It is a steamy hot, blue-sky day near what should be the end of rainy season, about two weeks before the Seoul floods of July, 2011. I pay the taxi driver, pull the bike from behind the driver’s seat, smile back at the guards in their shiny white helmets and sunglasses at the front gate, and cycle up the side path. At the top of the slight rise the otherwise bland single story flat-roofed building presents a row of glass doors, and a mildly unsettling shade of pink paint around the top of the walls just beneath the roof.
Taking the left-most door I wheel the bike into a large open foyer with several rows of waiting seats facing the door, and several people sitting gazing at a large, loud television set. To the left is a row of pen-pushers behind a long counter and as I move towards them the first looks up and then to his left, alerting his coworkers. I follow the turn of heads and calls down to the end of the row and find a thirty-something guy with a younger face and a thick shock of black hair. His English is passable as he hands me the form and we use a mixture of languages to get it filled in and understood that I will have 15 minutes with Andre Michael Fisher, and I’m to wait until called. The time is ten minutes to four, and visiting hours are until four o’clock.
After enough time to go to the convenience store but not enough to eat the kimbap, he waves me back over and points out the door. Just through a gate we meet a guard with large glasses and a kindly late-thirties-something face, dressed in a uniform with a black neck-tie and a black hat, and after a few words of greeting and explanation I am waved onwards with him. We cross the open courtyard towards another flat single-story building set further back than the first, and a single heavy looking metal door with barred windows.
Through the door is a small plain waiting room on the left with a set of compact bag-sized lockers, and on the right is an office with a senior guard and a few junior office-staff, all wearing immaculate black and white uniforms with hats on or obviously nearby. Only one is a woman, young, sitting behind a computer. They all talk briskly a bit and then the guard asks me to wait in the small room on the other side, and shuts the door behind me. I have time to reflect on the other incidents involving taxi drivers I’ve heard of this year, both of them in Gwangju City, and both leading to legal action against expats who also had thought they were in the right. A minute or two later the guard re-appears and they again check my name, remind me I have fifteen minutes, and then buzz open an even heavier looking iron door.
We walk through and across a smaller court yard, along a hall and up some stairs. The hall is narrower and there are rows of doors off the other side of the hall wall. We turn to the right and he knocks on the last door, and on another door at the end of the hall. A shorter, slightly older guard appears from one, and my guard goes into the end room. I am ushered into an interview room to the left. There is a small table in the middle, with three comfortable arm chairs on the left-hand side, and two chairs on the right, in front of a door in that wall. Another chair is at the head of the table between the doors. I’m told to sit on the left.
Just as I start wondering about the person who will come through that door, the first door opens again and the guard reenters; behind him is another dressed in black and white and between them is a tall young man wearing light-blue, loose, rough looking pyjamas. His thick, solid frame nearly blocks the doorway, and his height lets him peer with an open curiosity over the guard’s shoulder at me. As he gazes and shuffles forward I realise he has no idea who I am, nor even that I was coming today.
The guard flaps about indicating seats, but we take an easy second to smile and shake, his hand being large, warm, and smooth. As he ambles to his side of the table I explain quickly who I am, where my funny accent is from, and how I’d seen his story online, contacted his sister and friend via facebook, and want to write about his situation if he approves. The smaller older guard with glasses sits down at the head of the table, and Andre agrees to a talk.
Given the chance to get any words to the world outside, Andre immediately offers a list of three things, numbering them off. “First, I want to thank all my supporters. I understand there’s a group growing online, back home and now here too. That’s amazing and I’m so thankful.” I look up from my notebook and see his eyes in the light from the window. He has a simple close-cut crop of dark brown hair over his head. His skin is a light, soft brown, but his eyes are a clear, pale honey-brown, and in the light they almost glow like gold.
He doesn’t blink, but smiles and ads with rhetorical emphasis and a hand action, “Second: I’m innocent!” Finally, he declares his love for his girlfriend, and asks me to add for her sake that he realizes why she was not able to visit him the other day, and that he knows that she tried and had wanted to see him. I make the promise and note her name.
I ask him if he would like visits from random well-wishing strangers. Sitting up almost straight with elbows on the table, Andre nods again and seems almost eager as he says they’re welcome on Wednesdays and Thursdays, as his own friends visit on other days of the week, and prison rules mean only one set of guests can visit per day.
Andre describes prison conditions as pretty fair, saying, “The guards try to treat us as good as they can.” He adds he has his own room, a television with limited channels, and he gets outside his room for four hours a day except Sundays when there’s no exercise hour, and Tuesdays when SOFA people come with food for the week, including eggs, sausages and bacon, and MRAs of which he’s eaten more than enough. His only complaints are the food and the boredom. He enjoys reading ESPN Sports magazine but otherwise has too much time to sit around ‘thinking way too much’.
I change the topic to his life in Korea before his visit to this building with all the guards, and Andre immediately brightens up. “I love Korea, especially the food, the culture, the weather; everyone’s friendly…” He catches himself, laughs a mild chuckle, and adds: “Well, most people! The same as most places.” He says his favourite Korean food is kimchi and rice, and he also enjoys kimbap.
Andre had been in Korea for 22 months before that strange night in mid-November 2010. He and his family didn’t seek support or think his time in prison a worry as they considered him innocent, and thought the lack of evidence sure to support that belief. As a result the conviction, when delivered in July, was a shock to them all, and signaled the start to a sudden scramble for support. The idea of his spending the rest of a two-year sentence in prison seems uncomfortably harsh to him and his faithful family and friends, especially for the sake of about 90,000 won which he continues to declare he did not take, even against the advice of his lawyer who had recommended he enter a plea of guilty.
When I tell Andre of the suggestion of a member of an online community who had read and interpreted the charges, he admits that he did cause damage to the police car when being arrested. He explains that had been surrounded by a ring of police late at night and had not seen any reason for going to the police station as he knew he had not done anything wrong, so yes, he resisted arrest, eventually even going so far as to kick out the back seat door window of the police car. “I apologized immediately and offered to pay for it though” he insists, looking straight at me with a look of earnest sincerity now on his face.
At about this stage of our conversation, our guard finally starts to speak up. Having been peering increasingly closely at my notebook and me, he finally asks how we know each other. I tell him I’m a family friend, thinking of my online connection with Andre’s sister and an old family friend of his. Andre agrees and nods at the guard, repeating “Family friend, yes.” We continue our conversation hurriedly, with only a couple of minutes to complete. I ask about the CCTV footage mentioned on one of the news channel’s clips available online. He tells me his friend and military buddy Joseph Johnson saw the original footage, and said that it showed someone wearing a hoodie obscuring their face, and wasn’t very clear at that.
I ask Andre if he was completely alone the night of his arrest, or if he had been out with others that evening. He looks to his right for a second, and then to his left as he starts to answer. He tells me that he was with a friend whom he’d ‘just met’ in a club. The friend was named ‘Jarrod Jeffry’, and as I start to write he spells the name carefully for me without my prompting. I note it dutifully, wondering at both the lack of final ‘e’ in the family name, and why Andre would need to know such a detail if they had ‘just met’. Andre continues, adding that he was probably aged about ‘twenty-two-ish” and that Jarrod had “told me he was an English teacher in Seoul.”
Describing the events of the evening immediately before the police arrived with the taxi driver who pointed him out, Andre says that Jarrod immediately started running as soon as he saw the police. Blinking, and sometimes glancing up ahead and other times down to the side, Andre adds that he didn’t see the need to run as he’d done nothing wrong, saying: “I was wondering why [Jarrod] was running when the police came up to me.”
Suddenly the guard is saying time is up and sounding quite serious about it. I glance at my watch and see he’s correct, so we nod and rise and head out the same door together, and I promise to contact his girlfriend and wish him well.
Back home via facebook I contact his sister again and find his girlfriend. Within a couple of weeks I see her online at the same time late one night, and we chat via instant messages. She fills in a few gaps in my understanding, including that she had managed to visit him in prison there a few times before the SOFA representatives decided not to allow her to continue. She speaks of the cab driver, saying: “I know back in the ‘States if you don’t show up to court they dismiss the case. The cab driver didn’t show up for like two or three times.” Then, when I ask her if she’s heard of one Jarrod Jeffry, she says yes, he was in the same company as her and Andre, but he had returned home to the USA sometime “a couple of months ago… because he finished his tour here”. She asks me how I know of him, and seems surprised and then suddenly quiet when I tell her that Andre had mentioned being with him that night.
I find that google lists no-one at all of that name, and facebook offers only one person with that surname and similar first name: a Jarred Jeffry, based in India, and with Indian friends. It is a curious trail leading to a dead-end.
Within a week from this time, I get no response from any of Fisher’s family or friends via facebook. Suddenly his sister, his old family friend, his girlfriend and his other company buddy, all of whom had responded to messages and queries within hours of the same days I’d sent them messages previously, have all stopped communicating with me.
Two weeks later and two days before the appeal hearing, Andre’s lawyer calls to inform me of the date, time and location of Andre’s court appearance. He asks me if I have any message for Andre, and then asks me if I know of anyone named Jarrod Jeffry. I apologize and say no, I do not know him.
Later that week and immediately following the appeal, the news emerges via the facebook ‘wall’ that there will be another court session to announce the results of the day’s hearing. The fact that there are results to announce is taken as a clearly positive sign, and many comments are jubilant and excited in tone. One previous stranger, a female who attended the hearing, confesses to being smitten with Andre, and the point that he again maintains his innocence in court seems of secondary importance. Within another day or so his girlfriend adds that she had managed to speak to Andre by phone and he was sounding positive and confident.
What to make of all this? The only thing that seems clear is that there is more to the story of what happened that night in November than Andre Michael Fisher is telling anyone. Does he know who did take the money from the cab? Does he or his friend Johnson know who was in the video? What role did Jarrod Jeffry play in the events that night? Why do Andre and his girlfriend’s descriptions of Jeffry not agree? Is Fisher protecting someone?
I want to believe Andre Michael Fisher is completely innocent of everything except maybe being a bit drunk, silly, and belligerent when apparently abandoned, alone, and arrested after midnight in a strange land. Hopefully, his reasons for not sharing the full truth are also as pure as his reputation as professed by his parents and supporters online.
The final court hearing to announce the Seoul High Court judge’s findings is on August 25th, 2011.
12th of August, 2011
On further reflection, the ‘I want to believe’ tone of my conclusion sounds a bit too overly cynical and bitter.
It is true that I don’t take being lied to very well, and it is one of the things I continue to find difficult about living in Korea where the ‘little white lie’ is common practise much more widely than in western society. Perhaps this is why I also find it all the more unimpressive when it comes from someone outside this society [of South Korea]; however, as that good television show character ‘House’ reminds us, “Everybody lies.” To whatever extent you or I agree with that statement, what with me being a complete stranger turning up out of the blue to ask him lots of bold questions, I certainly can’t hold a grudge against Andre for having a go, nor for being wary about trusting me.
In an updated conclusion then, and in a more considered tone stemming from having reflected more purely upon his very open demeanour and obviously unpractised ability at fooling anyone with either words or body language: I really do believe Andre is innocent of the orginal charge with regards the taxi driver and the money, and has confessed and apparently paid more than adequately for damages to the police car window. I think that the taxi driver probably did make what was possibly an innocent mistake in pointing him out, and, I do hope to see Andre released and free as soon as possible.
There is a very good saying we use in the west with regard the legal system: “Justice delayed is justice denied.” Even if Andre does know more to the story, and even if he thinks he is doing the right thing by protecting someone else, most of a year is a very long time to be denied freedom, and to be stuck in the one room waiting for a chance just to say “I’m innocent,” and finally be listened to, and believed.
Having said that, I need to acknowledge that I am not a trained expert at body language, psychology, and I am not even a well-practised liar. Whether this makes me more qualified to judge Andre’s body language or less so, I certainly admit it’s possible that my fifiteen minutes was not enough to get to the full truth of the story of Mr. Andre Michael Fisher.
16th of August, 2011