BANGKOK - The death of a drug suspect who allegedly suffocated after police wrapped layers of plastic bags around his head during questioning has gripped Thailand, with reports emerging of police corruption, fast cars and unusual wealth.
The central figure in the case, besides the victim, is a senior police officer, Police Colonel Thitisan Utthanaphon, 39 - nicknamed "Joe Ferrari" for his penchant for sports cars.
The former Muang police station chief, who led the fatal interrogation, is now in custody after a two-day manhunt and has been sacked.
The case, which has triggered an uproar nationwide and intensified calls for overdue police reforms, arose because of a leaked video of the incident, which took place earlier this month at a Nakhon Sawan police station.
During a media conference on Thursday (Aug 26), National Police chief Suwat Jangyodsuk said the police would not protect wrongdoers even if they were members of the force.
"Everyone will be treated the same under the legal system. The police organisation must exist with people's trust," he said.
In an unprecedented move during the media conference, Col Thitisan was allowed to phone in and respond to questions from journalists for 15 minutes.
He admitted to mistreating the suspect but denied allegations of corruption. He said he had given orders for the interrogation tactics used on 24-year-old Jeerapong Thanapat, but said he "did not mean to kill" him.
"My intention was to get the information so I could destroy a drug business and protect the people of Nakhon Sawan. I made a mistake... I take sole responsibility," he said during the conference, comments which elicited more anger than sympathy online.
The leaked video, which was dated Aug 5, was reportedly filmed by a junior officer, and shows a group of officers wrapping plastic bags around the head of the suspect, who was arrested after he was found with 100,000 methamphetamine pills. It also shows the officers holding him down and beating him. They try to revive him when he becomes unresponsive.
Besides Col Thitisan, six other officers were arrested in relation to the death.
Local media alleged that Col Thitisan told his subordinates at the Nakhon Sawan police station to list the suspect's cause of death as a drug overdose.
The Bangkok Post, citing a whistleblower's complaint, said the suspect was also told to pay two million baht (S$83,000) for his release.
"As for (the alleged attempt to extort money), I swear by the amulet around my neck that I have never been involved in corruption," said Col Thitisan during Thursday's media conference.
But he went on the run in a Mini Cooper shortly after the video was released, said the Thai Enquirer. The former police chief turned himself in on Thursday in Chon Buri province, hundreds of kilometres from his station.
Thailand's National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) is now probing the former officer for abuse of authority and is looking into his lavish assets - which include a 60 million baht home as well as a collection of super cars. His salary was just 43,000 baht a month
On Wednesday, police raided his 86,000 sq ft house in the Klong Sam Wa district of Bangkok, and found 13 luxury cars. Local media reported that he owned dozens more, including a limited-edition Lamborghini Aventador valued at 47 million baht.
A source told the Bangkok Post that part of the former policeman's wealth came from trading edible bird's nest, a business he got into after meeting industry contacts in the course of drug suppression operations.
He also purportedly benefited from a Customs Department programme that rewards officers who assist in recovering illegally smuggled luxury cars with 40 per cent of the proceeds earned from the sale of each car, reported The Nation.
He helped in the confiscation of more than 300 illegal cars in the last 10 years, and could have earned up to 400 million baht in rewards.
The saga involving Col Thitisan has generated a storm, particularly among netizens and civil society, and the hashtag "Stop lying Joe" started trending the day after Thursday's media conference.
Some netizens drew comparisons with the death of Mr George Floyd, the African-American man who was murdered while in police custody in the United States. Mr Floyd's death sparked protests over racial injustice and police brutality in the United States.
Referring to the case in Thailand, Asia director at Human Rights Watch Brad Adams said that a prosecution fully independent of the Thai police was needed for "any hope of justice" for Mr Jeerapong.
"Successive Thai governments have a long history of failing to ensure accountability for even the most ghastly police abuses against people in custody," he said.
Public trust in the Thai justice system has also taken a hit over the years, especially after a long-drawn case involving the scion of the Red Bull energy drink empire who has yet to face up to fatal hit-and-run charges.
An investigation into the case showed that there was a conspiracy to shield Vorayuth Yoovidhya, also known by his nickname "Boss", from prosecution. An inquiry into the senior police officers, prosecutors, and investigators involved in the case is ongoing.
In the 2012 case, Vorayuth was accused of crashing his Ferrari into policeman Wichien Klanprasert and dragging the body of the victim for a distance before fleeing. Traces of alcohol and cocaine were found in Vorayuth's bloodstream, according to police.
An arrest warrant was eventually issued for him in April 2017, but by then he had fled abroad. The warrant was dropped in 2020, but following a public outcry, a new warrant was issued a month later.
Vorayuth is still on the run.