The man with the naked piano

Eric Rosser hit the charts twice -- as a member of John Mellencamp's band and as one of the FBI's Ten Most Wanted Fugitives, sought on sex crime charges.

Published October 22, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

A few days after being arrested, Eric Rosser sits in his luxury condominium in Bangkok composing an e-mail to the city's leading newspapers. "My name is Eric Rosser," he writes. "Until last Wednesday I have been known as a gifted pianist and teacher, a ten-year resident of Bangkok with a large circle of friends and colleagues and a wonderful wife and family. I believe my friends would have characterized me as an exceptionally kind, gentle and artistic person. Now, since my arrest on Wednesday, I have been exposed as a pedophile."

"Yes, I am a pedophile," Rosser types. "As far as I can tell I was born this way, or became so even before the age of 5. I know normal sex play of children was an obsession with me. Even when I became an adult, I felt a child within. I still feel this way, a child masquerading in an adult body. I have never been able to believe in a God who could have perversely created me this way."

Headlined "The confession of a reluctant pedophile," the letter dominates the front page of Bangkok's the Nation newspaper on February 12, 2000, a remarkable testimony to both Rosser's prominence in the city and his hubris. Renowned for helping rock star John Mellencamp hit the charts and as the long-time house pianist for Bangkok's posh Oriental Hotel, Rosser also ran a music school for the city's upper-class children. In the letter Rosser dissembles he only had sex with 4 or 5 children and never molested any of his young music students -- he was not "a monster of depravity." He assures his readers, "I am a wonderful teacher," and he contends that society should tolerate pedophiles, invoking the "child-like approach to the world" of Charlie Chaplin and Lewis Carroll. "We are your friends and neighbors," he writes.

Three days before, 10 Royal Thai Police and FBI agents -- including police Col. Chachvan Bunmee and FBI agent Tony Siedl, both of whom I interviewed for this story -- climbed the broad marble steps of Rosser's condo. They knocked on his door and showed a search warrant to Rosser's Thai wife, Muay. Rosser and the couple's curly-headed toddler, Max, were sleeping inside. Tham, their 10-year-old niece, who lived with them, was already at school.

After the officers woke Rosser, he sat slumped at a table, a 48-year-old man with a high domed head and brooding eyes behind gold wire rims, wearing a freshly pressed plaid shirt and casual pants. Repeatedly, he raged at the police for daring to impose this on him, a gifted artist and teacher.

Rosser told the police the child pornography they sought was at his nearby Rosser Music Studio. In a back room full of video equipment, he showed them a concealed chest containing hundreds of photographs and videotapes of child molestations. "These tapes are terrible and very explicit," the police spokesman told Bangkok's the Nation.

The police also found two hidden cameras. Rosser hid one in the school's toilet, and aimed the other to shoot under his students' dresses as they played the piano. In one photo Rosser sat on a piano bench pulling down a small Thai girl's panties. The Thai authorities booked Rosser into prison for child sex crimes and marijuana.

In Rosser's videotapes and photos, the police identified 19 molested children, including his 10-year-old niece, Tham. One videotape shows Rosser naked on a bed, having sex with his nude niece who is on his belly.

Tham told authorities the molestations dated back five years to the time when she came to live with the Rossers. She spoke of sharing the couple's bed and being introduced to sex by Rosser and, the girl claimed, his wife. (Due to Thailand's strict evidence laws, Muay was not arrested; there was no direct evidence linking her to the molestation of the niece.)

On March 21, the U.S. Attorney's office in Indianapolis announced federal indictments against Rosser on six counts of producing, transporting, distributing and receiving child pornography with maximum possible sentences of 90 years incarceration and $1.5 million in fines. Noting Rosser had a co-conspirator in his old home of Bloomington, Ind., the indictments suggested a pedophile ring that connected Bangkok to the Midwestern university town. Pedophiles passed Rosser's pornography around via the Internet -- rapes and molestations eternally recreated in cyberspace.

On April 4, Rosser's father posted bail of 1 million Thai baht (about $25,000). The Thai court released Rosser to await an April 18 court date, but he never showed. He e-mailed friends in Bloomington, explaining that he fled because he couldn't get "a fair trial in either country." He concluded by writing, "But I have plans -- I am not gone forever!"

Eight months later Rosser hit the charts for the second time in his life. The FBI named him as the first child sex crimes fugitive on its Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list, where he joined Osama bin Laden. In one fell swoop, Rosser became the world's most notorious piano player.

Eric Rosser was an odd man for the FBI list. The son of a college president, he graduated from prestigious music conservatories. He was an international musician with an immense repertoire. Erudite, sophisticated and wealthy, he was a respected member of society in both Bangkok and Bloomington.

"Shocked" was the word that sprung to most people's lips when the news broke in Bloomington. Rosser was a local celebrity who frequently visited. In the easy familiarity of a small town, I had an acquaintance with him from the late '70s when he was just another scrabbling Bloomington musician. I sat beside him at local bars and cafes, had mutual friends, attended his concerts with my wife and kids. Like many people, I was horrified when I heard of his arrest. All over town, there were nervous inquiring conversations with children, young and grown.

John Mellencamp refused interviews about his former bandmate. Mellencamp's one sentence press release apparently misstated that Rosser played with his band "for a short period in 1979" and he hadn't seen him since. According to a former band member who asked not to be identified, Rosser didn't leave the group until the summer of 1981. Mellencamp's "just trying to protect his playlist," one former entourage member says. "He's got a nice income from replays on soft-rock stations."

Rosser was close with local video producer Jim Krause's family, often staying with them when visiting Bloomington. "A lot of people will never forgive him," Krause says. "My oldest daughter is angry. They used to idolize him." Another close friend confides, "We're heartbroken. He was our very, very best friend," before abruptly snapping, "What is the point of talking about this?"

In a town of old radicals, there were dark mutterings of an FBI witch hunt. Bloomington Herald-Times columnist Mike Leonard spoke for many when he questioned Rosser's placement on the FBI list. "What he was charged with in the great scheme of things -- he went out and bought a 7-year-old prostitute off the street like anyone else would do, something like that, whatever the girl was. So not that it makes it right, but there is that trait there," Leonard says. "Did he really victimize innocent children, or to what extent? All they can do with all their investigation is document that he traded in kiddie porn, and so on. Which again is damnable, but to be locked in a dank prison in Thailand and be subjected to what he would be subjected to, I don't know if he's not being punished enough already."

One man in his 20s exploded when he learned about Rosser's indictments; Rosser, the man claimed, molested him at a hippie party when he was a young boy. After it happened, his parents told him to keep quiet. This time he didn't, providing the FBI and Bloomington Herald-Times reporter Bethany Swaby with long wrenching recollections. The revelations created a hubbub among some of Bloomington's now graying hipsters before the man dropped out of contact, urged by family friends, some said.

"There are people in this town who want to protect Rosser," Bloomington artist Ned Shaw says. "It's human nature to cover their own asses, given the attitudes back then -- 'no bad vibes,' stuff like that. Some people are uncomfortable with it. It's too grown-up a topic. They just want to put their headphones back on."

It was a strange dark path that took Rosser from his coddled childhood to his place among America's most hunted fugitives. He was never shy about his musical talent, or his father's position. Richard Rosser was a career Air Force officer, joining in 1952, the same year Eric was born in Syracuse, N.Y. Rosser's father became a colonel and a Ph.D., teaching at the Air Force Academy where his son was a cosseted student on the grounds.

Rosser's musical career started with a toy xylophone when he was 5 years old. A piano, mandatory lessons and practice came a year later. Rosser was a slight child, physically immature until he was 17. Music became his mitier to attract attention and get his way in the world.

Col. Rosser's appointment as Air Force attachi to the American Embassy in London in the late 1960s introduced his teenage son to the last years of the Swinging London scene. The English airwaves pulsed with a wild melange of Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles, David Bowie, Fairport Convention, Monty Python and English music hall traditions, showing Rosser that a great slurry of musical styles could capture the masses.

Rosser attended London Central, a high school for children of members of the U.S. Air Force. A 1970 yearbook photo shows him confident and mop-haired with wire rim glasses and a knowing smile, sitting in a female classmate's lap. The headline reads, "Most Likely to Succeed."

Getting into Oberlin College's highly selective Conservatory of Music was a coup for Rosser, who graduated in 1974. It gave him entrie into Indiana University's top-ranked School of Music master's program in Bloomington. Tucked into the rugged hills of southern Indiana, the small leafy city is often remembered for the 1979 movie, "Breaking Away," which preserved Bloomington's image in a golden aspic where youth is in eternal glow. Bloomington's enduring fame, however, came from basketball, classical music and the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction.

When Rosser arrived in 1976, Bloomington was still a bastion of the counterculture. He joined a vibrant music scene that ranged from the classics to wild hippie jams. A year after Rosser arrived, his father assumed the presidency of Depauw University, a small Indiana college. With former Vice-president Dan Quayle as a bellwether alumni, Depauw caters to the progeny of the conservative Midwestern well-to-do.

By 1979, Rosser had reinvented himself. He graduated from Indiana University, replacing his '70s hippie persona with an image as a suave cosmopolitan. Resisting parental pressure to pursue a doctorate, he stayed in Bloomington as just another eccentric resident, albeit one with the cachet of conservatory training, broad musical tastes and a healthy ambition. He honed his chops in bars like Bear's Place, a near-windowless warren of small rooms across from I.U. where he gave weekly performances. "Hello, everyone. I'm Eric Rosser and I am a piano player," he told a Bear's crowd, "and by that I mean I don't just play classical music, or I don't just play jazz, or rock 'n' roll, or ragtime. I like to play it all."

"He went from the mundane to the magnificent and everything in between and he took pleasure in it," Bear's employee Abbie Sutton says. "A lot of people came to see him." Rosser's ego was well known -- "the elite few of us," he would say. One musician wrote, "Eric really marches to his own beat. He is self important, opportunistic, self-aggrandizing and smug. Everything one needs to be successful in the biz." Michael White, director of the local community access TV station, says, "He felt he was way above everyone. He felt he was so far beyond, it isolated him."

After graduation, Rosser jumped at national exposure with fellow Bloomingtonian John Mellencamp's band. Rosser soon became "Doc," the professor of the piano who added a refined musicality to the rock 'n' rollers. On stage, Mellencamp would prance and strut in sneakers and jeans and then whirl with a pointed finger to introduce, "Doctor Eric Rosser!" Rosser sat conservatory-straight at his Yamaha CS-80 synthesizer and poured out elaborate melodies.

But his cerebral sophistication and big ego didn't meld well with Mellencamp's domineering redneck nature. However uncomfortable the relationship, Mellencamp's music began to climb the charts. It was the cusp of the 1980s, when groupies were media figures and rock stars were rutting dogs on the loose. "We were all trying to get laid," a former band member says. Entourage members recall Dionysian road scenes, kept secret by "the code of the road" from spouses and girlfriends back home. One says, "I don't think they were carding for underage."

By late 1980, Rosser was thoroughly disenchanted with the rock 'n' roll lifestyle, Mellencamp's volatility and the lack of musical challenge, often disappearing into the night after gigs. "By then, he was like, 'I'm not going to play that, I hate it.' He hated 'Jack and Diane,'" singer-songwriter Ted Kubiniec says. Rosser quit the next summer during another Mellencamp tirade.

After leaving Mellencamp's band, Rosser recorded an album of piano bar music. In the liner notes, he thanked an old friend, Bill Platz, who photographed him "at a moment of mutual inspiration." A skinny man with a big mustache that hid bad teeth, Platz was a Bloomington photographer some called "Stoney."

Rosser began performing for regional children's groups, including "Kid's Alive," a local TV show. In the opening scene, he explained the piano to a clutch of toddlers and young children sitting around a battered old upright. "Just to show you how the piano works, how it makes sound," Rosser told them, "I'm going to take the clothes off of the piano. I'm going to take the pants down on this piano so you can see a naked piano. Don't make fun of it or you might get embarrassed."

In the mid-1980s, Rosser took a gig on the Delta Queen riverboat, churning the river between New Orleans and St. Paul. "I obviously have some sort of attraction to romantic lifestyles," he said. As one acquaintance recalls, Rosser was, "no stranger to hashish." His former agent saw him in St. Paul, and remembers, "He looked impaired. He looked really stoned. It wasn't like he was doing a little marijuana. He was on something."

When in Bloomington, Rosser lived in various bohemian digs. While some conjectured he was gay or bisexual, he had many girlfriends, most with small children. He intimated to one petite live-in girlfriend that he didn't like her body type, and he had some urges that might overtake him. Increasingly, he hung out in the rustic hills west of town where Bill Platz lived with his wife and two daughters. There was a large hippie-owned commune nearby, the perfect setting for Rosser to work on his Musicruiser.

The Musicruiser, or "Wanda Lust" as he nicknamed it, was a 1967 Dodge church bus. Rosser transformed it into a peppermint-green and pink proscenium on wheels he piloted around the Midwest. Once parked, Rosser wrestled his polished black 1926 Steinway grand piano out onto the cantilevered stage. Like a musical Walt Whitman, Rosser then entertained and enlightened the gathered citizens. I took my family to Rosser's summer concerts on Bloomington's vintage courthouse square. His abrupt segues from Chopin to Scott Joplin to down-and-out blues sometimes left me feeling both uncultured and slightly risqui, as though the mix was just a touch naughty.

Both People magazine and the Chicago Tribune ran articles about the Musicruiser in 1987. "Traveling gives you a real opportunity to meet an awful lot of people," Rosser told a filmmaker about his music. "People want to know you and with just a little work you can get them to open up and maybe get to know them much faster than anyone else."

For years, he brought the Musicruiser to the hill country commune's May Day party. The remnants of the local hippie horde toked and drank with hundreds of neighbors, lawyers, teachers, social workers and university folk, celebrating spring with abandon. Naked swimmers of all ages filled the pond, nude parents smiling as their bare children cavorted.

One former commune member who asked not to be named says, "I remember Bill Platz taking pictures down by the pond. He must have been loving it." Rosser and Platz found another "mutual inspiration," and began exchanging child pornography. Platz photographed young girls in sexual poses, genitals sometimes exposed. Platz encouraged the girls to "dress-up" for his photography sessions, which included provocative negligee and boudoir shots. One girl's parents complained to the children's alternative school. The school dismissed the issue.

As Rosser played a delirious array of dance music, May-Dayers came by to admire the Musicruiser, including a young boy whose father was a friend of Rosser. The boy later said that Rosser plied him with alcohol and marijuana. As night fell, he took the boy for a walk in the woods. And, as the boy remembered years later with unrelenting anger, "He hurt me."

By the early 1990s, Rosser wrote he was "Musicruisered out." When the Delta Queen docked for repairs, he left on a round-the-world trip. He ended up settling in his second stop, Bangkok, known to the Thais as Krung Thep -- "City of Angels." "Just Eric on another one of his crazy adventures," he wrote his friend Jim Krause, "a couple of years, I give it."

But Rosser found Bangkok's hedonistic lifestyle and access to high society too beguiling. He marveled at the low cost of living. Recreational drugs were readily available. Quickly, he found gigs in Bangkok's clubs. Through his university credentials, he taught piano at the respected Robinson Piano School where he rubbed shoulders with the upper crust.

He soon began playing at the century-old Oriental Hotel's Bamboo Bar. The Oriental is a storied stopping point in Asia. Over the decades the hotel buffed itself into a lush and comforting haven for an international who's who. The Bamboo Bar recreated a halcyon colonial past with faux animal-skin fabrics and plantation shutters leading to non-existent verandahs. Gracious Thai women in fitted silk gowns served impeccable drinks as Rosser's tuxedoed jazz quartet entertained the well-heeled crowd with the soothing sounds of Gershwin and Cole Porter. He crowed to friends that he'd nabbed Bangkok's best gig.

Ironically, the Vietnam War that shaped Bloomington's counterculture made Bangkok one of Asia's sex capitals. Prostitution has long been part of Thailand, a mixture of India's concubine tradition and 19th century Chinese brothel districts. During the 1960s, Thailand served as a massive R&R destination for GIs in Vietnam. American soldiers flooded Bangkok and the beach towns of Pattaya and Phuket. At any one time there were 70,000 American soldiers in Bangkok on R&R. Bangkok's commercial sex industry exploded. In the infamous Patpong and Soi Cowboy sex districts, thousands of young women and transvestites labored away in go-go bars pulsing with rock 'n' roll.

Rosser joined the mass sex tourism that replaced the GIs when the war ended. By 1987 over 70 percent of the tourists who arrived in the "Land of Smiles" were single males. Each year hundreds of thousands of foreigners like Rosser (farangs as the Thais call them) still throng Bangkok's booming sex districts. Pattaya remains a thriving entreptt of sex, with children a specialty.

There are 15,000 Caucasian residents in Bangkok. A sizable contingent are single foreign men drawn to Thailand's cheap easy sex -- they're known as sexpatriates. Watered by affordable female attention, many blossom into a cartoonish macho flamboyance of waxed mustaches, safari hats and cowboy boots. As with Rosser, exaggerated self-importance is a common characteristic. "It's a sexual paradise for the socially bankrupt," says Laurena Cahill, who covered child sexual exploitation for Bangkok's the Nation at the time Rosser lived in the city, and is now a journalist in Europe. "It's a center for a lot of sexual deviance."

Today Patpong is a frenetic night market about a 10-minute walk from the Oriental Hotel. An anthropologist counted 69 go-go bars on Patpong, including "skull shops" where trios of workers perform oral sex on bald and corpulent farangs lounging at the tables. The scholar also found three shave-and-sex barber shops, and three massage parlors where a hundred or so women wearing numbers sit behind plate glass awaiting clients. Touts snag men cruising the bars where dozens of near-naked young Thai women bump-and-grind listlessly on stages picketed with firepoles. "Hey! Pussy shoot banana! Pussy smoke cigarette! You see? Hey! Fuck show! 69! You see?" touts yells over the music.

Rosser found one of his victims on nearby Soi Cowboy. Bee was a 9-year-old girl from the Klong Toey slum who sold flowers on the street. She appeared in one of Rosser's videos, a small dark-haired prepubescent girl masturbating him as he rubbed her bare genitals; giving him oral sex on a short-time hotel's round bed, the headboard's bank of mirrors reflecting her immature body and Rosser's thickened graying one.

"Thailand has been facing this for the last 10-15 years," says Father Joe Maier, the children's rights activist who has run the Human Development Foundation in Klong Toey for three decades. "You've got all these tourists -- people like Eric Rosser. They think, 'You fuck 'em when they're 18 or you fuck 'em when they're 12. What's the difference?' Thailand is in agony."

Victims like the two Thai girls and the boy in Bloomington often suffer outbursts, insomnia, depression, anxieties, disassociative disorders, and sexual dysfunction, either withdrawing from contact, or becoming prematurely sexualized 7-year-olds who come on to any man. Drug and alcohol addiction are common. Beyond the high risk of premature pregnancies and increased maternal deaths, the young have a much higher risk of contracting STDs, particularly HIV. Half of the 30,000 to 35,000 Thai children coerced or lured into prostitution are HIV positive. The International Labour Office in Geneva wrote, "Case studies and testimonies of child victims speak of a trauma so deep that many are unable to enter or return to a normal way of life."

A few years after his arrival in Bangkok, Rosser married a young Thai woman, Muay, from a comfortable peasant family in Isan, the poverty-ridden northeastern homeland for many of Bangkok's commercial sex workers. Rosser told Bloomington friends that Muay came from a leading Thai family, though she didn't. In time, the Rossers became a well-recognized couple in Bangkok.

Rosser was one of Bangkok's top musicians, the accompanist wanted by touring international stars. Calling himself an "entrepreneurial virtuoso," Rosser organized classical concerts in the city's finest halls. (In August 1999 the Nation announced, "Music lovers are in for a special experience this Saturday, when Bangkok's Eric Rosser performs a solo recital of piano sonatas at 8 p.m. at the Thai-German Cultural Centre Auditorium. Rosser is playing Johann Sebastian Bach's 'Partita in D Major.'") Capitalizing on his reputation, he began the Rosser Music Studio in 1997, soon employing half a dozen teachers for a hundred elite children.

Rosser was riding high. He had a big income from his various gigs. He finally had the position he always craved. With access to young girls and international pedophile contacts, he was living out his greatest sexual fantasies. "This is a fulfilling life," Rosser told the Bloomington Herald Times during a 1999 visit. "I'm doing all the things I love to do."

"He thought he was better than the average person," says an American singer who worked with Rosser in Bangkok and requested anonymity. "He was up there with the society people. He would walk with his nose in the air, walk into a restaurant carrying his briefcase, sit down and put his newspaper up. It gets to you," she says. "I watched him change in the two years I was there. By the time I left in 1999, he was just too damned arrogant."

Rosser swapped his pornography with British and Japanese pedophiles in Bangkok, and with Bill Platz in Bloomington. In turn, Platz passed the materials to other Bloomington pedophiles. Like most porn rings, it was more a chain than a club, the pornography moving from man to man, each knowing the others only by shadowy reference. Rosser was "a musician in Bangkok." Soon Platz' and Rosser's pornography was on virtually every kiddie porn site on the Web.

"The Internet has really revolutionized trafficking in child pornography and what it represents," says Ken Lanning, former FBI special agent and an expert on the sexual victimization of children. "The Internet may be acting as a catalyst, both in molestation and pornography traffic," he says. "Pedophiles can convince themselves they are not evil, just politically incorrect."

With the indictments in the United States, Rosser ran. The publicity from the Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list generated hundreds of leads. The FBI received photos and videos placing Rosser in Germany, Austria, Monaco, France and Spain. Not all the tips were helpful. The Danish Pedophile Association urged their members to send false leads. In July a former Bloomingtonian saw Rosser playing a cobbled-together piano-cum-moped beside a canal in Amsterdam. He wore a goatee and a beret, still playing his old repertoire. Another informant said Rosser tried to persuade a young blond girl to come closer. "She was clearly uncomfortable with his attention," the woman told "America's Most Wanted" television show, "but he continued to coax and to entice her to get closer to him."

Last January, he performed in Barcelona, still rolling his red Apollo moped-piano around Europe. An American expatriate in Barcelona sent a picture of Rosser playing under the name of Neil Biker with a jazz quartet, the Crooked Wheel, at the city's Harlem Jazz Club. The police almost nabbed Rosser, missing him only by a week or two.

In August a viewer of "America's Most Wanted" spotted Rosser back in Bangkok. And on Aug. 21 Thai police arrested him carrying a false British passport under the name of Peter Alexander Hill and sporting a beard and surgically altered features; liposuction slimmed his face and plastic surgery changed his chin. In his nearby Chatuchak District apartment, police found additional counterfeit Norwegian and Netherlands passports, marijuana and a large cache of child pornography.

The Thai authorities quickly convicted Rosser for the counterfeit documents while they prepared their other cases for drugs and child sex crimes against him. U.S. Department of Justice and Department of State officials immediately began the extradition process with the cooperating Thai government. While there are currently a number of scenarios, most likely Rosser will serve time in Thailand for the false documents, two counts of marijuana possession (one dating back to his first arrest) and the child sex crimes before being extradited to the States to face trial on U.S. charges. When asked how much prison time Rosser faces, a U.S. legal official speaking off the record says, "Oh, he could get quite a lot."

Today, Rosser's friend Bill Platz is serving an 11-year sentence in federal prison in Lisbon, Ohio, for his conviction on charges relating to the child porn sex ring. Tham is living with her bar-worker mother in the beach town of Pattaya, as she has since her mother and Rosser's wife Muay snatched her from the Bangkok children's shelter. No one is quite certain where Muay and Rosser's son Max are living. Father Joe Maier says Muay divorced Rosser to marry a man from Australia, where she now lives. A newspaper story indicated Muay is staying with Rosser's family in America and son Max is living in Bangkok. Former Rosser friends in Bloomington say they think the boy might be with Rosser's mother in Ohio.

Throughout his arrest and sentencing in Bangkok, Eric Rosser was unrepentant, claiming he had "obviously lost his obsession." As he was led to a police car, he told reporters, "I am not the evil man everyone thinks I am. I love Thailand, that's why I'm back here." When the police captured him, he was walking to a school that would certify him to teach English. He hoped to get a job tutoring children in northern Thailand.

By Douglas Wissing

Douglas Wissing is a writer in Bloomington, Indiana. He is writing "Dr. Albert Shelton: Pioneering in Tibet, 1904-1922," a biography of the renowned explorer-collector.

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