Is John Yettaw crazy, or just eccentric? The answer’s not quite clear, as the Missouri man remains in a Burmese prison charged with a head-scratching nighttime swim that’s imperiled one of the world’s best-known democracy figures. Yettaw, 53, is accused of strapping on homemade flippers and illegally swimming to the Rangoon home of Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader held under house arrest for 13 of the last 19 years. Relatives say he made the same swim last year, for reasons that are still murky, but was turned away. Suu Kyi, 63 and in poor health, is now on trial for violating the terms of her parole, thanks to Yettaw; she and two housekeepers face up to five years in prison for allowing the aquatic visitor to spend two nights in the lakeside compound. If convicted, the Nobel Peace Price winner could be locked up during elections scheduled for next year. Yettaw is also scheduled to stand trial and could spend six years behind bars. People who know the Vietnam veteran say he’s a gentle man with an odd streak, but one of many furious Suu Kyi supporters calls him a “wretched American.”
Arrested by Burmese authorities on May 5 while swimming away from Suu Kyi’s home. Charged with illegally entering a restricted zone and breaking immigration laws.
Claimed he’s a student at the Forest Institute, a Missouri school for advanced psychology degrees. The school says he’s not currently enrolled.
Told relatives he was traveling to Asia to write about people coping with stress and abuse. A Mormon, he reportedly said he planned to write a “faith-based” book on heroism.
Swam across Inya Lake to Suu Kyi’s home last year but was blocked from meeting her by her staff. He reportedly left a copy of the Book of Mormon and swam away. After his return to her home on May 3, Suu Kyi reportedly pleaded with him to leave but relented after Yettaw, a diabetic, complained of exhaustion and leg cramps.
Had six children with his ex-wife, Yvonne Yettaw. A son died in a motorcycle accident in 2007. Remarried and currently has custody of four children, whom he reportedly left with friends before his trip.
Spent several months in Asia last summer with his 17-year-old son, Brian.
Lives in a modest mobile home in rural Falcon, Missouri. A neighbor says he’s friendly, but not active in the community.
Has worked as a general contractor and receives disability payments. Reportedly hasn’t worked full-time in 20 years; his ex-mother-in-law says he’s spent years in school, living off grants.
A Vietnam veteran, he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, his ex-wife says.
Recently lost about 70 pounds.
“He’s a very peaceloving person, well-meaning, forgiving, mild-mannered. He meant the very best for her… I don’t think he could have foreseen that it was going to be such a mess, that they were going to make such a huge deal out of it.”
Betty Yettaw, his wife.
“He gets an idea. He goes and does it and gets in trouble.”
Yvonne Yettaw, his ex-wife.
“Everyone is very angry with this wretched American. He is the cause of all these problems. He’s a fool.”
Kyi Win, one of Suu Kyi’s lawyers.
“I guess you tend not to think that it will end badly, but I don’t know. I worry about his reputation.”
Carley Yettaw, his daughter.
“He was just a very intelligent man to talk to, he was very literate, he had a good vocabulary and you could talk to him and he understood what you were talking about.”
Mike Ansell, a neighbor.
Read about Burma’s ethnic minorities.
See TIME’s Pictures of the Week.