Photos provided by Neil Bantleman's family
Around the time of this article's publication on Thursday night, July 31, a candlelight vigil is being held in Burlington, Ontario, in honour of Canadian teacher Neil Bantleman who is being detained in Jakarta, Indonesia without facing any charges.
Neil works as an administrator at Jakarta International School, where his wife Tracy also teaches. But since July 14 he’s been detained by Jakarta police in relation to an investigation into horrific sexual assaults committed against several students at JIS.
Neil, a 45-year-old teacher born in Burlington who also taught in Calgary, has not been charged with a single crime. At first he was called into police headquarters as a witness but now he’s a suspect. Under Indonesian law, suspects can be detained without charge for 60 days or more as the investigation continues.
“This doesn’t feel like a nightmare,” Tracy says in an interview. “It feels like an alternate reality. It’s so outlandish.”
Tracy is adamant her husband should have never been implicated in this, a complex fog of crime permeating the school, which is popular with expatriate families.
In March, a five-year-old pre-school boy at JIS refused to wear pants, telling his mother he didn't want to go to the bathroom. She discovered from him that he'd been locked in a cupboard in the toilets near the school's preschool. His captors were the cleaning staff employed by international outsourcing company, or ISS.
The mother also said her son was anally raped.
Head of School Tim Carr says the boy's parents wanted his privacy protected, and the school said very little in public or to the media.
The police then arrested two ISS cleaners who confessed to the crime. Four others were declared suspects.
But the mother was encouraged by her lawyer to take the story public. On April 14, she held a media conference in a restaurant, imploring other parents to ask their children about similar assaults.
As the school started facing calls for it to be closed, another mother stood up to declare her son was also a victim. Her statement came just as the first parents launched a $125 million civil suit against JIS. That’s when Neil’s life was upended
The second mother claims Neil Bantleman, a teaching assistant and the primary school principal all assaulted her son, acting with the six cleaners from ISS and possibly other henchmen, including an unidentified guard.
This mom told police her pre-schooler was hypnotized somehow and poisoned with a “light blue” potion. She also claimed the assaults were videotaped, but no video has surfaced so far in any of the police investigations made public to media.
Tracy is shocked at how attention has shifted to the second mother and very little has been exposed about the circumstances over the first boy’s alleged assault. “We’re wasting time on all these lies [told by the second mother] when we should be looking at what happened to the first boy.”
Calls made to the Indonesian police headquarters in Jakarta were met with no response.
“This case is so complex can the Indonesian police really investigate it properly?” Tracy wonders. “Do they have the training and the tools to interview alleged victims of child abuse?”
Neil and the TA Ferdinant Tjiong underwent polygraph tests last week, but police have yet to release results. Hotman Paris Hutapea, the high-profile lawyer representing the school’s two staff members, said the lie detector tests showed that the police did not have a strong case against Neil or Tijong.
“The lie detector tests are proof that the police are lacking in evidence and witnesses to prosecute my clients,” he told the Jakarta Post.
Tracy is quick to relate this case to the 1984 trials of the McMartin Preschool in California. Members of the McMartin family, who operated the school, were charged with numerous acts of sexual abuse of children in their care, but the charges were dropped once the trial determined the child interviewers were posing leading questions to entice the students to answer positively to child abuse allegations.
Tracy and her lawyer don’t want to wait for a trial to prove Neil’s innocence. Hutapea is urging the Canadian government to get more involved in the case. He said the embassies of the United States, Britain and Australia—which founded the school in 1951—released a joint declaration “expressing concern that the detentions may violate the presumption of innocence assured under Indonesian law,” according to the Globe & Mail.
“Canadian citizens need to wake up their ambassador and their prime minister,” says Hutapea.
In an interview with Neil’s brother Guy, who lives in Neil’s birthplace of Burlington, Ontario, he said he has faith Neil will be released, but he doesn’t have complete faith in “how that will come about and what conditions there are going to be or the long-term ramifications of his release.”
After all, Guy says, these are allegations that can stick with a teacher the rest of his life, no matter if any charges are leveled against Neil.
Tracy is making sure she checks up on Neil often. In her last visit, he was gaunt and frail, and “the emotional trauma and mental anguish of this situation are overwhelming him.” In the past two weeks, he has suffered from stomach pains and diarrhea, Tracy says. Family and friends can bring him food, and he's allowed time in a small cement courtyard, Tracy notes.
But he’s afraid to go outside, Tracy adds with a sigh. While he’s detained in an area with white-collar criminals, spending time in the exercise yard would mean mingling with violent offenders, “and he doesn’t want to risk any confrontation,” Tracy says. This past weekend, he spent 72 straight hours without a peek of sunlight.
He also sleeps in a cell with five other inmates, Tracy says, and some inmates support Neil. But there are a few who don’t believe his side of the story. “Imagine sleeping next to a guy who thinks you’re a pedophile,” she says.
Back in Canada, a petition is circulating online calling for Neil’s release, and a Facbeook Page has been set up with just under 3,300 supporters. It’s all part of the community effort to raise awareness about this case.
Neil’s mother, 82, took to Facebook to post a statement to supporters of the Page dedicated to Neil’s release. She wrote: “We are shaken to the core that he is having to endure intolerable indignities and humiliation. Worse, we are powerless to help...”
Neil’s students in Canada couldn’t believe the detainment when they first heard of it too. Lauren Webber, 25, best knew Neil as her junior high school basketball coach when he taught in Calgary. “I see [Neil and Tracy] like they are the older brother and sister I never had growing up."
Webber describes Neil as “one of the most loving and compassionate guys I know.” She goes on to say, “His optimism and smile [were] contagious, and he would always show us the ways we had grown in sports from one game to another, and more importantly, where there were opportunities for us to improve.”
Tracy sounds tired when she speaks, as if her energy is slowly being sapped by the lack of information coming from Jakarta police. Hope still flickers for her, though. The many Canadians and Indonesians backing Neil and Tjiong during this ordeal strengthen Tracy’s resolve.
“I don’t think these families [who implicated Neil in the child abuse crimes] could predict what they would be up against with the supportive community we’ve been seeing all over world.”
Follow David Silverberg on Twitter