John Yettaw: Suu Kyi's Unwelcome Visitor

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Myanmar News Agency / AFP / Getty

Burma's military junta charged pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi with breaching the terms of her house arrest after U.S. citizen John Yettaw swam across a lake and hid inside her home

Is John Yettaw crazy or just eccentric? The answer is not quite clear, as the Missouri man remains in a Burmese prison charged with a head-scratching nighttime swim that has imperiled one of the world's best-known democracy figures. Yettaw, 53, is accused of strapping on homemade flippers and illegally swimming to the Rangoon home of Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader held under house arrest for 13 of the past 19 years. Relatives say he made the same swim last year, for reasons that are still murky, but was turned away. Suu Kyi, 63 and in poor health, is now on trial for violating the terms of her parole, thanks to Yettaw; she and two housekeepers face up to five years in prison for allowing the aquatic visitor to spend two nights in the lakeside compound. If convicted, the Nobel Peace Prize winner could be locked up during elections scheduled for next year. Yettaw is also scheduled to stand trial and could spend six years behind bars. People who know the Vietnam veteran say he's a gentle man with an odd streak, but one of many furious Suu Kyi supporters calls him a "wretched American." (See pictures of Burma after Cyclone Nargis.)

Fast Facts:

• Arrested by Burmese authorities on May 5 while swimming away from Suu Kyi's home. Charged with illegally entering a restricted zone and breaking immigration laws.

• Claimed he's a student at the Forest Institute, a Missouri school for advanced psychology degrees. The school says he's not currently enrolled.

• Told relatives he was traveling to Asia to write about people coping with stress and abuse. A Mormon, he reportedly said he planned to write a "faith-based" book on heroism.

•Swam across Inya Lake to Suu Kyi's home last year but was blocked from meeting her by her staff. He reportedly left a copy of the Book of Mormon and swam away. After his return to her home on May 3, Suu Kyi reportedly pleaded with him to leave but relented after Yettaw, a diabetic, complained of exhaustion and leg cramps.

•Had six children with his ex-wife, Yvonne Yettaw. A son died in a motorcycle accident in 2007. Remarried and currently has custody of four children, whom he reportedly left with friends before his trip.

•Spent several months in Asia last summer with his 17-year-old son, Brian.

•Lives in a modest mobile home in rural Falcon, Mo. A neighbor says he's friendly but not active in the community.

•Has worked as a general contractor and receives disability payments. Reportedly hasn't worked full-time in 20 years; his former mother-in-law says he has spent years in school, living off grants.

•A Vietnam veteran, he suffers from posttraumatic stress disorder, according to his ex-wife.

•Recently lost about 70 pounds.

Quotes About:

"He's a very peace-loving person, well-meaning, forgiving, mild-mannered. He meant the very best for her ... I don't think he could have foreseen that it was going to be such a mess, that they were going to make such a huge deal out of it."
—Betty Yettaw, his wife (AP, May 15, 2009)

"He gets an idea, he goes and does it, and gets in trouble."
—Yvonne Yettaw, his ex-wife (Times of London, May 15, 2009)

"Everyone is very angry with this wretched American. He is the cause of all these problems. He's a fool."
—Kyi Win, one of Suu Kyi's lawyers (Independent (U.K.), May 15, 2009)

"I guess you tend not to think that it will end badly, but I don't know. I worry about his reputation."
—Carley Yettaw, his daughter (AP, May 14, 2009)

"He was just a very intelligent man to talk to. He was very literate, he had a good vocabulary and you could talk to him and he understood what you were talking about."
—Mike Ansell, a neighbor (, May 14, 2009)

Read about Burma's ethnic minorities.

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