COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - It was a vacation that turned into a five-year prison stint.
One Columbia man embarked on a trip to Thailand in 2007 after teaching English in South Korea for a year and ended up locked up.
Jesse Moskel, who now owns a public relations firm in the Columbia area, faced the death penalty for one drug charge and a life sentence for another in Thai prison. After five years and time in five different prisons across that country, he came home to the U.S.
Moskel said he was sitting in a jail cell in 2008, crammed in with dozens of others. He had just been arrested and had no way to call loved ones or even a translator to explain his sheet of charges. That is, until he found another prisoner who spoke English, and delivered some devastating news.
“He looked up after reading it and said, ‘Jesse, you’re never going to go home,’” Moskel said.
Moskel said he was charged with the death penalty and a life sentence for manufacturing and dealing drugs, a mistake he does admit to.
“It’s one of those weird things you can’t really calculate how painful it is to have that door slam behind you and have a guy explain to you that you are going to be there for the rest of your life. The sense of regret is so deep and so wide,” Moskel said.
For the next five years, he said he slept in a 15-by-30-foot room with 71 other people with one bathroom, no air conditioning, and no beds.
“They believe that a drug dealer is worse than a prisoner and they treat them that way,” Moskel said.
But he said instead of turning towards illegal activity like many of his fellow prisoners, he turned to God and books.
He learned Thai and after being baptized a year into his sentence, he worked to bring others to Christ.
“What I did over the next four years in prison, I ended up starting churches in prisons and baptizing Thai people,” Moskel said. “By year three and four, I was able to speak enough Thai that I could go into a church and give a sermon in English and in Thai at the same time.”
He said learning Thai was one of his saving graces. He wrote letters in Thai to the Thai consulate that went unanswered for three years. Until one day, Moskel said the Thai consulate paid him a visit with Moskel’s letters in tow.
“It was entirely unexpected,” Moskel said. “The embassy just doesn’t visit prisoners in Thailand. But this guy came down without his entourage and he was actually smiling and it was covered in red ink on both sides.”
The consulate told Moskel he was going home, and after five years, Moskel made his way back to the U.S. where he served time and was released from prison after a few months later.
“I stepped out of the prison and the sun just hit me and it was like the first time I had seen the sun in years,” Moskel said.
Moskel said he has a deep love for Thailand despite his years in prison.
“I will go back to Thailand one day,” Moskel said.
He said his dream is to minister to others in prison there with the second chance he feels like he’s been given.
“If there’s any redemption to be found at all, it’s hopefully in saving someone’s life,” Moskel said.
He said his saving grace was a prisoner treaty between Thailand and the U.S., which allowed him to go back to the U.S. and serve the rest of his sentence.
He said this is because the U.S. considers about one year in a Thai prison to correlate to about six in a U.S. prison.