Like so many other middle-class youngsters, Kirsty Jones had been tempted into taking a gap year abroad after completing her university studies, before the responsibilities of adult life began to bite.
And with its palm-fringed beaches and turquoise seas, there was only one place she wanted to explore: Thailand, the most popular gap-year destination of them all.
Just like a third of the 250,000 British youngsters who embrace such a foreign hiatus every year, Kirsty set off alone, confident and excited about the experiences that awaited her.
While their 23-year-old daughter travelled, Sue and Glyn Jones watched impatiently for regular updates on her adventures.
Beginning in Thailand, she was to then move on to Australia, New Zealand and South America.
Kirsty’s emails to her devoted parents told of wonderful jungle hikes through Thailand, elephant rides and visits to hill tribes.
But, three months into her trip in 2000, the couple were on holiday in Spain when they received terrible news. Kirsty had been found murdered in a backpacker hostel in the city of Chiang Mai.
If that wasn’t horrific enough, the way the couple were treated was truly shocking. ‘My brother-in-law contacted the Foreign Office to find out what had happened. They wouldn’t even confirm her name, even though she was being named in the news. Nobody came to tell us what happened to her,’ said Sue.
‘We got the earliest plane home from Spain and were watching the news the following day. That was how we heard she had been raped. I still don’t know why nobody from the Foreign Office contacted us.’
The devastated Jones family has since faced enormous difficulties in their quest to find justice for their daughter, who had just finished an English and media studies degree at Liverpool University.
Sue, 61, a farmer from Brecon, Powys, even travelled to Thailand on the 12th anniversary of her murder to offer a £10,000 reward for fresh information, to no avail. Her killer remains free.
It’s no cliche to say their experience is the embodiment of every parent’s worst fears.
But what’s worse is that they are by no means alone. In their search for answers, the couple — who also have a son, Gareth, 39 — have learned of many other deaths of young British travellers in Thailand which have gone unexplained.
Tragically, there are dozens of parents who may never know what really happened to their children on their travels there.
Earlier this year, the parents of Christina Annesley, a 23-year-old Leeds University history graduate who died on a gap year in Thailand three years ago, said they fear they will never know what happened to their daughter.
In January 2015, she was found dead in her bungalow on Koh Tao island, one of the country’s smaller tourist destinations.
Margaret and Boyne Annesley, from Orpington, London, believe her death is suspicious, despite what the local authorities say.
As appears to be so often the case in Thailand, the investigation into Christina’s death was botched, with her body left for days in the heat of a temple, making it impossible to obtain accurate toxicology reports.
Apparently Christina had been taking antibiotics for a chest infection. The Thai authorities say these didn’t mix well with alcohol, and blamed them for her death.
Yet the state of her body, and the vague Thai findings, meant it was impossible to know how she had died with any accuracy, and a subsequent British inquest into the death recorded an open verdict.
Other suspicious deaths of Britons in Thailand include Luke Miller, 26, who was found dead at the bottom of a pool on Koh Tao in 2016; Nick Pearson, 25, whose body was found in the sea after he disappeared on a night out on Koh Tao in 2014; Liam Whitaker, 24, was found hanged in a Thai police cell in 2013; and Andrew Apperley, 38, disappeared from a party on Ko Pha Ngan last year.
There are concerns about the way tourist deaths are investigated due to the military junta’s takeover of Thailand in 2014. This saw civil rights curtailed and the police and judiciary abuse their power.
Many parents have now joined forces with other families whose children have died while backpacking around Thailand. Their group, called Mothers Against Murderers Abroad (MAMA), urges the British Government to investigate these deaths and to publicise the dangers of travelling to Thailand.
And it seems there is much to publicise. According to figures issued by the Foreign Office, between 2014 and 2016, 1,151 British nationals died in Thailand.
While many of these deaths would have been from illness or accidents, no fewer than 60 are classed under ‘unknown’ reasons. Separately, perhaps, some could be explained away as tragic misadventures.
Yet taken together they indicate a pattern of criminal behaviour, botched detective work — and, worst of all, police cover-ups.
This is a presumed bid to preserve Thailand’s lucrative image as the perfect travel destination. (It’s notable that Thailand is heavily reliant on tourism, which accounts for 10 per cent of its GDP.)
MAMA has taken its campaign to Downing Street, with a petition of 16,000 signatures. One of the most high-profile signatories is Laura Witheridge, sister of Hannah, 23, a student from Norfolk who was brutally raped and then murdered with engineering graduate David Miller, 24, on the island of Koh Tao in September 2014.
Two migrant workers were arrested and sentenced to death for the murders, but there are doubts surrounding the investigation after claims their confessions were obtained under torture.
An appeal against their sentence is ongoing. Meanwhile, Hannah’s family exists in a purgatory of pain.
Laura has issued scathing attacks against the Thai police, accusing them of a ‘bungled’ investigation. On Facebook, she insisted authorities are ‘covering’ other tourist killings on Koh Tao.
She even said: ‘Many Thais hate Westerners and have little or no regard for human life,’ and recalled things ‘said to my bereaved family by [Thai] judges and court officials [such as] “Why are you here? She is dead already.” “Just go home and make another one.”
“Why are you making such a fuss? She will be back in 30 days as something else. [A reference to the Buddhist belief in reincarnation.] She may have better luck next time.” ’
Sue Jones, too, was appalled by how Kirsty’s death was treated. Thai police were quick to try to wrap up the crime, arresting the British owner of the £7-a-night Aree guesthouse where Kirsty was staying. However, he was later released after DNA recovered from Kirsty’s sarong, which had been used to strangle her, found that her attacker was Thai.
But with a limited national DNA database, no match was found, and as police had allowed a local TV crew into the guesthouse, the crime scene was compromised.
‘The Thai police don’t have the resources to investigate properly. It’s all quite corrupt, you can’t believe anything,’ says Sue. ‘I’ve no faith in the authorities there, that they’ll ever find who killed her.’
She says one problem is that the Foreign Office puts diplomacy with Thailand ahead of the grieving families’ need to find answers. ‘You should be treated as a UK national no matter where you die, but once you leave the UK, no one seems to care about you.’
In three years, Thai police will close the case, obeying their time limit of 20 years. This tears at Sue. ‘She was my only daughter, full of adventure and love. I can’t bear to think about her last moments, how scared she must have been.
‘I see life in two parts now. A line was drawn between when we had Kirsty and when we didn’t.
‘I miss her terribly and think about her every day, what she would be doing now, what she would think of things. Life will never be the same, you just learn to cope with the pain, to carry the grief.’
While Kirsty was killed on the Thai mainland, there appears to be a worrying trend of British youngsters dying on Koh Tao, just as Hannah Witheridge, David Miller and Christina Annesley did.
Koh Tao was once a tropical paradise, but there are growing reports of it being run by a local mafia, who pick off tourists at will and who are protected by the police. Foreigners, it seems, are fair game.
Little wonder, you might think, that Christina’s parents, Margaret, 58, and Boyne, 66, are active members of the MAMA group. At first they accepted the official findings, but are now suspect foul play may have been a factor in her death.
‘There’s part of me that doesn’t want to know how she died,’ says Margaret, a personal assistant. ‘I find it too painful to think about whether someone could have hurt my child.
‘There is a common theme here about corruption and suspicious deaths. People need to be warned of the dangers of travelling there.’
The family of Christina, a political activist, viewed Twitter updates about her travels. One of her last called Koh Tao ‘one of the most beautiful places in the world’.
But when she failed to reply to a text message asking if she was OK, Margaret became worried.
The next day two policemen arrived at her home. ‘I just screamed as soon as I saw them through the window. I instinctively knew why they were here. I was sobbing, “No, no, no, please, no.” That was the worst moment of my life. The best was when my Christina was born. She was a fiercely intelligent person — a free spirit.’
She adds: ‘The police told us she had died in her hotel room and there was no sign of foul play. I believed them at the time. But nothing makes sense any more.
‘It’s only as time has gone on and by meeting other parents that we hear of so many coincidences, and that has made us doubt there was nothing suspicious. There are so many unexplained deaths on Koh Tao. The Thai authorities don’t investigate them properly and we get conflicting information.’
With such a climate, you may wonder how the Foreign Office can continue to say Thailand is a safe place to visit. Indeed, the founder of MAMA, Pat Harrington — who lost her son Ben in suspicious circumstances on Koh Tao — is scathing about this travel advice.
‘The Government needs to look into these suspicious deaths and issue proper travel warnings,’ she says. ‘No family should ever have to go through the pain that we have.’
Ben, a 32-year-old IT consultant, had left for a trip of a lifetime with his younger brother, Mark, 28, in August 2012. Just days later, he was found dead in a ditch, after being killed on his motorbike.
Local police insisted it was a traffic accident. Officers took no photographs of the scene and have no record of who found the body.
Yet Ben’s watch and wallet were missing, which fuelled single-parent Pat’s fear that her son was mugged. There have been reports of robbers using wires to knock over bikers in the area where he was killed.
Thai authorities then pressured the family into cremating Ben immediately — which they thankfully refused.
For although a Thai post-mortem examination claimed Ben’s head had turned towards his back 180 degrees, which would have broken his neck, a second autopsy in Britain said there were no neck injuries and that he had died from blunt trauma to his chest and a ruptured aorta.
Tellingly at his inquest, senior coroner for West Sussex, Penelope Schofield, said she was unable to record a verdict of accidental death as, she said: ‘I don’t feel I have sufficient evidence to be satisfied it definitely was an accident.’
Pat, a 64-year-old nurse from Reigate, Surrey, who has another son, Luke, 30, was forced to turn detective herself. ‘I spoke to people who have lived on the island, who told me about police corruption and mafia control. I could see a pattern of suspicious deaths, passed off as accidents and suicides, which are all totally wrong.
‘I now believe my son was murdered. It may have been the result of a mugging that went wrong, but it was murder.’
The Foreign Office says travel advice for Thailand is kept under constant review and, in a statement to the Mail, expressed its ‘deepest sympathies to the families of Kirsty, Christina and Ben.’
As for its perceived hands-off approach when dealing with the Thai justice system, its statement says: ‘We have made a number of representations to the Thai authorities, but cannot interfere in another country’s police investigation, just as we would not allow another country to interfere in ours.’
But for the heartbroken mothers of MAMA, such words aren’t enough. They want justice for their dead children — and won’t stop until they get it. – Mailonline with additional reporting by Stephanie Condron.
Feel free to comment on story below