US Citizen Dead in Koh Kong Murder Mystery

koh kong town – A British man accused of axing to death a US citizen last year has given conflicting testimonies to provincial police, including a version in which he delivered a package to an unidentified man at Koh Kong’s sleepy provincial airport, according to police records.

Robert Martin, a 47-year-old British tour guide based in Sre Ambel district, was arrested June 15 after villagers discovered US citizen Byron Pickett’s body under a pile of rocks at the base of a mountain outside Koh Kong town.

Police say Martin attacked Pickett with an electric baton and an ax on the night of June 14, then attempted to flee the province. Authorities intercepted his rented Toyota Camry along the road to Sihanoukville, which is segmented by four slow-moving ferries.

Although local authorities claim to have solid evidence to prosecute Martin, he has remained in Koh Kong’s provincial prison for more than 10 months, exceeding the legal six-month pre-trial detention period. No trial date has been set.

Martin’s lawyer, Sum Samoeun of Legal of Aid of Cambodia, said the provincial court denied his appeals for bail and his client’s release.

“Of course this is at the discretion of the court, but when are they going to try him?” Sum Samoeun said in an interview at his office earlier this month.

Provincial authorities say a confession, along with an electric cattle-prod and beer cans found in Martin’s car, connect him to the scene of the crime. Prosecutor Keo Sim said this month that Martin “without a doubt” will be convicted of intentional killing.

But neither Keo Sim, Sum Samoeun nor police has provided a clear motive for the killing or explained Martin’s connection to Pickett, and for months speculation has been swirling over what brought the two men into Koh Kong along a notorious smuggling route.

In a 10-minute interview at prison, Martin said his case was “plodding along.” He declined to discuss any details of the case or his relationship with the 36-year-old Pickett, who is believed to have been a resident of Bangkok.

In records of police interrogations in June and December, however, Martin has given two wildly different stories of his trip to Koh Kong and what happened to Pickett.

In initial questioning by police, Martin said Pickett hired him to rent a car and drive from Sihanoukville to Koh Kong, and that he passed off luggage to a European man at Koh Kong’s airport on the day after Pickett was killed.

Martin testified that he knew nothing about Pickett’s death.

“I stopped the car at the airport as Byron ordered [on June 14]…. If the authorities think I took [the luggage], that’s it. But I have not killed Byron,” he is quoted as saying in a June 17 police interrogation. He refused to answer police questions about the contents of the luggage.

According to that story, Martin and Pickett arrived in Koh Kong at about midnight on June 14. Pickett then met another man at the airport and got into a second car. They agreed to meet at the airport at noon the next day, and Martin continued to Koh Kong town alone and spent the night at Koh Pich Hotel on the riverfront.

Martin returned to the airport alone and delivered Pickett’s luggage to an unidentified European, then began driving back to Sihanoukville without Pickett.

In a later interrogation, Martin made no mention of the two trips to the airport or the people he met there, insisting that he killed Pickett in self-defense.

According to a December 31 police record, Martin said that he was tired after driving Pickett to Koh Kong and stopped to nap on the side of the road.

There, at a spot 8 km from Koh Kong town, a drunken and drug-addled Pickett tried to kill him with a knife. Martin told police he then struck Pickett with an electric baton, a blow that caused Pickett to fall down the mountain slope into the gully where his body was later discovered.

Martin then left Pickett, went to the Koh Pich Hotel, slept, awoke the next morning, and drove back to Sihanoukville, according to that version, which was given to police after he accepted Sum Samoeun as his lawyer.

Advocating that second story, Sum Samoeun is pushing the court to change the charge against Martin to unintentional killing. He says Pickett’s fatal fall down the rocky mountainside produced the deep cuts which police attribute to an ax.

“There is no evidence of the ax. Where is the ax?” Sum Samouen said. “There are many sharp rocks on that slope. He could have cut himself falling over the rocks.”

The case and its unusual circumstances have drawn the apparent interest of National Police Director-General Hok Lundy, who summoned Martin to Phnom Penh in the days after his arrest. It is unclear how many days Martin stayed in the capital.

“Police checked with headquarters in Phnom Penh, and they told them to bring him in…. It is rare, because he is a foreigner,” said Keo Sim, adding that since that time, the case has been left to the provincial police and courts.

According to police reports, Martin was carrying in his car a total of six grams of a heavy tranquilizer called ketamine hydrochloride, as well as 49 10-milliliter bottles of calipsol, an anesthetic. That evidence has been sent to the Ministry of Interior, said Tuon Pisey, deputy police chief in Koh Kong. An empty piece of luggage was also found near Pickett’s body and taken as evidence, police reported.

Martin is said to have worked for a jungle tour guide group in Sihanoukville before relocating to Sre Ambel to work independently, leading tours into the surrounding forests and Cardamom mountains.

When seen at prison this month, he appeared healthy and said he had no egregious complaints about the conditions at Koh Kong’s slate-gray concrete prison, one of the oldest in the country and, until recently, one of its most notorious for torture and cruelty. He refused to talk about his case because it is ongoing.

“We can talk about the weather,” he joked.

But Martin cast doubt on some police documents in the case, reacting with visible surprise when shown a confession of guilt taken by police in June. He denied ever seeing or signing the three-page document, scrawled in sloppy English.

The document runs in apparent contradiction to other statements Martin made in June, when he was maintaining his innocence in recorded written interrogations.

Less is known about Pickett, who carried a US passport and had relations with a Thai woman who attended his cremation at a Koh Kong pagoda. Both the British and US embassies in Phnom Penh have refused to comment on the case.

Local authorities said the hold-up in Martin’s case has resulted from communication difficulties and his early demands for an English-speaking attorney. In late December, Martin agreed to be represented by Sum Samoeun, with whom he communicates in Thai.

(Additional reporting by Saing Soenthrith and Phann Ana)

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