How social media helped nab a serial killer in Thailand

Pictures of six-year-old Nong Cartoon began circulating on social media and went viral after CCTV footage showed her at Bearing station with a man holding her hand. -- PHOTO: SCREENGRAB FROM YOUTUBE
Pictures of six-year-old Nong Cartoon began circulating on social media and went viral after CCTV footage showed her at Bearing station with a man holding her hand. -- PHOTO: SCREENGRAB FROM YOUTUBE

The skytrain station called Bearing is at the end of the line, a long way from downtown Bangkok, a city of close to 10 million.

The buildings in Bearing are older and there are more open spaces and vegetation. A few new condos rear above the low-rise suburban countryside. 

It was in one of the overgrown vacant lots near the station that a bright six-year-old girl was raped and killed by a man who would confess to 10 child murders after his arrest.

On Dec 6 evening, the parents of Nong Cartoon – 'nong' means little sister in Thai – had left her sleeping in their pickup truck while they went off to watch a Thai folk music concert.

She was gone when they got back to the truck.

Pictures of the girl began circulating on social media and went viral after CCTV footage showed her at Bearing station with a man holding her hand.

On Dec 15, police found a small skull, body parts and clothing in a vacant lot next to the station. DNA tests later confirmed them to be Nong Cartoon.

The suspect, arrested a day later, shockingly confessed to having attacked, raped or killed 10 other little girls and boys. He claimed five attacks took place this month alone, with Nong Cartoon’s murder the third.

According to media reports, the man, said to be about 32 years old, has no family name and identification, and goes by the name “Nui”. He apparently spent his childhood in the streets of Bangkok. After he was adopted, he reportedly led a normal life and even got married.

In 2008, however, he was sentenced to 44 months in jail for attempting to rape and murder a seven-year-old girl. After his release in August 2012, he returned to his village but left after the people shunned him for fear that he would prey on their children. He became a drifter, doing odd jobs and also worked for a company that arranges travelling Thai folk music concerts.

And he went on what clearly appears to have been a rape-and-murder rampage.

Aside from the tragic and sordid details, the role of social media stood out in Nong Cartoon’s murder case.

When the girl first went missing,  the Mirror Foundation, a non-government organisation which maintains an online list of missing children, posted her picture.

After pictures from the CCTV footage were posted online, they were shared 14,167 times. A concert company employee who saw the pictures recognised the man and called the police. The suspect was working on a concert stage in north-eastern Nong Khai province at the time.

What probably helped is the fact that Thailand, especially Bangkok, has one of the highest social media user rates in the world. A report on the online Tech in Asia journal called it “a nationwide, crowd-sourced manhunt on social media”.

Using social media to find missing people is not new. In this particular case, however, it facilitated the swift arrest of the suspect and cut short his murder spree. Also, civilians came together in strength to look for Nong Cartoon and her killer. It was a group comprising teachers, motorcycle taxi drivers, relatives of the girl, some local policemen, and Ms Kanokwan Poonperm from the Mirror Foundation missing persons unit, who found her remains near the station.

As the case continues to transfix the nation, many are questioning how the justice system could have let Nui off with such a light sentence in 2008.

A Dec 19 editorial in the Bangkok Post called the Thai justice system “a bad joke”.

“That this very sick man was allowed to return to society after having served just three years and eight months in jail for strangling a seven-year-old girl in his failed attempt to rape her speaks volumes of something terribly wrong,” it said.

nirmal@sph.com.sg