Hannah Witheridge and David Miller Murders: Where Are Zaw Lin and Wai Phyo Now?

‘Death Island’ podcast follows the Koh Tao murders, which created an international frenzy when two young British tourists, Hannah Witheridge, and David Miller, were found murdered in September 2014. The episode tries to deconstruct the complex case for the listeners as it narrates the incidents chronologically and questions several alleged incompetencies in the murder probe. 

How Did Hannah Witheridge and David Miller Die?

Hannah Victoria Witheridge was born in Hemsby, Great Yarmouth Borough, in Norfolk, England, on October 15, 1990. In September 2014, the 23-year-old University of East Anglia graduate, who had been studying for a master’s degree in speech and language therapy. Her family described her as “vivacious” and “someone who loved living.” Hannah was due to return to her postgraduate Speech and Language Therapy course at Essex University after her summer break.

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Her housemate Lucy Dunkley said, “No one could say a bad word about her. She was just one of those beautiful, bubbly people, amazing inside and out. She was just a brilliant person, and she was just irreplaceable. I’ll never meet anyone like her.” Lucy and Hannah were both receiving training to help people with speech difficulties, and Lucy said Hannah wanted to go on to work with children. She added, “She always got along well on placement. The children always loved her. She was a real natural with them.”

Hannah met David Miller by chance when they and their friends stayed in adjoining rooms of the Ocean View Bungalows, a small backpacker complex overlooking the white sand sweep of Sairee beach on the Thai island of Koh Tao. David worked as an intern in the St Helier offices of the Australian mining company Consolidated Minerals. He was returning from a placement in Australia when he stopped in Thailand for a holiday with a friend. He hailed from Jersey, a Crown Dependency, and graduated from Victoria College in 2008.

One of his former teachers, Alan Hamel, reminisced, “He was a young man of enormous potential and particularly a talented artist. There was so much he could be doing with his life, and having it cut short is unbelievably cruel. I think my lasting memory of him will be his smile, wonderful sense of humor, and ability to put his ideas across with conviction and thoughtfulness.” David, then 24, had recently graduated in civil and structural engineering from the University of Leeds and planned on starting a master’s degree.

According to reports, David and Hannah arrived separately on the island with their friends on August 25, 2014. They partied together, with the couple last seen together at a local bar called AC Bar with friends on September 14. They were at the bar with around 50 people — mostly foreign tourists – before they left together after 1:00 am. A mute Burmese beach cleaner stumbled upon the bodies shortly after dawn the following morning on Sairee Beach, near Hannah’s room A5 at Ocean View Bungalows.

Hannah had been bludgeoned to death a few feet from her room door alongside her fellow British tourist David Miller. Her autopsy report showed she had been raped and killed by blows to the head. Dabid had also suffered deep lacerations to his skull before drowning in the shallow surf. The police found a garden hoe and a wooden club nearby, which were quickly determined as the principal murder weapons. According to reports, the bodies were partially clothed, and the officers also located three cigarette butts and a used condom nearby.

Who Killed Hannah Witheridge and David Miller?

The police removed the bodies to prevent them from being swept up in the rising tide as the locals blocked the pier to stop the unidentified killers from leaving the island. The brutality of the incident shook the islands and its tourists and residents as the investigators began their probe under immense media and political pressure. As the local government was concerned about how the incident would affect the tourism prospects, the officials allegedly forced the detectives into expediting the investigation into the murders.

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With no leads or suspects, the police wildly speculated who the culprit might be as they alleged several individuals to be the supposed killer without any evidence. Foreign nationals were also immediately blamed for the crime, with a police spokesman even claiming, “Thais would not do this.” Their primary focus lay on migrant workers, with many alleging the authorities tortured them with scalding boiled water during interrogations. However, the Thai police have denied these allegations and termed them baseless.

When the authorities were unable to pin the crime on migrant workers, they turned their attention toward Western tourists related to the victims. According to reports, the police sought his friend, who shared a room with David, in the double homicide, and a nationwide manhunt was launched. However, the investigators quickly dismissed him as a suspect. News reports stated officers rounded up 200 alleged suspects, most migrant workers, and used mass DNA testing.

Police obtained CCTV footage from local bars and restaurants and zeroed in on three men riding a motorcycle to 7-Eleven on the night of the murder. They were seen buying beer and cigarettes before taking a shortcut route to Sairee Beach. One of the three suspected individuals was identified as Mau Mau, a local living nearby. He was brought in for questioning on October 1, and he stated he was not present when the murders took place. Mau Mau claimed he left on his motorcycle and returned home later to find his co-riders asleep.

The investigators raided Mau Mau’s home on October 2 and arrested one of the men named Zaw Lin. He was interrogated and captured while his clothes and motorcycle were seized as evidence. The second individual, Wai Phyo, had allegedly fled the island by boat the previous night. He was ultimately arrested a few hours later while hiding on the vessel. According to reports, both men were 22-year-old illegal migrant workers from Rakhine, Myanmar, who worked in the hospitality industry. They had no prior criminal records.

Zaw and Wai were subjected to hours-long interrogation sessions, with the police using Burmese food vendors as interpreters since the pair did not speak Thai. According to reports, they allegedly confessed to the murders, stating the migrant workers wanted to rape Hannah after getting aroused while reportedly seeing her kissing David on the beach. The investigators claimed the semen sample retrieved from Hannah’s body and the forensic evidence found on the murder weapons and cigarette butts matched their DNA samples. During the trial, the prosecution also claimed David’s stolen phone was discovered smashed at the home of a friend of Zaw Lin’s.

Zaw Lin and Wai Phyo Are Serving Their Sentence

In a wildly controversial move, the police forced the suspects to re-enact the murder in front of the media — a move condemned by legal experts as prejudicing a fair hearing. However, Zaw and Wai retracted their confession after they were allowed legal counsel, with a consulate lawyer for Myanmar alleging their clients had been beaten, tortured, and threatened to make the admissions necessary to close the widely publicized case. According to reports, the investigators had allegedly left them unclothed in freezing rooms and threatened to electrocute them.

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However, the erstwhile national police chief denied the allegations of torture, although the police refused to cooperate with representatives of Thailand’s National Human Rights Commission attempting to investigate the serious allegations. Zaw and Wai were each indicted on five charges, including premeditated murder, killing to conceal a criminal offense, rape, illegal entry into Thailand, and staying in the country without permission. The officers also charged Wai with stealing David’s mobile phone.

The pair’s trial began on July 8, 2015, with the prosecution highlighting the DNA evidence and police findings as their primary strategy. According to the prosecutors, the defendants used the garden hoe to knock Hannah unconscious and held her down as they raped her before murdering her. Court documents claimed David was killed while attempting to stop the defendants from murdering his friend. His dad, Ian Miller, said, “It’s quite likely David was stepping in to assist a girl in trouble. That would be absolutely in his character.”

However, the defense counsel argued all the evidence against the defendants was circumstantial, and the police had no known eyewitness to the murders. They also pointed out several mistakes the incompetent investigators committed during the probe and alleged the officers restored to torture to make the defendants admit to the crime. The defense lawyers also claimed Wai had found David’s phone on the beach and was traveling by boat to Surat Thani for his new job on the day he was arrested.

After the court ordered the DNA to be tested again on July 10, the head of Thailand’s Central Institute of Forensic Science found that the DNA sample on the hoe did not match the defendants. Several forensic experts claimed the police collected forensic evidence from the scene dubiously and was not subject to independent oversight or verification. Despite so many alleged loopholes in the investigation procedure, the court found Zaw Lin and Wai Phyo guilty of murder and sentenced them to death on December 24, 2015.

Wai was also convicted of theft and pled guilty to entering the country illegally, while Zaw was not charged since he held a work permit for the two years preceding the murders. The Supreme Court of Thailand upheld the sentence in August 2019. However, the death sentences were commuted to life imprisonment following a royal decree commemorating King Vajiralongkorn’s birthday. According to reports, David’s family welcomed the commutation of the sentence. The trial drew wide criticism from the international press and human rights groups. Both men, in their early 30s, are presumed to be serving their sentence in some Thailand prison.

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