By THANE BURNETT
Heralded as a hero, he's since landed hard -- and far -- from the Canadian idol he once was.
In 2001, he saved a stranger from a burning car.
Today, he struggles to salvage his own life in a Vietnamese prison --
apparently peeing blood and counting teeth as they rot off the jaw.
From behind walls of a prison in southern Vietnam, the Hamilton man is offering a rare glimpse of harsh and allegedly inhumane foreign jails that he now calls home.
As he does this, Randy Sachs is also providing proof of the complexities of the human heart. The duality of one man.
On Christmas Eve, just four years ago, the then 24-year-old bar manager was driving to his mom's Beaverton home. On the way, he noticed a car crashed into a ditch.
The vehicle, with 22-year-old student Shawn Rozko unconscious at the wheel, had rammed a stop sign, flown off the road and landed in icy waters of the shallow ravine. With the doors locked and Rozko blacked out, Sachs ran back to his family car, grabbed a hammer and shattered the window. Before the Chevy burst into flames, he dragged the bigger man out, put him over his shoulder and ran to safety. Rozko woke, suffering from smoke inhalation, in an ambulance.
Arrested 5 months later
"All I can do is hug him and thank him for saving my life and tell him he's my guardian angel," Rozko told the Sunday Sun in a 2002 article, entitled "Angels Among Us."
In the Dec. 22 piece, columnist Michele Mandel wrote: "It's the nature of the news business that most of what we relate tends to unveil the worst side of human nature. Too often forgotten are the stories of goodness."
Just five months after that positive light, Sachs was arrested in Vietnam -- caught with 1,000 Ecstasy pills. He faced the possibility of execution for his drug trafficking.
"We had to buy a body bag," his mom, Dee Hogle, explains, sitting in a Beaverton restaurant with her father, Bob Hogle. "It's a horrendous feeling. You have no idea."
That money was sent back, after the life of the Canadian was spared. He is instead now serving a 16-year sentence.
Her son hadn't simply made a single wrong turn. He has a Canadian record, which includes drug charges. At one time, he may have been involved in a notorious West Coast gang.
But his family -- revelling in his heroism -- thought he was finally on the right path. In an odd way, his mom now believes his current nightmare is defining new heroics.
With correspondence banned, and by the rules only allowed a brief visit every few months -- Canadian consulate officials have pulled strings to see him once a month -- Sachs has been able to have a letter smuggled back home.
In it -- while admitting his guilt and accepting his sentence -- he describes a prison system allegedly rife with corruption and human rights violations. To the man, he blatantly names his jailers as inhumane and constantly on the take.
His rare diary of life inside Thu Duc prison, in the southern Vietnamese province of Binh Thuan, east of Ho Chi Minh, is certainly part self-serving. It also seems to be a dramatic cry for help on behalf of other foreigners imprisoned with him.
His family has been allowed very limited contact from him.
"He likes himself now ... believes he's a better man now," notes Dee, who has begun an online petition to call for clemency by the government of Vietnam (petitionspot.com/petitions/randysachs).
"And he's speaking out (in the letter, smuggled out earlier this year), hoping it may help other prisoners around him."
In his letter, he begins: "I am not all bad. I mean that I have done some good in my life. (But) I have always been a sucker for easy money, which brought me to Vietnam."
Following his arrest in May 2003, Sachs was taken to Chi Hoa district jail in Ho Chi Minh City. It houses 5,000 criminals.
"There I was placed in KG Cell 20 -- a 3-metre by 4-metre cell with seven other inmates," he writes, adding they slept on straw mats and roaches and rats flourished in dark corners.
"Urine dripped from the cracked ceiling above the hole for a toilet. There is no running water, no window and the light never shuts off. The only fresh air is when rice or soup is passed through a small hatch in the door."
He developed rashes and scabies. In the heat of southern Vietnam, each inmate is allowed 18 litres of water per day to drink, shower, wash their clothing and their dishes.
Rations could be cut
"The only exercise was the nightly beatings we heard drunk guards giving Vietnamese inmates. At times during the day when they knew we were listening, they (officers) would open the hatch and let us watch them beat inmates."
Before each visit by the Canadian consulate, he says they were told if they complained, water rations would be cut.
He bonded with another Canadian, identified as Samuel Dong Sung Kim of Vancouver, who was charged with swindling students when his English school went bankrupt.
"Sam used the money his wife sent him to bribe the guards to give us more water and get a doctor to fix my rashes and clear up the scabies that ravaged my body," he writes.
That fellow doctor was simply another inmate.
Money the Canadian consulate gave Sachs as humanitarian funds had to be given up to have eight of his teeth pulled.
When he was moved to another location, he was required to pay "rent and water fees" -- $10 Cdn a week -- to guards.
The bribe was paid or water and rice were held back.
Sachs says bad medical care led to Sam having a heart attack. The older man's wife, according to Sachs, had to pay a bribe of $500 to look after her husband.
The two men were then shipped to their current prison.
"Here is the worst place yet," he writes, noting there are 63 people with each person allowed 84 cm for sleeping.
Room dubbed UN
His room is filled with foreign prisoners -- called Team 4 but also dubbed the "United Nations." If you pay officials $30 each month, you get light duty or don't have to work.
"The truly important issue is basic human rights," Sachs pleads. "Medical officers here will not give any medical care unless they are paid under the table."
He said Sam, still sick, pays to stay off work, and bribes the doctor to pass over medicine his family ships from Canada.
Because he couldn't pay a bribe, an American inmate identified as James Ban, died after, for two months, asking for medical help, claims Sachs. A Filipino inmate was allegedly refused medicine for his high blood pressure, because he couldn't pay a bribe. Sachs says that man suffered a stroke, and is now largely paralyzed.
"We must care for him," writes Sachs. "The value of human worth is based on your wallet."
Sachs himself suffers from decaying teeth and constant blood in his urine because of kidney problems.
A Catholic, Sachs apparently can't even get a Bible.
"We are criminals and I don't ask for sympathy as I made my bed and must sleep in it, but I do as far as compassion and basic human rights," he continues.
The one-time hero ends the letter: "Don't forget us here."
His grandfather, Bob, is writing his own letter -- to Prime Minister Paul Martin. It reads: "I am 70 years old. I doubt I will see my grandson again. Not because of my dying first, but Randy not getting the medical attention he deserves."
His family has been told to stay away from Vietnam, though Sachs' girlfriend was able to visit him for 30 minutes last December, and Canadian consular officials are said to be doggedly watching over the young man.
Dan McTeague, parliamentary secretary for Canadians abroad, said the case is one of his priorities. He noted Canadian officials in Hanoi have worked hard to get Sachs' medical needs looked at -- including having teeth pulled.
"They've done much more (to cooperate) than might be expected," he said of Vietnamese officials.
Sachs' family has spent thousands of dollars on his plight, including $600 (US) to have some of his teeth repaired.
But his health, especially kidney condition, frightens them. His 7-year-old brother, Robbie, worries his older sibling won't remember him.
"I wonder if it wouldn't have been better if he had faced the firing squad," says his grandfather.
"This is a slow death."
Calls to the man Sachs saved have gone unanswered. Though Shawn Rozko's dad said they know of Sachs' plight.
Vietnamese officials in Ottawa say Sachs' allegations are baseless. Their country doesn't have a parole system. Nor does it have an exchange treaty with Canada.
"So I worry he won't survive," says his mom, adding their hope is clemency from the Vietnamese government.
McTeague agrees public awareness in key in the case. But foreign affairs officials say five years -- a third of the sentence -- must pass before a plea will be looked at seriously.
His family prays, since Sachs once braved fire and ice to save a stranger's life, the Canadian public -- and his jailers -- may consider the fallen angel worthy of rescuing now.
• You can call Thane Burnett at (416) 947-2444 or e-mail at email@example.com
Randy Sachs Case Information