For years, John Yettaw had experienced visions that warned him of events to come. Sometimes the Missouri resident ignored them and came to regret it. This time, though, he intended to act. In early 2009, the 53-year-old told friends and family that he had seen himself as a man sent by God to protect the life of a beloved foreign leader. He arranged for his kids to stay with a friend, borrowed money to buy a plane ticket and printed new business cards, as if launching a new life. He seemed calm at first, spending hours at the local Hardee's, where he used the free Wi-Fi to download music—Gladys Knight, Michael Bublé—and Mormon sermons from Salt Lake City. But as his flight date approached, he also showed signs of nervousness. He broke down on the shoulder of his best friend, and didn't sleep at all on his last night at home.
Sometime after 3 a.m. on April 15, he woke his son Brian, 17, and his three younger children for a family prayer, and piled them into a minivan for the hourlong drive to the airport. Unlike the backpack tour Yettaw had taken through Asia late last year, this trip would propel him into the heart of Burma's repressive regime and an ongoing crackdown on dissidents that has drawn condemnation from Barack Obama and United Nations Secretary--General Ban Ki-moon, among others. On the 20th, he flew to Bangkok, where he spent a week waiting for his Burmese visa and sending whimsical e-mails home, including a final cheerful message: "Pray. Study peace. Live calmness. Kindness toward everyone. Love and pray."
The next word the family got regarding Yettaw came in a 5 a.m. phone call from the consulate at the U.S. Embassy in Rangoon. He had been arrested just past dawn on May 6, seized as he kicked through the soupy brown waters of Inya Lake, a man-made reservoir some four miles from his hotel. He had made an unauthorized and uninvited two-day visit to the weathered colonial-style home of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Prize–winning leader of Burma's pro-democracy movement. Suu Kyi says that she asked Yettaw to leave, but relented when he complained of hunger and exhaustion. "The Lady," as locals call her, trounced opponents in the country's last open election in 1990, but the junta refused to recognize the results, and has kept her under arrest for 13 of the past 19 years for trying to unseat the regime. She was due to be released on May 27, ahead of next year's landmark national elections—the first in two decades. But now Suu Kyi, the Oxford-educated daughter of Burmese revolutionary Aung San, faces five more years for violating the terms of her imprisonment and breaking the country's law forbidding unregistered guests from staying overnight.
Yettaw, too, is on trial for charges including "illegal swimming" and breaching security laws; judging from the line of questioning in court, Burmese authorities suspect he intended to help Suu Kyi escape. At the start of the legal proceedings last month, they presented two black chadors, two long skirts, three pairs of sunglasses, six colored pencils, flares, flashlights and a pair of pliers as evidence of a getaway plot. Yettaw was also carrying empty jugs he used for buoyancy, and a camera wrapped in plastic with a picture of the improvised flippers he used for the mile-long swim. Since his arrest, he has been held in Insein (pronounced "insane") Prison. If convicted, he faces as many as five years behind bars—perhaps more if he is found guilty of trying to spring Suu Kyi. Both he and his host (Suu Kyi's lawyer says, "This is a political case, not a criminal one") have pleaded not guilty. "He had no criminal intent," Yettaw's lawyer, Khin Maung Oo, told newsweek, adding that the only charge he should face is "lurking house-trespass," a lesser crime on the books in Burma. "He has no relationship with anything political. His only mission was to save her."
A troubled dreamer who lives down two miles of gravel road in Missouri's backwoods and didn't have a passport until last spring, Yettaw is an unlikely protagonist on the international political stage. Why he made his move, and who, if anyone, encouraged it are questions clouded by conspiracy theories and confounding reports about the man and his motives. The junta believes that antigovernment activists used Yettaw to embarrass its leaders, while Suu Kyi's supporters say that the government used the quixotic American as a pretense for keeping their best-known critic under house arrest rather than risk igniting the opposition ahead of the 2010 elections.
Yettaw's friends and family tell a different story, describing a well-intentioned and highly spiritual person whose struggles with alcoholism and mental illness may have pushed him into history's path. "I don't think he's well," says Yvonne Yettaw, the third of his four wives—echoing the sentiments of other loved ones who believe that he may suffer from untreated bipolar and posttraumatic stress disorders. The only problem is neither Yvonne nor anybody else seems to fully understand the often secretive father of seven. As a result, they offer contradictory, incomplete and occasionally fantastical ideas about what Yettaw was up to.
Betty, Yettaw's fourth and current wife, believes he was compelled by God, but also wanted to interview Suu Kyi for a book he is writing about how people recover from trauma. ("If they let her go, he'd never get to see her," Betty says.) Ex-wife Yvonne says the Burma trip was about business: her ex-husband and Suu Kyi, she heard incorrectly, had coauthored a book together. And a close friend of Yettaw's—who requested anonymity owing to the sensitivity of the family's situation—says that John uncovered Burmese (and Chinese) state secrets that compelled him to act. "If they knew, they'd kill him," the friend says ominously. Brian and Carley, his 20-year-old daughter, say their father was going to warn Suu Kyi that her life was in danger following a tip-off from God—an account that roughly matches Yettaw's testimony that "terrorists" were going to assassinate her and blame the government.
The facts of Yettaw's life are also murky, even to his family. After years of his erratic behavior and unsatisfying explanations, they have come to accept him the way he is—bighearted but unsteady. This is what they've been told (although aside from Yettaw's birthplace and his military records, little can be independently verified): he and a twin sister were born in a Detroit housing project in 1955—the youngest of five siblings and the only ones to survive into adulthood (an older sister died in a swimming accident, a brother committed suicide in a mental hospital and another sister was born with severe handicaps and died in an institution). As a 7- or 8-year-old, he has told family, he was molested by a volunteer "big brother" after his father left home, before his mother's drinking cost her custody. Sent to live with relatives in California, Yettaw ran away from home at 16 and lived in his car until he was old enough to join the Army in 1973. His family believes that Yettaw did a combat stint somewhere in Asia during the Vietnam War; he told them that his time there brought on bouts of PTSD. The military's National Personnel Records Center, however, says that he spent 10 months in Germany before being discharged in 1974 after little more than a year of service.
Back in the United States, an unplanned pregnancy led to a quickie marriage at 20, a divorce two years later and a decade of drinking, according to Yvonne. Yettaw married again in his mid-20s, only to divorce seven years later. He met Yvonne, the mother of six of his seven children, at a church singles event shortly after his conversion to Mormonism in his early 30s. Yettaw liked the church's belief in conversions for the dead because he wanted to reunite with his whole family in the afterlife, she says. Around the same time, he experienced the first in a series of visions: a dream that his father, whom Yettaw had not heard from since John was 2, was in Falcon, Mo. Remarkably, he was in fact living in Falcon, and John soon moved Yvonne and his children nearby. Things looked up for a while. But over the next few years, personal tragedies pulled Yettaw's life in strange new directions, and ultimately toward Burma.
After a house fire and a messy divorce from Yvonne, Yettaw found himself living in a trailer on his property, where a veritable Noah's Ark of trash began to accumulate on the lawn: two broken-down cars, two derelict trucks, two rusted satellite dishes and a pair of portable basketball hoops that still stand in the tall, tick-infested grass. Debt began to snowball, as Yettaw pursued increasingly impractical dreams. He started driving a USA Tours bus in part to ferry soldiers from their homes to nearby Fort Leonard Wood, began work on a 6,000-square-foot turreted home and started putting up drifters in a local hotel.
A darker side also emerged. He put his thumb through a man's eye during a fight in a bar parking lot, say Brian and Yvonne, and, according to police records, spat in the face of a woman who accused him of taking her car. (Although no charges were filed, Yettaw admitted to the spitting, and the woman won a restraining order against him.) In 1997 he graduated cum laude from Drury University with a triple major in psychology, criminal justice and biology, only to be forced from a doctoral program at the Springfield, Mo.–based Forest Institute's School of Professional Psychology in 2007. According to family, he was "blacklisted" for exploding at a professor during a field trip to an area mental hospital. (Forest officials declined to comment, citing privacy regulations.) Determined to get back on track, he was set to speak with school officials at the institute on the very day a far worse crisis engulfed the family.
Before dawn on Aug. 2, 2007, 17-year-old Clint Yettaw was speeding on his Yamaha 650—a bike his father got him for his birthday the previous summer. Clint hit a deer at such a fatal velocity, according to police, that he split the animal in two. Yettaw blamed himself for failing to act on a premonition of Clint's death a few weeks earlier. He buried his son in the front yard, in a plain grave surrounded by cinder blocks. It was a pivotal event for Yettaw, who soon decided he needed a break. "He was like, 'Get me away from here'," says Betty.
In May 2008, he and Brian headed to Asia for a six-month tour, where Yettaw's fascination with Suu Kyi began. After Brian returned to school in early September, Yettaw headed to Mae Sot, a relaxed and slightly untidy Thai town known for drugs, human trafficking and other shady activities. Located on the Moei River across from the Burmese town of Myawaddy, Mae Sot is filled with agents of the Burmese military who mix in with the general population. "There's all kinds of intrigue going on," says Aung Zaw, editor of The Irrawaddy, an expatriate Burmese magazine published in Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand.
Yettaw knocked around town for a few weeks, taking a second-floor room in a cheap hotel. He also picked up a motorcycle and a Thai companion, according to the hotel owner, who ate with his Missouri guest almost every day. It was then—late September through early November 2008—that Yettaw began to get political, says the owner. He "talked about Aung San Suu Kyi and said Myanmar [the name the junta gave Burma] would never be a true democracy without her. He said he really needed to do something to better bring the world's attention to The Lady and Myanmar." Yettaw was making the rounds of a few NGOs in Thailand, trying unsuccessfully to get them to accept him as a kind of adjunct staff member, according to a relief worker who, like others interviewed for this story, requested anonymity out of fear of government retaliation. Another relief worker described Yettaw as "delusional," "unstable" and "hyperactive." "He's a nice person, well intentioned; he's not going to hurt you," the person says, but "he was saying, 'God told me this; God told me that'." It's hard to know for sure what happened next. It's possible that Yettaw acted alone, or else took an innocent conversation to be something more. But some time in October, he told the hotel owner about another dream, a vision of himself as a champion of the downtrodden. Then he disappeared, leaving behind an unpaid bill. He resurfaced in Bangkok on Oct. 27 to collect a Burmese visa, government records show, and flew to Rangoon on Nov. 7.
Three weeks later, on Nov. 30, according to court testimony, he made the first of his two attempts to reach Suu Kyi's house by swimming across the lake, but was turned away by her two on-site companions. At home in Missouri the next month, he told family that he had been captured at gunpoint on his way back from her house, but was released after authorities bought his story about having been fishing. (Burmese authorities have apparently not raised this point at the trial, and would not comment further.) Upset that he had been so close to Suu Kyi without having met her, he began mulling a second trip almost immediately.
With Suu Kyi now on trial, spray-painted messages of sympathy have popped up on walls around Rangoon. Behind closed doors there are rumblings of support for the woman who remains a symbol of hope to the 47 million people of Burma, and a million Burmese refugees in exile. But few of her supporters have spoken out publicly about her, perhaps mindful of the regime's brutal means of quelling protest.
The locals are less reticent about Yettaw. To some, he's a heroic idealist; to others, he's a dangerous imbecile who has jeopardized Suu Kyi's freedom and the possibility of democracy. Htay Aung, a former Burmese political prisoner in exile in Thailand, says Yettaw made "the complications more complicated. Now we don't know what's going to happen to Burma."
Verdicts are expected later this month. Yettaw, for his part, "is prepared for any punishment they impose on him," according to his lawyer. In prison, with two Burmese cellmates, he is refusing food in an effort to give himself another vision. He often cries at the thought of "suffering, war and cruelty" in the world. But at the same time, the lawyer says, he is "very happy." "He knows very well that Suu Kyi is in trouble. But that is for the time being. Instead of losing her life, he saved her—this is what he thinks."
Back home in Missouri, the Yettaw family doesn't know what's going to happen to him, either. The details coming out in court puzzle his loved ones, who say Yettaw's previous aquatic adventures had been limited to a front-yard wading pool. "It's getting pretty bizarre," says Betty of the bundle of items her husband allegedly took with him across the lake. "That doesn't sound like Dad," Brian adds. Although Betty says she's "very worried" because "these guys play hardball," there is little that anyone in the family can do, other than monitor the case's progress via media reports and updates from American diplomatic staff in the region.
They are doing their best to get on with life. Later this month the three youngest children plan to fly to California to spend the summer with their mother, Yvonne, while Carley and Brian stay in Missouri, fielding text messages and questions from curious friends: "OMG, I want details" and "Crazy. What's up with your dad?"
"It's complicated," they answer.