This story has been updated with additional information.
A Palo Alto man who has spent years helping Nepalese girls and women advance their education is locked in a jail in Nepal on what his mother called false accusations.
Wolf Price, a Palo Alto High School graduate who started the Beyond the Four Walls Endowment Fund to change the status and fortunes of girls and women in the impoverished country, was arrested on April 4 and taken to jail without a translator, his mother, Mary Bartnikowski, said.
He was arrested shortly after recording an altercation between a 15-year-old boy and the teen's sister, Bartnikowski said, but the arrest may also be due to controversial photographs that recently surfaced of Price. According to Nepalese news reports, Price had posed in wedding garb with the erotic actress Archana Paneru in what she later admitted was a sham marriage she had arranged to allegedly garner publicity.
Price, 31, wrote a 2010 guest opinion in the Palo Alto Weekly about his decision to forego an expensive college education in exchange for a worldwide education by traveling the globe. Growing up in a family of professional photographers dating back to his great-grandfather, he started his own photography career at age 14. He began his world travels at age 17, funding himself through photography exhibitions, he said in his opinion column.
Nepal became his muse. For 12 years he has made numerous documentary films and taken photographs about life there. Price started funding education projects after he made a documentary film, "Within the Four Walls," about the plight of women and girls in Nepal. He made the film, he said, after having a dream while on a 145-mile hike around the Annapurna mountain range in the country's central region.
"Three grandmother voices gave their blessing and guidance. Pushing me to create a social documentary for Nepalese women and girls. To archive native history before it disappears from human knowledge," he wrote in the introduction to the film, which he began in 2010. The film kicked off the endowment fund, which educates girls and women who otherwise lead lives of indentured servitude, consigned to isolation, multiple pregnancies and heavy labor.
Price has built homes, started businesses for the Nepalese people and saved the lives of people and their animals by paying their medical expenses. In 2015, after the devastating 7.8 magnitude earthquake that killed nearly 9,000 people in the region and displaced thousands, the endowment funded and helped the women build a shelter.
The endowment is building tech resource hubs managed by women. It also purchased land for a permanent eco-village. Funds give one-year grants for promising and impoverished girls to take English and computer courses; two-year college scholarships are also provided.
Prior to his arrest, Price had been bringing children out of the jungle to take part in intercultural projects. One of the girls, the sister of his accuser, was involved in many of the projects. Her brother, who had only recently arrived, was troubled and had been arrested after trying to steal money, Bartnikowski said.
"Wolf got him out of jail. I guess no good deed goes unpunished," she said.
The teen then started a physical altercation with his sister. Bartnikowski said at one point he allegedly pounded his head on the ground to make it look as though Price had hurt him -- a story he told to police.
Bartnikowski has seen the video her son took, which shows that he was trying to diffuse the situation. He wanted to bring in police and a translator to try to solve the problem, she said.
Price has been held in the nation's capital, Kathmandu, without being charged for any crime. He was able to text his mother that he was in jail before his phone was confiscated, she said. He does not have access to a phone, laptop or even a pen, but he has been able to sometimes borrow the latter from a guard.
A friend of Bartnikowski who happened to be in Kathmandu has stayed in Nepal to bring Price food, books and other items. She keeps him in touch with his Nepalese attorney and contacts his mother with updates on her son.
Bartnikowski, a professional photographer who has traveled to Nepal five times, has seen the impact of her son's work.
"Everyone tells me the same thing: He has such a pure heart. He just wants to help people in this very difficult country. I raised him to be a feminist, and I feel there's been a backlash for that," she said.
The U.S. Embassy was surprisingly unhelpful, she said. U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein's office made contact on her behalf with embassy officials, who said they had allocated Price a lawyer. But Bartnikowski said no lawyer had materialized, so she found one on her own. Price also only received one visit from an embassy representative, she said.
"They weren't really monitoring the situation," she added.
Embassy officials in Nepal did not respond to a request for comment. But State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs doesn't pay for legal or medical bills and it doesn't serve as official translators or interpreters, according to the agency's website.
Ashley Garrigus, spokeswoman for the Bureau of Consular Affairs, sent an updated email on Thursday, May 17:
"We are aware of the arrest of U.S. citizen Wolf Price in Nepal in April. The Department of State takes its obligation to assist U.S. citizens overseas seriously. Since Mr. Price’s arrest, consular officers have visited him. We will continue to provide appropriate consular services to Mr. Price."
She referred further questions to Price's attorney.
Garrigus said earlier that consulates and the U.S. State Department are limited in what they can do. She could not comment on Price's case without his written permission.
The embassy can provide a list of local attorneys who speak English, contact family or friends of a detainee, visit the detained citizen and ensure that the incarcerated person receives appropriate medical care.
"We can't negotiate to get people out of jail. There is a judicial process," within the country, she said. Only in very exceptional circumstances, such as when the three Americans in North Korea were not detained on legitimate charges, will the agency intervene, she added.
It's not unusual in many countries for people to be held for long periods of time without charges, she said, unlike in the United States.
Through his mother, Price released a statement on Thursday, May 10, regarding his situation, which is posted on the GoFundMe page she created to raise money for his release. GoFundMe donations help pay for his legal fees, food and a four-day emergency hospital stay after he became ill due to the jail conditions. He noted that most prisoners can remain in jail for up to 90 days.
Price sleeps on the floor with only a blanket, lying alongside 100 other inmates, most of whom are addicts going through various stages of withdrawal, he said in his statement.
"The shower room is a moldy room with three drums of water. You go there to get water for flushing the toilet or to wash a plate without soap, or a shower, wash hands etc.," he wrote. There is no ventilation, and he can never go outside. He can wash his clothes but he cannot dry them.
"It's only been five weeks, but I forget the feeling of being free. I try to remind myself to appreciate that at least I am alive. I'm not being tortured.
"And whenever this dark time ends I will surely appreciate life a lot more and the simplest things that freedom allows."
On Wednesday, May 16, his mother posted another letter from Price.
"I'm desperate to get out but I have no idea when that will happen," Price wrote.
Bartnikowski said her son has a court hearing this week, but she doesn't know for sure the day or time. Few if any of the witnesses have come forward. She thinks they are probably afraid.
But the girl whose brother attacked her has now made a statement saying that the accusations are false. She has made an arduous 12-hour journey from the jungle and is expected to testify at the hearing. Bartnikowski hopes her son will finally be freed but said she and Price have heard that promise before.
"There have been so many twists and turns," she said.
According to the Centre for Investigative Journalism, Nepal, many innocent people are imprisoned throughout Nepal due to gross negligence by police, government lawyers and judges.
Correction: The number of persons killed in the 2015 earthquake has been corrected to include the region.