Policeman charged with murdering tourist - so why is he still on duty?

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 January, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 29 January, 2008, 12:00am

The Thai hill town of Pai, nestled in woodland just over three hours by road from Chiang Mai, has long been a haven for young western backpackers and other tourists, playing host to an annual reggae festival and emerging as a trendy new destination for Thai tourists.

But the festive spirit and laidback innocence of Pai was shattered on January 6 by the sound of pistol shots. The bloodstains left on the road outside the Be-Bop pub have tarnished the town's reputation.

Witnesses to the killing of 25-year-old Canadian Leo John del Pinto and the wounding of his ex-girlfriend, Carly Reisig, also from Canada, have told of their fears after the policeman who admitted shooting the pair was released on bail.

Sergeant-Major Uthai Dechawiwat was even allowed to resume his duties, despite being charged with del Pinto's murder and the attempted murder of Reisig.

The Canadian government has called on Thai authorities to ensure a thorough, impartial and transparent investigation.

Sergeant-Major Uthai claims he was beaten to the ground by the Canadian couple, said his superior officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Somchai Panya, who is investigating the case.

'After managing to get up, Uthai pointed his service pistol to threaten away both foreigners, but del Pinto tried to snatch the pistol from him. After a scuffle, shots were fired accidentally.'

Sergeant-Major Uthai was reassigned to the town of Pang Ma Pha, 70km north of Pai. He could not be reached for comment.

Thai human rights lawyer Somchai Homlaor expressed concerns about the police's handling of the case, saying: 'It's a serious crime. Normally, he should be suspended from duty.'

Ms Reisig, whose life is now out of danger, tells a different story. Speaking from her hospital bed in Chiang Mai, she claimed that after drinking and dancing at the Be-Bop 'a man suddenly hit me for no reason. He was wearing a white shirt and slacks. Leo [del Pinto] yelled, 'Nobody hits her!' and pushed him away. The man, Sergeant-Major Uthai, reached for his gun and Leo grappled with him'.

The next thing she remembers is 'he pointed the gun and shot Leo in the head and then in the chest. Immediately, he turned the gun to shoot me, hitting me on the left side of my chest'.

Pai police chief Wanchai Suwanririkate said four witnesses had made statements that the two Canadians had attacked the plain-clothes policeman after he tried to intervene and stop them fighting.

But other witnesses with different versions of events are afraid to be named and too scared to give evidence against a police officer.

One witness was at the nearby P. Daeng noodle restaurant.

'I saw the two foreigners outside fighting and a man in a white jacket arrived at the scene. The woman said, 'Leave us alone, we are friends, we can settle the problem ourselves',' he said. 'I saw the man in a white jacket pull out a gun and kick the woman. The foreign man went to help the woman and pushed them away [sic]. Then I heard three shots fired.'

This version of events appears to confirm a disagreement between the two Canadians, but indicates the first blow was struck by the policeman.

The witness, a Payap University law student in Chiang Mai who declined to give his name, said: 'I am afraid to give evidence because the police always protect their people. This is normal in Thailand. I am concerned about my safety if my name is published. I would be in trouble.'

Several witnesses said they saw the policeman drinking in several bars that night. A bartender at the Be-Bop pub clearly remembers Sergeant-Major Uthai entering the pub 'in a very drunken state at 10pm' - just four hours before the fatal shooting.

The bartender also requested anonymity. Later that night, the officer was seen drinking in the 'Don't Cry Bar'. However, police chief Wanchai dismissed any suggestion that his officer was drunk. 'No, he was not drunk. He had only one can of beer that night. We did hospital tests. The foreign man was very drunk but the test shows Uthai was not drunk,' he said.

One Pai resident claims 'the recent increase in police heavy-handedness in Pai is all about Thai investors pressuring the police to clean up the image of the town'.

In an almost parallel case in 2004, a Thai police sergeant murdered two British tourists after an argument at a restaurant in the tourist resort of Kanchanaburi, on the River Kwai.

Thai guitarist Pu Ekkarat, who plays at the Be-Bop, was deeply shocked by the killing. 'First of all, they should train the police how to control their temper,' the 33-year-old told Canada's Globe and Mail. 'Too often they use violence to stop a problem.'

Del Pinto was buried on January 18 in his home town of Calgary. His father, Ernie del Pinto, told the Calgary Herald he could never forgive his son's killer.

'How can you possibly forgive a guy like that?' he said.