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On the first anniversary of her disappearance on Koh Tao aka “Death Island” we ask: “What happened to Valentina Novozhenova?” By Ian Yarwood (Australian Lawyer)
On Friday, 3 March 2017 the Samui Times published a short article of only two paragraphs alerting the world that the 23 year old Russian girl, Valentina Novozhenova had gone missing on Koh Tao from 15 February 2017.
Many missing persons stories have a happy ending but some have a tragic conclusion. Yet others simply linger as a mystery that prevents families and friends from finding closure.
Valentina’s story is one of those lingering mysteries but with some additional dark aspects.
Observers were astonished to learn that no search had started for Valentina, an enthusiastic “free diver”, for over two weeks.
In addition, it was quickly revealed that one Koh Tao resident had suggested in a local online forum that Valentina’s disappearance should not be publicised too quickly as that might attract adverse publicity for the island, which was already under the shadow of the murders of some tourists and the mysterious deaths of others.
Then came another “smoke & mirrors” show that Thai police are so infamous for. There was distraction, deflection, misinformation, false leads and some theatre as the police pretended to be genuinely concerned.
However, no one in authority on Koh Tao ever explained why it took over two weeks before the police started searching for this lone tourist.
The police concocted a story that she had a “dive buddy” who had gone off to the Philippines. They said they would interview this phantom dive buddy but they never published the name and never followed up. With the aid of a few other distractions the press and the public lost interest with the story and it was all forgotten about – swept under the proverbial carpet, so to speak. Problem solved but not the mystery.
What were some of the other distractions to which I refer?
There were claims she was suicidal but there was no suicide note and dead people are not normally much good at disposing of their own bodies.
There was a claim that human flesh and bones had been discovered but, after a few days, one of those renowned Thai laboratories revealed the “fragments” were of marine life not human. Never mind, it helped people tire of the story.
There was a claim that Valentina had never been diving in open water before but there is an iconic picture of her at a castle on the Black Sea which is a very popular dive spot for Russians.
She had apparently gone diving alone in the past, so could she have been eaten by a shark with no witnesses? Answer: No. There are many quite harmless sharks around Koh Tao but nothing that will eat humans. Some sharks resemble bull sharks but there are no bull sharks in those waters.
Could she have drowned? Answer: If she had drowned her body would almost certainly have washed up on one of the islands or the mainland as so many others do.
I think it is open to come to the conclusion that some form of foul play was involved in her disappearance.
It is possible she was murdered and her body buried somewhere on the island. Murderous criminals do reside on Koh Tao.
Boating deaths around Koh Tao
I do not know what happened to Valentina but a clue lies in the events of 16 February 2017, which happens to be the day after her disappearance.
On 16 February 2017, Canadian Shelly Bot (50) and her partner, Jack were snorkelling in a swimming area when a taxi boat taking a shortcut ran over them killing the mother of three and injuring Jack.
This death did not receive a great deal of local media attention. Boating deaths in Thailand are frighteningly common as are road traffic deaths.
A brief account of Shelly’s death was provided by some Canadian news services including one with a short video concerning the accident and its effect on her friends and her three young children.
Unfortunately, some false claims from the former rescue volunteer, Steven Drylie were published within Thailand. He claimed that she was struck while in a marked boat lane.
The British girl, Alice Davies (20) almost had a leg sliced off while scuba diving in Koh Tao waters on 9 June 2015.
Hanspeter Suter (44) from Switzerland disappeared on 8 November 2014 and his body was found washed up on the mainland many days later, possibly the victim of a boat accident.
Another Koh Tao boating death that has gained some media attention again is that of Silje Mathisen (22) from Norway who was killed by a boat propeller on her very first dive with her childhood friend, Sigrid Simensen.
There are many stories of near misses too.
In light of all the boating deaths, injuries, near misses, reckless behaviour and the Thai preference to conceal any inconvenient truth, what is a reasonable theory on Valentina’s fate?
Judging by the absence from her room of her swimming and diving gear it is likely that she went diving alone. IF upon surfacing from a free dive, a boat struck her and IF no friend or independent person was within sight then it would be too tempting for a boat driver to simply drag her body on board then take her out to a more distant part of the Gulf of Thailand, weigh her body down, and drop her over the side.
Such a scenario would deny closure for Valentina’s friends and family but it would avoid unpleasant consequences for any boat driver who might have accidentally struck her.
Today is the first anniversary of Valentina’s disappearance and tomorrow is the first anniversary of Shelly Bot’s tragic death. A small consolation for Shelly’s children is that they have some closure. She was snorkelling with Jack and other tourists were in the boat that struck her. She did not die alone but as her son said in the video (link above), she died while doing something she loved.