BANGKOK — When the young Thai woman saw an online ad seeking surrogate mothers, it seemed like a life-altering deal: $10,000 to help a foreign couple that wanted a child but couldn't conceive.
Wassana, a lifetime resident of the slums, viewed it as a nine-month solution to her family's debt. She didn't ask many questions.
In reality, there was no couple. There was instead a young man from Japan named Mitsutoki Shigeta, whom she met twice but who never spoke a word to her. This same man — reportedly the son of a Japanese billionaire — would go on to make surrogate babies with 10 other women in Thailand, police say, spending more than half a million dollars to father at least 16 children for reasons still unclear.
The mystery surrounding Shigeta has riveted Thailand and become the focal point of a growing scandal over commercial surrogacy. The industry that catered to foreigners has thrived on semi-secrecy, deception and legal loopholes, and Thailand's military government is vowing to shut it down.
Wassana's story, which she shared with The Associated Press on condition that her last name not be used to protect her family and 8-year-old son from embarrassment, offers clues into an extraordinarily complex puzzle that boils down to two questions: Who is Shigeta and why did he want so many babies?
Shigeta is being investigated for human trafficking and child exploitation, but Thai police say they haven't found evidence of either. The 24-year-old, now the focus of an Asia-wide investigation, has said through a lawyer that he simply wanted a big family.
He has not been charged with any crime and is trying to get his children back — 12 are currently in Thailand being cared for by social services. His whereabouts are unknown; he left Bangkok after police raided his condominium Aug. 5 and discovered nine babies living with nine nannies. Police say he sent DNA samples from Japan that prove he is the babies' father.
Key to unraveling all of this are the women Shigeta paid to bear his children. And Wassana, whose account has been corroborated by police, was his first.
AN ANSWER TO EVICTION
Wassana's Bangkok is not the city of skyscrapers and spas that most visitors see. The petite, soft-spoken 32-year-old with a ninth grade education has spent her life in a trash-strewn slum, scraping by selling traditional Thai sweets from a food cart and sharing a mildew-stained tenement with seven relatives. At $6 a day, it was affordable until her late father's medical bills drained the family's savings. They couldn't pay rent for a year and faced eviction.
So when her sister stumbled upon an ad seeking surrogates in 2012, Wassana didn't hesitate.
"I thought that any parents who would spend so much money to get a baby must want him desperately," she says. "The agent told me it was for a foreign couple."
She assumed it was customary to keep the biological parents' identities confidential. In a country where deference to authority is expected — especially for poor, uneducated women — she didn't probe.
She wondered, though, who the baby's mother was.
"I don't know if the doctor used my eggs or another woman's," she says. "Nobody told me."
During the pregnancy, she developed pre-eclampsia, a condition that causes dangerously high blood pressure. She was rushed into the delivery room two months early and on June 20, 2013, she underwent a cesarean section, giving birth to a boy. Wassana's family came to visit, but, she says, Shigeta did not.
The infant was placed in an incubator and after six days, Wassana returned home. She's not sure when the baby was released from the hospital to Shigeta's custody.