Southern Missouri man charged in Myanmar swim

Thursday, May 14, 2009 | 6:06 p.m. CDT; updated 9:28 p.m. CDT, Thursday, May 14, 2009

FALCON — John Yettaw left his 10-year-old and three teenagers in southern Missouri, visited his former wife in California last month and told her he had to go to Asia to work on a psychology paper about forgiveness. That was bad enough for his ex-wife, but it got worse.

Yettaw's unexplained swim last week across a Myanmar lake to the home of opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi has prompted new charges against Suu Kyi less than two weeks before her years-long detention had been due to end. The 53-year-old Yettaw faces charges of his own in Myanmar, and anger from some who know him.

His ex-wife, Yvonne Yettaw, said: "I put it this way: He's got four children, and he went out of the country and left the children with friends."

John Yettaw was arrested last week and charged Thursday with illegally entering a restricted zone, which carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison, and with breaking immigration laws, which is punishable by up to one year in jail.

"I guess you tend not to think that it will end badly, but I don't know. I worry about his reputation," his adult daughter, Carley Yettaw, said Thursday. "But I would like people to know that he has no ill intention, that he was not trying to cause harm."

U.S. Embassy spokesman Richard Mei said Yettaw had no legal representation at his arraignment but that the embassy was trying to find him an English-speaking lawyer.

Suu Kyi's supporters accuse the military government of using the incident to keep her in detention ahead of general elections scheduled for next year.

Yvonne Yettaw said her ex-husband said nothing about Suu Kyi when he talked to her; he mentioned researching the psychology paper but said little else about his trip.

"I don't know if this was cathartic," she said from her home in Palm Springs, Calif. "But he wanted to return to southeast Asia. He wanted to take some documents and some information because he's doing research on a paper on forgiveness for trauma."

"I was just told that he needed to go," she added. He had been scheduled to return June 24.

John Yettaw has claimed he is a student of the Forest Institute of Professional Psychology in Springfield. Officials at the institute, a school for advanced degrees in psychology with about 250 students, said Yettaw is not enrolled there and did not have a degree from there; they said school rules bar them from disclosing whether he had ever attended.

Yvonne Yettaw said she was married to John Yettaw for 12 years and divorced him in 2002. They had six children together; one of them, a son, died in a motorcycle accident in 2007.

Yvonne Yettaw, also 53, said John Yettaw lived on veterans disability payments and from work as a general contractor.

He received physical custody of the children when they divorced, she said, but she was going to have the children for a while when school ended for the summer. She asked him to postpone the trip to Asia until then.

"He's got a 14-year-old who's graduating from eighth grade and a son who missed his prom," Yvonne Yettaw said. "He couldn't wait until I could have them?

"I have harsh feelings toward that man," she said.

Yvonne Yettaw said John Yettaw had remarried but that his new wife had her own home. She said the four youngest children, who range in age from 10 to 17, largely stayed in the Yettaw family home, a mobile home near a house apparently under construction in the woods outside the tiny town of Falcon in southern Missouri.

Carley Yettaw, 20, is studying psychology and gerontology at Missouri State University in Springfield.

Yvonne Yettaw said her former husband arranged for a network of friends to care for the four younger children while he was gone.

"These children are children, and yet they act like they can go and come as they please because there's no adult supervision," she said. The children are Brian, 17; Dennis, 14; Kevin, 13; and Rachel, 10, Yvonne Yettaw said.

Brian answered the door at the family home Tuesday and said he was asked not to talk to the media but said this wasn't his father's first trip to Asia. He said he and his father backpacked across the region last summer.

"I loved it," he said. "I was there four months. But my dad stayed six."

He said his father was very good at making friends.

"He would always say, 'Thank you,' 'I love you,' when people would give us things."

The family belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Yvonne Yettaw said. She said it was unlikely he was there to proselytize for the church or convert the Nobel laureate.

John Yettaw is borderline diabetic and has asthma but recently lost about 70 pounds, she said.

"He has asthma real bad; that's why I'm surprised he swam so good," she said.

Yvonne Yettaw said she would like to see her ex-husband returned to the U.S. but had mixed feelings.

"I mean, I don't want to see him get the kids back," she said. "He probably will, but now I have grounds that he's irresponsible."

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