Y2K bullets mean trouble overseas for Wisconsin man

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Y2K bullets mean trouble overseas for former Delavan man Taiwan customs agents detain visitor after discovering ammunition

By Lucas Wall of the Journal Sentinel staff Last Updated: June 14, 2000

An unfounded fear of Y2K chaos has turned into a very real nightmare for a former Wisconsin resident detained in Taiwan after authorities found bullets in his luggage.

Jerry Voutila of San Diego was arrested and had his passport confiscated June 3 while trying to board a flight from Taipei to Hong Kong. Taiwanese customs officials detained him because possession of the bullets is forbidden there. He said he'd forgotten he even had the bullets, which he packed for a New Year's trip in anticipation of trouble connected with the millennium celebration and never thought to unpack.

Voutila's trial is scheduled Friday, he said by e-mail from Taiwan. He and his family are upset because he will miss his son Jimmy's high school graduation today in San Diego.

"This is the stupid, dumb part of it," said his sister Georgene Voutila of Milwaukee. "We had gone out for the Rose Bowl," she said, and Jerry drove up from San Diego to meet them. "Thinking that the millennium thing might turn into something . . . for some stupid reason, he thought he would have his deer rifle along - that he hadn't used since he'd been in Wisconsin - to protect his family.

"He didn't have the gun with him in Taiwan, he just had these 10 bullets that he'd taken with him," she said. "He'd forgotten completely about them."

Voutila, 48, was born in Milwaukee and grew up in the area. He has degrees from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and UW-Whitewater and lived in Delavan until 1988. His mother, Mona, lives in St. Francis and sister-in-law Sally Roth resides in Lake Geneva.

He was released from jail in Taiwan on Monday and is now staying at a hotel pending resolution of his case. The trip - his first one abroad - was to train employees for his company, NCR Corp.

He is unsure what punishment he faces, although he believes it could be a couple of years in prison.

He expressed concern about missing his son's graduation.

"It was extremely important for me to be home for that," he said. "I was hoping to have this resolved by Thursday or have the chance to go home and then return if necessary."

The United States does not maintain diplomatic relations with Taiwan. American citizens there are represented by a non-profit organization, the American Institute in Taiwan, which has a contract with the U.S. State Department. Voutila said he has been visited by two institute officials, who asked Taiwan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs to intervene.

Robert Howes, deputy chief of information and culture for the institute, said in a phone interview from Taiwan that he wasn't aware of the precise penalties or the details of Voutila's case, but "in theory, they're very strict about importing any firearms into Taiwan."

Back home, family members have contacted members of Congress from Wisconsin and California to seek their assistance.

"We don't know what to do," said Georgene Voutila, fighting back tears. "It's the uncertainty of not knowing what could happen because their laws are so strict and so different than ours."

U.S. Rep. Jerry Kleczka and Sen. Russ Feingold, both Wisconsin Democrats, say they've contacted the State Department or the American Institute about the case, and a spokeswoman for Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) said his office is doing the same.

A State Department spokesman said that he could not specifically discuss Voutila's case, but that American Institute officials are assisting Voutila in the same way a consular officer would in a nation that has diplomatic relations with the United States.

"When a person travels to that other country, he or she is under the jurisdiction of that country and subject to that country's laws, so that person needs to, to the best of their ability, make themselves aware of that country's laws before they travel," said the spokesman, who didn't want his name used. "That said, if the person is arrested in a foreign country, we will do whatever we can to make sure that they are not treated any differently from how someone of that nationality would be treated if arrested in that country for the same purposes."

Voutila's wife, Suzanne, said she hopes the judge dismisses the case Friday so her husband can return home.

"I'm really worried about that," she said. "It would be nice to have him home for Father's Day" on Sunday.

Voutila is trying to maintain a sense of humor despite the seriousness of his predicament, his sister said.

"One of his comments was that he would make it home for his younger son's graduation, which is in three years," she said. "He's trying very hard to keep our spirits up more than his own, and we appreciate that."


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), June 15, 2000

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