Taipei is a safe city. The streets of the capital of Taiwan are so quiet, even at night, that they could be considered almost banal. In the city’s seedier quarters — the back alleys of Wanhua, the talking bar drag of Linsen North Road, at one time known as the Combat Zone — the glue sniffers and the gangsters peering out from their gambling den doorways leave most folks well enough alone. For many, especially the thousands of Westerners who call the city home, Taipei feels like the safest place in the world, except for the usual hazards of traffic and smog.
But in any metropolis where you stack a few million people on top of one another, even the brightest corners can go dark. When the contempt, competition and suspicion that are the side effects of city life combine and ignite, you get a bloody, senseless tragedy — the kind that unfolded near the Zhongzheng Bridge in New Taipei City in late August 2018. Just across the Xindian River from Taipei, a foul murder saw a young life brought to an ignominious end, leaving the public aghast and wondering how such seemingly ordinary people could be drawn to commit such a terrible deed. The accused have since been held incommunicado pending trial. The following account, based on police reports and statements issued to the media by authorities, tells how this terrible story allegedly unfolded.
Evening, Tuesday, August 21, 2018. The night was hot, hovering around 86 degrees even as the hour tilted toward midnight. July and August are peak summer in Taiwan, when breathing is enough to make you sweat through your clothes, a time when even locals complain. It was in that heat that Sanjay Ryan Ramgahan, 43, last gainfully employed as an English teacher, was walking his dog, Lulu. The Canadian expat and his companion weaved along the paving-stone pathways of Green River Park in Yonghe District, New Taipei City. Wisps of clouds blew by overhead, pushed by an easterly wind and fed by the stifling humidity of the Taipei Basin, a mountain-rimmed concrete bowl where hot, thick air sets itself down and lingers until the next storm comes along and blows it back over the bowl’s edge, providing a temporary reprieve from the city’s soul-crushing six months of summer.
Park lamps and the glow of the city cast a fair amount of light on the winding paths of the park, where late-night joggers, walkers and cyclists pass each other anonymously. Across from the park’s edge, the relative cleanliness and order of Taipei City comes to a stop on the northern banks of the Xindian River, a gray-brown, heavily polluted waterway that lopes its way north, joining with the Tamsui before spilling raw sewage and industrial waste into the Pacific. On the southern banks of the river, the grit of New Taipei City begins.
It was somewhere near Zhongzheng Bridge, on the New Taipei City side of the river, that Ramgahan’s life was brought to end. There he met with two men whom he considered friends, associates, co-workers. They drank beer together, and Ramgahan drank until he was good and drunk. At some point, perhaps around midnight, one of the men allegedly pulled out a wire and wrapped it around Ramgahan’s throat.
They struggled. Ramgahan began to lose. Lulu, the dog, got loose and tried to come to her master’s aid, but the men had machetes. One of the men slashed at the dog, delivering a deep cut on the snout that forced the animal to retreat. When Ramgahan was finally subdued, the men went to work on his body.
Good-looking, with deep brown eyes and a bright, flawless smile that never seemed to leave his face, Ramgahan was born to Guyanese immigrants in Alberta, Canada, but grew up in the Toronto satellite of Mississauga, Ontario. In his early 30s, after spending time bouncing between various jobs, the high school–educated man decided to move to Taiwan, in search of something new. It’s a familiar tale in Taipei expat circles, where many come from the West hoping that a lower cost of living and a touch of the exotic might translate to a better, or at least more surprising, life.
Ramgahan met a Taiwanese woman named Cat Yen, fell in love, and got married. They got an apartment; they adopted two dogs: Lulu, and a dachshund named Spongy. Then, one afternoon, they were paddling near Yilan County’s Mystery Beach when a rogue wave capsized their dinghy, knocking them into the sea. A passing boat rescued Ramgahan and Lulu. Yen and the dachshund did not survive.
In the months after the accident, Ramgahan regularly updated his Facebook page with favorite pictures and memories of his departed love. He offered a reward of 100,000 New Taiwan dollars, about $3,000, for the safe return of his dachshund, but to no avail. And so he lavished his affection on Lulu, his sole connection to a family torn apart by the immovable hand of fate. He still had friends, though, and he still had his business — a trade known only to him, his customers, and whether he was aware or not, the Taipei police force. To the outside world, Ramgahan was just another English teacher. But in his world, he was something else entirely.
One of the men Ramgahan was going to meet the night he died, the police believe, was Ewart Odane Bent, 30, an American English teacher and former Marine last stationed in Okinawa, Japan. Also waiting on Ramgahan, they think, was Oren Shlomo Mayer, known as Oz Diamond, 37, an Israeli-American English teacher and owner of a tattoo shop in the Taipei City district of Zhongzheng that Ramgahan’s wife had once managed. The three men had two things in common: they taught English and they sold drugs.
Their main market, according to police statements, was Triangle, a popular expat club where Bent sometimes worked as a bouncer. The unpretentious club is a warehouse-like room, not much more than a stage and a bar set in the center of bucolic Yuanshan Park.
Triangle pulses on Wednesday student nights and weekends with hip-hop and dance music, and at times a live band. This was where the three met the bulk of their customers — foreigners, Taiwanese who used to live abroad, and those who were born of the city’s upper crust. People in their 20s and 30s, lusting for life, boasting disposable income and possessed of a need for the product that was the trio’s stock in trade, marijuana, a Category 2 narcotic under Taiwanese law, just one level below heroin.
The drug laws in Taiwan are starkly clear. Flights into the country play announcements warning that smuggling an illicit substance carries a maximum penalty of death. Prior to their sentencing, death row prisoners are served a last meal that generally includes a bottle of strong kaoliang liquor. At the meal’s conclusion, they are given an anesthetic, laid down on the floor, and shot — either through the heart or, if they are an organ donor, through the head. Ghost money, also known as hell money, is burned for the deceased, an offering for the departed soul in the afterlife.
Ramgahan, it would emerge via police statements following their investigation, had been dealing drugs since his bachelor days, when he allegedly used his exuberance and good looks to persuade women to purchase scooters he used as drop points for parcels of marijuana that weighed up to 100 grams at a time. It was a low-key operation built on trust. Even Lulu played a part, said police. Ramgahan would load a small pack on her back with pot and take her for a walk through Green River Park. A customer would pose as a passerby, stop to pet the dog, perhaps remark how cute she was, and then swap cash for the product inside Lulu’s pouch.
It was all too easy. Triangle was known as a foreigner joint, and it had the permissive feel that comes when people are far from home, where it feels like no action has consequences, because no one really lives there — not for more than a few years, anyway. For many Westerners living short-term in Taipei, prison and death seem like something that would happen to a local — never to one of those expats who work in the classrooms of the cram schools and the gloomy offices of its tech and English-language publishing companies — the young who rush to its weekend club scene to enjoy the odd bump of ketamine, a hit of ecstasy, or a joint or two.
There’s a picture of Mayer that made the rounds after his arrest. He stands in a white tank top, sporting a salt-and-pepper beard, a cigarette hanging from a smile of slightly yellowed teeth, a thin chain around his neck. He’s at a club, maybe a music festival, standing next to a couple of friends or acquaintances. The man to his right points at Mayer, as if to say, “He’s the man.” The smile on Mayer’s face seems to say, “Yes, yes I am.”
Ramgahan was charming, clever, and did well for himself dealing in amounts large and small, the biggest deals topping the hundred-gram mark. But even when Ramgahan quit his English teaching job and started dealing full time, reports state, he was never flashy. He didn’t buy a nice car. He didn’t splash out on extravagances. But the police noticed him nonetheless.
Records show Ramgahan was arrested three times for possession of cannabis. Those caught with weed can face up to five years in jail, depending on the amount. For distribution, the penalty can be much harsher. A raid on Ramgahan’s home uncovered a reported 103 pouches of pot, but Ramgahan avoided jail and was instead ordered to undergo drug rehabilitation in a state facility where users are subjected to a routine of detox and singing patriotic songs. When their time is up, they are released without a mark on their record.
After Ramgahan’s arrest in May 2018, however, his clients began noticing a pattern. Not long after they bought weed from him, they themselves would get a visit from the police. Whispers began that Ramgahan was an informant — allowed to continue his operation as long as he provided police with intel on his customers, perhaps even his suppliers. Phone records show heated text conversations between Ramgahan, his clientele, and his business associates. At some point, those words boiled over into something more. Mayer and Bent, it is alleged, were convinced that their one-time partner was working with the cops. And so, he would have to go.
By August 22, a couple of Ramgahan’s friends noticed that he had gone uncharacteristically quiet on their usual lines of communication. They went to his place to look for him. Outside of his apartment, they spotted Lulu, her nose bloody. They followed her, and she led them to the riverbank. That’s where they found the corpse.
The body was headless, limbless, lying in the mud, resting in a puddle in the tidal flats. The men went down to it, inspecting the wet clothing still clinging to the castaway torso. In an instant, their worst fears were confirmed. The clothes on the remains were similar to those often worn by Ramgahan. The men called the police.
The police found bloodstains on the walking path, sanguine blotches and lines tracing the path from the spot of the murder to Ramgahan’s final resting place. Nearby, also in the mudflats near the riverbank, were three plastic bags containing Ramgahan’s missing limbs. In one of the bags was his severed head.
On September 2, a memorial was held for Ramgahan, set up by friends in a private location, with a decoy event publicized in Da’an Park to distract the reporters now swarming over the story. Rumors whirled in the press and the police gossip mill — that Ramgahan was a kingpin, that he had a hidden growing operation, that he had been killed not for being an informant but as a kind of palace coup. Word was he was getting out of the business but was unwilling to share his list of clients with his underlings — one of whom, Bent, was already in custody.
After Ramgahan’s body was chopped up, according to police statements and released security cam footage, Mayer and Bent stopped at a supermarket to pick up more beer. They had a drink at Mayer’s place. Then they went their separate ways. At midnight on August 25, Mayer arrived at Taoyuan International Airport, convinced that Bent’s phone records would reveal them as prime suspects. In the airport’s cavernous terminal, he was recorded by security cameras, dressed as a typical backpacker, no checked luggage. In the footage, he stands in line, clad in a red short-sleeved shirt and shorts, waiting to check in. He jokes with a foreign woman, comfortable enough to laugh and smile. At 2 a.m. on August 25, he was on a red-eye flight to Manila, in the Philippines, about two hours to the south by air.
Though Mayer tried to convince Bent to go with him, Bent did not fear the police. Not long after Mayer fled Taiwan, however, Bent was arrested, along with Dan Wu, a 21-year-old Taiwanese-Canadian nightclub promoter with ties to Triangle. Wu, it would later emerge, purchased the wire and machetes used to kill Ramgahan and desecrate his body. The police urged Bent to confess, but he wouldn’t talk.
Cell towers showed Bent was in the area where Ramgahan was killed at the time of the murder. His text messages proved he and Ramgahan had argued over drugs. But Bent wouldn’t utter a word about the night Ramgahan died until he was sure Mayer had been locked away and couldn’t take revenge.
In Manila, Mayer checked into a hotel, unaware that a 20-team task force had been formed by the Philippines National Police (PNP) to hunt him down, capture him, and send him back to Taiwan to face justice. The PNP tracked him to the hotel, tipped off by a prostitute seen visiting Mayer on the hotel’s video surveillance system. As the police closed in, Mayer managed to evade capture, escaping first by bus, then via the Manila Metro Rail Transit System. He wouldn’t get far. He’d told the prostitute where he was planning on going, and she traded the information to the police in exchange for immunity.
On September 5, after 10 days on the lam, Mayer was taken into custody at an apartment in Cambridge Village in Cainta, Rizal Province. His U.S. passport was revoked by the local embassy. Efforts by his family to secure him Israeli documentation failed. Two weeks after his capture, Mayer was deported to Taiwan. Dressed in a blue long-sleeve shirt, sleeves rolled up to reveal the handcuffs locked behind his back, Mayer was led through Taoyuan International Airport, bound for questioning at the Criminal Investigation Bureau in Taipei. He insisted he had nothing to do with the killing of Sanjay Ryan Ramgahan. But now that Mayer was in the hands of Taipei police, his accomplice was ready to say otherwise.
With Mayer in custody, Bent started talking. It was Mayer, he said, who strangled Ramgahan with the wire. Then he and his cohort chopped up the body into eight pieces, putting the remains in trash bags and tossing them into the Xindian River at high tide, hoping that the water would wash away all trace of their crime. When taken back to the crime scene, according to accounts, Bent broke down crying.
“Please don’t make me think back to such a terrible thing,” he allegedly uttered.
Bent also told police that Wu, who had purchased the weapons used in the killing, had been entrusted to watch the Taipei side of the river and set off fireworks when Ramgahan neared their meeting point. Wu himself first said he was watching their backs at the time of the killing, then recanted. Wu’s lawyer denied he was at the scene. The young man was freed on bail while prosecutors decided what to do with him.
Bent then fingered a fourth, heretofore-unknown suspect. Forty-six-year-old Jason Hobbie, a former U.S. paratrooper, was arrested on October 18. Hobbie, an English teacher and former tattoo client of Mayer’s, had been enlisted by the pair to buy gasoline and fireworks to bring to the scene of the crime, which they allegedly planned to use to burn the evidence.
Hobbie, for his part, said Mayer merely told him his scooter had run out of fuel and he needed Hobbie to pick some up. He swore he wasn’t in the park at the time of the murder. Nevertheless, on October 19, after being rousted from his sleep by police and taken into custody, Hobbie was transferred to the prosecutor’s office on suspicion of murder. The prosecutor, branding him a prime suspect and a flight risk, decided to hold him incommunicado.
On Friday, December 7, 2018, all of the suspects in the case were notified of the charges against them. Mayer and Bent were charged with murder and dismemberment. In the indictment, Mayer was painted as the mastermind, and the prosecutor asked the court to hand down the harshest punishment the law affords. Hobbie and Wu, for their parts, were charged with aiding and abetting. As of yet, dates for their trials have not been set.
Ramgahan had moved to Taiwan for a better life, his friends said. And for a time, he had found it. His ease with people, his natural charisma — these things made him a vital piece of the underground foreigner scene in Taipei, a key component of the drug culture. But it was a dangerous game that Sanjay Ryan Ramgahan played, a game that can turn even the safest of places into the deadliest of traps. Once he fell into it, there was no charming his way out.