Exchange student faces deportation, host mother faces felonies
CENTREVILLE, Mich. (NEWSCHANNEL 3) - An exchange student from Thailand who has lived in west Michigan for more than five years is facing the possibility of deportation and her former host mother is facing two felony charges in St. Joseph County for stealing the girl's savings.
Laura Ely had an arraignment Wednesday and faces charges of larceny and illegal sale or use of a financial transaction device. The most serious charge could put her in prison for ten years.
Donnapha Kuppatikasem - known as Tak - came to Michigan when she was 16 years old with dreams of becoming a doctor.
"As long as I've known her," said Theresa Hawkins, Tak's friend, "she hasn't changed it."
Theresa met Tak when both attended Colon High School. She spoke to Newschannel 3 on Tak's behalf because Tak is waiting to tell her story of what happened in court. Tak is 21 now, and may have to reconsider her dream. She may lose her student visa because she cannot afford this fall's tuition at WMU. Detectives in St. Joseph County say Laura Ely stole thousands of dollars from Tak.
"[Tak] trusted her," Theresa Hawkins said. "She lived with her for years and years and never knew she was that kind of person, but people can be deceiving."
The probable cause affidavit says Laura Ely slowly drained $17,000 from an account at First State Bank in Middlebury, Indiana, first deposited in June 2008. The affidavit says Ely also took $15,000 deposited in November 2009 at Omni Community Credit Union in Sturgis.
Investigators say Laura Ely also used Tak's credit card without permission at least 10 times at Dury Oil in Sturgis, Kalamazoo Animal Hospital, LaGrange Veterinary Clinic and other locations.
Tak's new host family estimated the credit card purchases total about $4,000.
Theresa Hawkins says Tak never knew about the money disappearing.
"I don't think [Tak] ever did, not until it was gone," Theresa Hawkins said.
The affidavit says Laura Ely did not deny using the money or the credit card. She told detectives she had permission and Tak was aware of every transaction.
Laura Ely is out of the St. Joseph County jail on bond and told Newschannel 3 at her home in Sturgis on Thursday that she did not steal anything. She says the charges are retaliation for evicting Tak from her home in March.
WMU told Newschannel 3 student visa rules require a student to maintain enrollment for the entire academic year. The university says Tak has until September 7th to enroll in classes for the fall semester. Tak's tuition bill is $13,305.38; she owes that to keep her student visa in good standing or risk deportation back to Thailand.
"Like when an unexpected bill comes, you don't have money to pay for it, you're frantic," Theresa Hawkin said, "and you're scared and you don't know what to do. [Tak's] basically screwed."
will appear in court again next week. If you'd like to donate to help Tak pay her tuition, her new host family has set up an account for her at Citizens Bank in Colon. The account is under her full name - Donnapha Kuppatikasem.