU. I mean, it is a great show and all.
The Burmese house workers witnessed La Fon move the freezer from Ekkamai Soi 12 to Sukhumvit Soi 56 just weeks prior to the bust. They were told to stay away from the freezer by threat. They testified about this in court in 2017.
Sureeporn Sae-tang, a refrigerator seller at Kluay Naam Thai Karn Chang, said she remembered that La Fon purchased the freezer from her in October 2008. This is what fueled speculation that the victim's dismembered body could have been kept in the freezer for 8 years. The problem is, besides this single anecdote, there is no other public evidence that shows conclusively how long the body was kept in the freezer. This is a critical point and I will address it again later.
La Fon kept tight lips even after intense police interrogation. Thai cops wanted to know who the man in the freezer was and what he was doing there and how La Fon was involved. He only said the man in the freezer was “a friend” and that his only role in the situation was helping dispose of the body. La Fon claimed that another friend, Mr. Robert Logan Grandey (or Grandee), who died from cancer around March 2016, and was cremated, was actually the one who killed the victim in the freezer. A caretaker for Mr. Grandey was interrogated but nothing came of this.
La Fon gave up one other detail that he claimed was the motive behind the killing. He said that the victim owed him a debt of roughly $60,000 or 2.1 million baht. He claimed that Mr. Grandey, himself, and two others beat the victim to death, then bought the freezer, and then stored the corpse. This is a very interesting claim, but very clearly also a lie, which I will discuss later on.
Police found several saws of different styles and sizes, many that were not known to have been available for purchase in Thailand. The saws were pig butcher saws, which were likely to have been used to cut the frozen corpse. It's very likely that the corpse was frozen first before sawing it up. One of the saws had a 17-inch blade, and there were two other smaller saws, all hidden in a brown paper bag that was described as being “old and in bad shape.”
The black plastic bag used to hide the head of the victim was tested for fingerprints. Lo and behold, but the fingerprints of Aaron Gabel were found on this bag. This would indicate that Aaron at least had direct knowledge that a dismembered body was hidden in the freezer. Unless, of course, he held the plastic bag without knowing that a human head was inside. You be the judge.
At his trial, Aaron was actually acquitted of all charges — including murder, hiding the body, and the drug and weapons and passport forgery charges. Not to get too ahead of ourselves here, but he is still sitting in Thai prison despite being acquitted, and he was acquitted despite being in the home during the raid with his fingerprints on a plastic bag containing a human head. Whew!
On September 29th, 2016, officers said that they invited La Fon's (who was still known only as Mr. William Peter Johnson or Peter Andrew Colter) wife down to give evidence about her husband. But she refused due to being deathly afraid of her ex-husband. She claimed that he assaulted her for many years and she eventually broke up with the man and found a new husband. The housekeepers that worked for the once married couple followed the ex-wife and left La Fon due to his abuse.
La Fon and Aaron Gabel were known to frequent Patpong bars and were dubbed the “Sang Som gang” for ordering the cheap Thai booze. They never barfined girls, but rather sat on their own. Mr. Eger would visit, too, and they’d spend hours drinking together. La Fon would pick up the tab. La Fon was a regular in Golfingers, a go-go bar closed in 2016. His arrest shocked many down at that scene.
On October 3rd, 2016, the Bangkok Post ran a story that featured a couple insightful, and a few shocking claims about the case and the characters involved. The article suggested that Chuck was murdered so his identity could be stolen and his assets could be embezzled. This seems to make the most sense in terms of motive. Later in the article, however, it states that Thai police were investigating the 3 Americans for potential links to a passport forgery network linked to international terrorists.
Then on October 8th, 2016, another bombshell article from the Bangkok Post pushed the envelope further on this idea. Citing an October 6th story from The Strait Times of Singapore, the FBI was now interested in the case because several of the fake passports found were provided by a Pakistani national jailed in Thailand at the time. His name was Babu Rafiq, 61, who was arrested in Bangkok in April 2015.
He was told to provide fake passports by somebody in Pakistan, who was believed to have been the gang’s kingpin. The Pakistanis involved in the fake passport ring are said to be linked to at least one individual, Atiq ur Rehman, who’s suspected of having provided passports to Al-Qaeda operatives that bombed commuter trains in Madrid in 2004. Atiq, who was arrested in June 2016, was in Thai custody awaiting extradition to France.
The FBI and Thai police were “probing the angle that Babu, on instructions from someone in Pakistan, was the one who made the fake passports for the foreigners” (La Fon, Aaron Gabel, and Eger). This is a little detail that is glossed over in most every other report except for the Bangkok Post article that picked it up.
Pause for a moment and reflect: the FBI became very interested in this case after it was revealed that a known Pakistani passport forger with ties to Al-Qaeda and international terrorsts had supplied the 3 Americans arrested with fake passports.
The same October 8th article from the Bangkok Post further states that they were waiting on confirmation of DNA results, which were expected to take a few weeks from the American embassy. In an article on October 2nd, the Bangkok Post said that fingerprints and dental records were also awaiting confirmation, which hadn't been received yet.
In that article, forensics experts are said to have believed the victim was Hungarian and aged between 40 and 50 with a height of 179.5 cm and died in 2007. Chuck, of course, couldn't have been killed until at least after August 2008 as established before, he wasn't Hungarian (he was Danish), and he was much taller than 179.5 cm.
On October 9th, 2016, the Bangkok Post confirms that Sodium Thipental was found in the victim's liver, which was reported earlier in the Thai press. This article also states that the corpse was initially identified as Charles E. Ditlefsen, based on his wearing a Cedco shirt and early confirmation from the FBI (remember: Chuck was a missing person), but the Bangkok city police chief was still waiting for confirmation on this fact. He expected to wait another two weeks.
The article states that once the collection of evidence is completed, they will ask the court to approve a murder charge. Up until this point, La Fon had only been charged with concealing a body, drug, forgery, and weapon charges.
Fun fact: no murder charge was brought against anybody associated with the case. Nobody stood trial for murder. Nobody.
The next day, on October 10th, 2016, the Bangkok Post ran a story that stated there had been significant progress in the investigation of the dismembered body, but it would be hard to tell when the probe would be concluded. Thai police had contacted Chuck's family and asked them to travel to Thailand to provide information.
Fun fact: the family that came to Thailand were never mentioned again.
Another fun fact: there was near radio silence on the case after October 10th, 2016. No more discussion of confirming the identity of the victim. No more discussion of fingerprints, DNA, American embassies, the FBI, or dental record matches. Zip. Nada.
The Bangkok Post, and this tracks with other English and Thai language media doing original reporting as opposed to rehashing facts already discussed, picks up the thread of the story again after a year. On December 19th, 2017, the Bangkok Post article says that La Fon received nearly 44 years to be served in Thai jail for his crimes.
Those crimes were, specifically: concealing a corpse, illegal firearms possession, fraud and forging documents, and narcotic possession. Aaron Gabel and Eger were acquitted on all charges.
There was no murder charge brought against any of the three Americans. There never was a murder charge. To this day, nobody has been charged with the murder of the victim found in that Bangkok freezer.
And those are the facts.
These are vast majority of the key facts and points to consider in the case that were published in both Thai and English language media outlets. I scoured every single article that involved any of the characters involved and meticulously compiled these facts in order to paint a picture of what was known and what information was given to the public during the investigation.
Nothing else original has actually been reported outside of what you've just read in the bullet points above. You might find small details here and there, but I combed through every relevant piece of evidence that was publicly known and laid it out for you to consider.
At this point in my process of compiling this story, I had come to the following conclusion based on the evidence. It was the working hypothesis that I had planned to demonstrate to you, the readers, and I can only claim it as that: a hypothesis.
With that said, here was my angle:
Chuck fled the United States with crippling debt due to his business failures. He sold his Mill Valley home on August 4th, 2008, and left the country some time shortly after that. He arrived in Bangkok between August and October 2008 flush with the $1.355 million dollar sale of his Bay Area home, which would've equated to nearly 50 million baht at that time, plus any other additional hidden assets he may have liquidated or stashed away.
He came to Bangkok to get away. To start over. Make a fresh life. He probably heard about the friendly girls, the smiles, the cheap food, the adventure and the exotic tropical appeal that offers a little something for everybody in Bangkok.
Like most men a bit past their prime, he found easy refuge in the bars of Patpong and Soi Cowboy. He came for the everflowing Thai swill and the cheap thrills, girls half his age willing to do the dirty for what would've been a pittance for this man.
It's in these bars where he would've encountered La Fon. The two were similar in their way. Financially savvy, both Yanks, around the same age, both fled their home country due to financial stress and the crushing power of the law. La Fon for credit card fraud in 1979, and Chuck for lawsuits and bankruptcy in 2008.
La Fon loaned a sympathetic ear to the fresh-off-the-plane Chuck. And for Chuck, he would've appreciated the advice from an old Asia hand: perhaps advice on how to avoid the traps and snares of the serpentine bar girls, how to not get had in the Land of Smiles, where behind every smile was a hustle.
Chuck opened up to La Fon. Unloaded his sob story: the rise and fall of Cedco, the lawsuits (“those damn Chinese!”), his loneliness — as there's no real indication that Chuck was married, so that would mean Chuck was alone —, and perhaps some ideas for even starting a business in Thailand.
Remember, the guy was an entrepreneur. He was a fighter. He didn't give up so easy. He wanted action.
So did La Fon.
La Fon smelled the money on this guy. Chuck wasn't some broke pensioner who just landed. So like a cobra, La Fon prepared to strike. Deadly and fast.
The plan would've been simple.
Murder Chuck quietly. Not much blood, no violence. That's what the Sodium Thipental was for. I'm not convinced that La Fon had killed others before. Maybe he was an abuser, maybe he hit his wife. But I don't think he killed before.
He killed Chuck and got to work forging the necessary documents to clean out the man's bank accounts. It was a big score, the kind that falls into your lap once in your lifetime and you'd be stupid not to take it — murder be damned!
La Fon bought the freezer in October 2008 according to court testimony. He bought the freezer for the explicit purpose of storing the dead body, which he hacked up into 6 pieces.
And thus the body sat for 8 years until the tip off and police raid on September 23rd, 2016.
The motive, simply put, was a financial one.
There was at least 50 million baht on the line here. And it could very well have been a lot more, given the business success that Chuck had in his life, and his acumen with finances probably meant he stashed a fair share of that for a rainy day — or a last ditch attempt to start over in Thailand, as there’s evidence that he planned to leave the country as far back as 2006.
There are holes in my hypothesis, of course. Ones that bugged me as I stitched it together.
I've bullet pointed the holes and the questions I shot at my own theory:
Why was the victim identified as Hungarian when Chuck was American with Danish ancestry?
Why couldn't I find any record of Chuck ever marrying or having kids? These records are normally not difficult to find from online sources for Americans.
Why was an obituary never written for Chuck by his family or loved ones? We know at least a couple family members survived him, as they were invited to Thailand in October 2016 by Thai police. If he was murdered, why was there no obituary, as this is standard practice in the USA.
Why was a murder charge never brought against La Fon or anybody else? Surely, somebody was murdered — the man in the freezer pumped full of truth serum. And it's pretty damn clear that La Fon did it.
Why didn't anybody actively search for Chuck for the 8 years that he was apparently missing?
Why did La Fon keep a dismembered corpse in a freezer for 8 years? This one really unravels the official story. It makes absolutely no sense. And hint: it's not because he was gay, snicker snicker.
Where did the FBI go, and the American embassy? Did those terrorism connections really pan out? Did they squash any other news on the case because of them?
Did the FBI really get involved in the case because of terrorism connections?
What happened to the proceeds of the Mill Valley home sale for $1.355 million on August 4th, 2008?
Why didn't the press or anybody else confirm the body was Chuck?
Why the radio silence on the case after October 10th, 2016?
I sat with those questions for several days.
And I sat with Chuck.
A fair warning, the images below may be disturbing to some.
There are precisely two photos of Chuck's face that have hit the internet.
One is from the 2003 article that was ran in the San Francisco Business Times. Chuck is standing proud near a shoreline with a smirk, wearing a simple outfit: khakis, blue sweater, black leather jacket. His hair is cropped short and neat. Clean shaven.
The other photo is the one of the victim's decapitated head found in the freezer in Bangkok. This photo shows a wild frock of hair, soft and silky, lips parted in a mischievous grin with big equine teeth, and a crooked nose.
I stared at the two photos side by side for hours, night after night, while contemplating this case.
Something didn't feel right.
I thought for sure that I had the answer. But I knew now that I didn’t. For as much as I knew, I knew very little at all. My original idea that this was just a grisly murder motivated by greed, an easy target that nobody would've missed anyway — that had to be tossed in the bin.
And this is exactly where my mind was when I stumbled upon two bits of information that have never been reported about Chuck.
These two little bits of info flip everything that everybody assumed about this case up until this very day on its head.
The information was found when I was drafting this story. I was about 90% through with it, nearing the conclusion, and I happened to double check one of my sources.
I found a Facebook post by the Nation Thailand that changed everything.
Well, not the post itself.
But a single comment written there.
Nothing is at it Seems in the Land of Smiles.
The questions I bullet pointed in the last section kept me from pulling the trigger on this story.
I had to know more.
My first thought? Get in touch with anybody who might've known Chuck.
I got to digging.
I searched for hours and hours, combing over public records in California and Nevada and the USA as a whole, and could not find a single document or mention of Chuck being married or having any children.
In fact, there's no mention of Chuck being married in any write-up after his death, and there's no official obituary that was published in any local newspaper, which is standard procedure after a death, at least in the United States.
Nobody cared enough to submit one, perhaps. Odd for a man who operated such an enterprise as Cedco, who was known as a public figure in the train world. Very odd indeed.
There was, of course, a railroad and train publication that ran the story of Chuck's death after his body was identified in the freezer in Bangkok. The tribute, of course, misattributed Hungarian ethnicity to Chuck. And thus the cycle of misinformation continued.
I did have a few options. I could contact people that were once executives that served Chuck at Cedco. I found a couple of them on LinkedIn, sent connection requests, and never heard back from them.
There were also a few others who may have lived at addresses associated with Chuck and who shared the same surname: Ditlefsen.
I tried phone numbers, and LinkedIn connection requests, and Facebook messages. But nothing came through.
And so my thought was to publish the story as it was: a piece that brought forth quite a bit of new information on Chuck — the lawsuits, some business and personal history, the sale of his home, a crisper timeline of his last years and months — but a story that ultimately raised more questions than it answered.
I was fine with that.
As I was finishing up the first draft, about 90% through, I had to double check a source that I'd used for a bit of information on the case.
In searching that, I came across a Facebook post from the Nation Thailand dated October 3rd, 2016. The post linked to an article that rehashed much of what's already been said, namely about he supposed identity of the victim found in the freezer. And of course the paper concluded it was Chuck.
The post had 0 likes and 0 comments up until August 7th, 2018, nearly two years after it was originally posted.
The comment comes from a woman who identifies herself as an ex-girlfriend (Note: I have talked to the ex-girlfriend on the phone and confirmed her story and have gathered more details. When more is confirmed, there will be a major update as a follow-up to this story. - January 31st, 2021, True Crime Thailand).
I will show you a photo of the comment and a text transcription exactly as it appears on the post.
Warning. It's a real doozy. But it's worth the read if you've gotten this far.
I am very uncertain the body was Chuck’s. They had no DNA evidence. Chuck had no Hungarian blood. He was purely Danish. The height is wrong & so is the age estimate. He may have been leaving for Bangkokto get a new identity.
He owed millions because of Cedco publishing’s bankruptcy. I have been trying to figure all this out ever since I heard about the body. I am Chucks former girlfriend of 14 years
I moved away because he wanted to get married & I was uncertain even though I really loved Chuck. I kept in touch with him until around 2005. I felt it was better I stay out of his life after that. However in 2014, I began trying to contact him. I got nowhere except in 2017 I learned that he was also searching for me. We missed each other & had an unbreakable bond. I had heard about his body being found & was distraught by the description. I also had a good look at the unfrozen corpse which is no longer on line. The corpse had very crooked teeth. Chucks were perfectly even & the above errors which I outlined made me believe that the body was not Chuck’s but another person the passport
forgers put Chucks real identification on. I have also heard from someone who lived in Bangkok that criminals can buy bodies there so they can hide the identity of their client by proving he died with id on him.
I am about 60-70% certain that the body is not Chuck’s. I believe he has a new identity & could be anywhere. But the uncertainty is driving me crazy. Chuck if you see this post please contact me. I need to know you were not brutally murdered. You can contact me through messenger on face book or Write to me at [redacted]. I pray you are not that body they found in the freezer. I have looked for death or burial notices & have found none which is strange. I have tried to find Michael M with no luck. My husband & I even talked to the women who purchased your Mill Valley House. She gave me some info which led me to believe people are still searching for you. My husband Len understands my feelings and has been very helpful knowing that for my own peace of mind I need to know what happened.
In conclusion, I will give a reward to anyone who can put me in contact with you or tell me definitively you are dead.
The joy of life is so fleeting. We are all terminal. You and I had a lifetime of happiness mixed with tears in the years we were together. I hope to see you again either in this life or beyond the shadows. [redacted]
Now tickle me pink and call me Baba Booey, that's a hell of a comment.
Where do I even begin?
First, for those that are worried that I'm exposing somebody to the public that doesn't want to be associated with the case. You may release those concerns.
Over a series of Facebook posts and Tweets, in fact, she makes it very clear that she wants to be contacted about the case. She provides an email and phone number on other social media posts in relation to Chuck's disappearance.
Now, back to the comment. Let's first separate the diamonds from the rough.
She puts forth plenty of speculation, and I don't want to mix that up with the precious stones that she dropped in the mud.
First, the dental records. She says that Chuck's teeth were perfectly straight. Now that’s interesting. In the one extant and public photo from the 2003 SF Business Times article, Chuck’s smiling but not showing his pearly whites. But the photo taken from the crime scene of the decapitated victim clearly shows large, crooked, and frankly, ugly teeth. Finally, the Bangkok Post did report that police were waiting for dental record confirmation. And nothing was ever reported on that again.
Second, the ancestry. Nearly every report both in Thai and English about the victim state very clearly that he had genetic markers indicating he was Hungarian or Eastern European. This was reported from early on and it even got mixed up with the identification of Chuck based on the victim wearing a Cedco shirt to the point where with no other evidence (like a birth certificate), media were running with the idea that Chuck was in fact born in Hungary and emigrated to the United States. This is patently false. He was born in Los Angeles county, there's record of his birth there, and the ex-girlfriend also confirms this. Finally, she reiterates that Chuck was of Danish extraction, not Hungarian.
Third, there was no obituary even after the victim in Bangkok was supposedly identified. Remember the Thai police invited Chuck's family to Thailand? Well, I am 100% confident that if they in fact knew that was Chuck, they would've published an obituary in the local newspaper back in San Rafael or Marin County, which is standard practice. But no such obituary exists. There is a tribute in a train magazine — a sort of professional tribute, as it were — which, of course, swiped inaccurate details from a jumble of Thai press translated into English. Oy vey...
Fourth, she brings up the point about Chuck's debts. This is a very clear motivation on why Chuck would've wanted to disappear. He stopped contacting people around the end of 2007 to middle of 2008. He sold his home on August 4th, 2008, perhaps his last remaining real asset (but again, we can't be sure), and then poof! He's no more.
I want to be clear here. The ex-girlfriend's speculation on how Chuck would've disappeared, why the body was found, and the possibility that these guys did an identity swap for Chuck tickled my fancy as an armchair sleuth, but I set them aside for the time being. And I encourage you do do the same.
There is simply no way to prove or disprove those claims, however tantalizing they may be.
Besides, even if La Fon did do an identity swap for Chuck, killing another man, getting Chuck another passport (perhaps to Hungary?), why would La Fon have kept the body in the freezer for police to one day find?
The body in the freezer, no matter what theory or angle you may personally have up until this point, is the knockout punch that decimates any hypothesis that can put up a fight with the facts.
You might have guessed, but my sleuthing wasn't finished.
I dove feet first into the rabbit hole of the ex-girlfriend's social media posts, finding about a dozen Tweets and Facebook posts that referenced Chuck. Much of them track with the content and theme of the one above.
I'll provide a full resource on these in the Sources section, but a few salient points from them:
Chuck was born in Tarzana, Los Angeles county, California. Not Hungary.
She dated Chuck for 14 years. He wanted to marry. She didn't. But, she claims Chuck later did marry to another woman (note: I think I know who, but I need to confirm before I bring up her name).
She brings up the question asking if anybody had claimed the body of the victim in Bangkok. If so, where was it buried. There was no burial or funeral notice given for Chuck in any public record, which is a standard in the USA. Especially for a man who had so many professional and personal connections and who ran such a large business for so many years.
Chuck told the ex-girlfriend that he would be leaving the country. He told her this in 2006. That would mean after the initial lawsuit and bankruptcy of Cedco, he was already making moves to leave the USA.
She insists that the man found in the freezer was not the man she once knew.
This might be a great time to get another beverage.
And, if you've made it this far, I'm frankly impressed.
I don't think I could’ve done it myself.
So if you asked me straight, what do I think of the ex-girlfriend's posts and claims?
I'd say that she makes a few key points that we can't ignore.
Namely around the fact of there being no obituary or funeral notice, the wrong heritage and birth location, nobody claimed the body (as to our knowledge), teeth were very different than Chuck's.
The rest of it, although it does whet my appetite in the mystery, must be discarded if we are to comb through the facts and arrange them as the sober armchair sleuths that we surely are.
You might dismiss all her claims — even the ones that look solid from my armchair.
And I respect that.
There's part of me that thinks that the ex-girlfriend's just a former lover who was obsessed with Chuck, perhaps rejected by the successful businessman, and who glommed onto the case to make a public spectacle and gain attention from it.
The problem with that skeptical punch, though, is there is one more person who corroborates her comments. A person who claims they were long-time friends with Chuck. Who knew him for years.
The kicker? This person's comment was posted a good year before any of the-ex-girlfriend's comments appeared anywhere on social media.
The 40+ hours of sleuthing (and perhaps much more...) I put into this case revealed a lot of strange little nuggets of info. Some irrelevant, some fun, some just plain insightful into Chuck, the man — no the murder victim, not the business man.
I learned that in 1981, a letter was sent from a commission for nuclear energy to concerned citizens regarding a nuclear power project in California. The letter to an unrelated woman exists as a PDF online. And in the last pages of the letter, it states that an identical letter was sent out to a list of addresses. Charles E. Ditlefsen at his home address in Mill Valley was one of them. This places Chuck at his Mill Valley home as far back as 1981.
There were a lot of little details like that that I picked up along the way, like dragging a magnet across a beach, pulling iron filings up deep from the caked wet sand.
There would be no way I could list them all, nor source them all, as they number in the several 100's. I feel like I learned a lot about Chuck and I’m honored to have told his story in this format.
But there's one final comment that is worthy to bring up at this point in the story. It corroborates the ex-girlfriend's comments and it further resolves the final conclusion I reached in this case.
The forum hosted on Trains.com saw a thread started on November 2nd, 2005. The title of the thread was, "Does Anyone know what happened to Cedco Publishing?"
What follows is yet another back and forth volley about the then bankrupted company, with anecdotes from happy customers and those that got screwed over in Chuck's business dealings over the years.
The thread goes dormant on November 8th, 2005.
And it's revived from the dead on October 5th, 2016, with a comment from DS5D that said:
Well 10 years later, I just read of a disturbing development.
The comment links to a National Post article from Canada written about the background of Chuck and the alleged discovery of his body in Thailand. We don't need to dissect that article. It's well-written and accurate enough for what the press knew at the time.
The comments continue until a user with the handle KJGMiller chimed in on October 10th, 2016. I reproduce his full comment below.
This is indeed VERY confusing. I was quite good friends with Chuck - in fact he lived with us for several months in Oakland. I knew his father, too - and neither of them were Hungarian! His father, and Chuck, spoke of their Danish heritage.
Furthermore, Chuck was at least 6'2" or more, probably more like 6'4". No way was he 178.5 cm, which is about 5'9". He also would have been at least mid-50s, agewise, as he was around my age.
And though I admittedly lost touch with Chuck a few years before CEDCO closed, I don't believe he was ever a railroad official in southern California. He did work at Amtrak for a bit, but that was clerical, and was in the Bay Area.
Last time I remember speaking with Chuck, he said he had gotten married, and in fact had two children.
So, what happened here? Was that his body? Was his identity stolen, and whoever stole it was the victim? And if that is the case, where is Chuck?
Again, this comment was posted a full year before the ex-girlfriend even knew about Chuck's disappearance — as she admittedly learned about it late in 2017.
But it confirms a few key details and punches massive holes into the story that everybody has come to understand about the body discovered in Bangkok on September 23rd, 2016.
This person, KJGMiller, never posted a comment before or after this one on this trains forum. They must have sought out news about Chuck and landed here to offer their immensely valuable insight into the confusion of the situation, which was at its veritable peak on October 10th, 2016 — in fact it was the last day that the Bangkok Post reported on the case until the trial the following year.
KJGMiller was good friends with Chuck. They even hosted Chuck at their home in Oakland, where he lived for a few months.
They knew Chuck's father. They weren't Hungarian, but rather, they spoke of their Danish heritage.
Chuck was at least 6'2" to 6'4" (188 cm to 193 cm), not the short 179.5 cm body that was measured at Chulalongkorn during the autopsy in Bangkok.
They claim Chuck had been married with two children.
And they ask the critical question that unravels the entire story: was that really Chuck's body?
Was his identity stolen, and whoever stole it was the victim?
And if that is the case, where is Chuck?
I'll ask the question myself. Not to be redundant. And not for some sort of dramatic effect in the writing. But because damn it, I want to know.
Where is Chuck?
A few final points.
This story isn't over.
Initially, when I looked at enough facts of the case where I thought I had a solid understanding, I wanted to write the story about Aaron Gabel.
He's the now 38 year old man who still sits in a Thai prison even though he was acquitted for all charges related to the case.
There is a lot to write about on that story, so I will save it for a follow-up. I'm sure if you enjoyed this story, you will enjoy that one.
Secondly, the mystery surrounding Chuck is far from over.
If you ask me today what I think, I will tell you plainly: the man in the Bangkok freezer found on September 23rd, 2016, was not Chuck.
I still would like to contact some key people who may have knowledge about the case, including his former girlfriend, any supposed wife, and a particular journalist named Alex Huls who I know was looking into this case pretty heavily for a couple years. He even went so far as did a FOIA request back in 2017 on La Fon's background and was asking people on ThaiVisa forums in 2019 about any info on La Fon or Chuck.
If anybody who has knowledge of this case likes, they may contact me at email@example.com
Edit: It’s been told to me from a trusted source and tip that Aaron Gabel very well might be out of prison now and was seen in a Bangkok pub. He declined any involvement with La Fon (referred to as ‘Peter’) and said he only rented a room in the shophouse. — January 28th, 2021 True Crime Thailand
Edit: I have talked to the ex-girlfriend on the phone and confirmed her story and have gathered more details. When more is confirmed, there will be a major update as a follow-up to this story. - January 31st, 2021 True Crime Thailand
Well, what do you think?
I'd love to know your thoughts. You can comment here on this newsletter article or wherever you found it: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. Or you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
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