Of the Dunedin High class of '82, it was Richard Kniehase who first learned about his old buddy Frank Amado. They had stayed in touch since high school, resorting to e-mailing every few months when Amado moved to Washington state in 2004 and then on to Thailand and Indonesia a few years later.
Most of Amado's e-mails were about how much he liked the laid-back lifestyle in Southeast Asia. He wrote about tuk-tuks and elephants on the roads. About selling real estate and teaching English and still having time for long lunches of spicy food and evenings out with new friends.
"What I love more than anything about living in Asia," he wrote, "is that whenever you leave your apartment there is always an adventure waiting for you."
When he married, he sent Kniehase photos of his wife. When they opened a cyber cafe in Bangkok, he sent more photos. And, when things went belly up, he wrote about losing the business, the failed real estate market and his divorce. When he visited Jakarta, Indonesia, he sent pictures of his new girlfriend and said he was looking for work. He was hopeful he could support himself, he said.
In October 2009, Kniehase noticed the e-mails changed dramatically, becoming brief questions, like: "Hey buddy. How's it going?"
When Kniehase wrote back asking Amado what he was up to, Amado threw the question back at him.
A year later, Amado sent a vague e-mail about being in trouble: "I'm in a heck of a position. Some day I'll tell you about it."
Sitting at his dining room table in Ocala with a Gators football game on TV, Kniehase Googled "Frank Amado" on his laptop.
"When I saw what came up, I nearly fell out of my chair," he said.
In front of him was a photo of his friend in handcuffs and this headline: "American Sentenced to Death."
His heart pounding, Kniehase scanned the story. In October 2009, it said, Amado was arrested getting into a cab in Jakarta with about a pound of crystal meth. In his apartment, police found 11 more pounds. Amado confessed to storing the drug in his South Jakarta apartment and also to taking some to a distributor.
According to the article, he was the only American ever on death row in Indonesia.
Kniehase was dumbfounded. Apparently his old pal had managed to get a computer in his prison cell and had been e-mailing him for a year without mentioning his arrest or conviction, much less his death sentence.
The next night, Kniehase e-mailed Amado: "I've read about you. How are you going to get out of this mess?"
Amado wrote back: "I don't know."
• • •
After his arrest, Frank Amado's mother, Ingrid Amado, 75, hired a cousin in North Carolina who was a lawyer. He found a defense attorney in Jakarta, and Amado's mother sent $37,500 — most of her savings — to pay the lawyers' fees. But before the trial, most of the money was gone and Frank fired the attorneys because he felt almost nothing had been done to help him defend himself.
The North Carolina lawyer wouldn't talk about what happened. But the Jakarta attorney said he was dismissed from the case before the trial. That lawyer, Frans Winarta, said "attorney client confidentiality" prevented him from giving details.
"The whole thing makes me sick," said Ingrid Amado, who is at her winter home in Ozona.
At the trial, the judge said he had no choice but to find Amado guilty and give him the death penalty.
"There was nothing that could lighten the defendant's sentence," said Judge Dehel Sandan.
Frank's sister, Monique Amado, 44, turned to Amnesty International for help, but came up empty-handed because the human rights organization, while opposed to the death penalty everywhere, wouldn't get involved.
"We are aware of Frank Amado's case, but we don't track jailed U.S. citizens unless it's a human rights abuse," said Suzanne Trimel, U.S. spokeswoman for Amnesty International.
The Indonesian human rights organization KontraS also looked at the 47-year-old's case, but a director said it couldn't take a death penalty case of anyone involved in the drug trade, no matter how low level.
"We can't help. The U.S. government needs to intervene on his behalf," said Papang Hidayat, KontraS research director.
But the U.S. government refuses. Aside from sending someone to visit him every three months to see if he is in reasonably good health and not being tortured, the U.S. State Department says it will have nothing to do with Amado's case.
"The facts are out there. He has admitted to the facts. According to local statutes the crime is punishable by death, and, unfortunately, we see nothing irregular in the case," said Paul Belmont, press attache for the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta.
The United States can't ask for preferential treatment for an American, said Belmont, who described Amado as "an American citizen with financial problems who was talked into doing this work for quick cash."
But, said the attache, he doesn't know if Amado will get due process because of the reputation the system has for corruption. From a 2010 U.S. State Department report: "Corruption in Indonesia is an on-going challenge to the rule of law."
"But the corruption is not on the surface and we don't take it on," said Belmont.
Amado's boss in the drug ring, who bought the drugs and told Amado to hold them and where to take them, got a 15-year sentence instead of the death penalty.
"A prosecutor told me $50,000 would get me a 15-year sentence, but I didn't have it," Amado said.
He didn't ask friends for help, he said, because he didn't want them to know where he was and why.
"I was too ashamed," he said.
When the drug dealer told him he would only get a few months in jail if he got caught, he signed on because he had completely run out of money and was desperate.
"I did wrong and I accept responsibility," he said. "But the death penalty?"
Paul Belmont: "It's not a pretty picture for Frank Amado."
• • •
In 1976, when Frank Amado (named after his grandfather and father) was 12, his father, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force, retired. The family of four moved from Cape Cod to Dunedin, where they had vacationed. They loved the warmth, the beach, the sunsets. They got a sailboat and learned to scuba dive. In the summer, they visited Ingrid's family in Germany and his father's family in Portugal, and traveled around Europe.
"Frank and his family were worldly, open-minded and well-mannered," said Dunedin High classmate Dave Miedema. "I was close to Frank into his mid 20s when his father died, and I can tell you Frank was a very nice person."
While going to St. Petersburg College and the Tampa Technical Institute to become a graphic artist, Amado worked as a waiter and sold prepaid legal insurance.
"He was always very entrepreneurial," said Miedema.
Police records show that in 1985, at 21, Amado was arrested by Clearwater police for having a 12-inch marijuana plant in a pot on his back porch. A month later Tampa police arrested him for having a pistol in his car; the gun's serial number had been removed. He told police he bought the gun at a flea market on U.S. 19 after his car was broken into.
He got probation for both convictions.
"Youth and stupidity," he said.
In 1990, he moved to Orlando, where he had two businesses — one designing Web pages and another refinishing stoves and refrigerators. He also sold Amway products and worked as a bartender at the Disney Contemporary Resort.
"Even though Frank worked hard to make ends meet, he was always great fun to be around," said Donna Holloway, who worked with him at the Contemporary.
In 2004, after his sister moved to Oregon and Holloway moved to California, Amado moved to Washington to be near them. He struggled at first, living hand-to-mouth. But after a year, he landed Web design contracts with Microsoft and Boeing, rented a nicer apartment and bought a used Lexus. He vacationed in the Philippines and Thailand.
"I was so thankful to be finally making it," he said.
In Thailand, he fell in love and moved there in late 2006 to marry and start a cyber cafe.
"I thought for sure I'd be successful at making a great life for myself there, but, boy, was I wrong," he said in an e-mail to the St. Petersburg Times.
• • •
In early January, he lost his appeal. But he can still appeal to the Supreme Court of Indonesia for a change in sentence.
"He'll need a really good lawyer to change things at that stage," said Hidayat from KontraS.
If that doesn't happen, a guard will come to his cell and tell him he has 72 hours left to live.
Witnesses to Indonesian executions have described what's next.
Before daylight, he will be driven to a deserted stretch of beach wearing white pants and a white collarless shirt with a red cross over his heart. A black hood will be placed over his head.
As the sun comes up, his hands and feet will be tied to a wooden pole and about a dozen police officers will aim at his heart. Half of them will have blanks in their guns, the other half bullets.
His mother and sister will be notified to claim the body.
Meg Laughlin can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8068. Times researchers Caryn Baird, Carolyn Edds, Shirl Kennedy and Natalie Watson contributed to this report.