AS PASSAPORN Boonkasemsanti set off to meet her estranged husband for lunch at a busy Japanese restaurant in Bangkok's swanky Siam Square, she could scarcely have thought it would be her last meal.
What the couple discussed is likely to remain forever a mystery. What seems certain, however, is that a grainy video of the pair leaving the restaurant on that February afternoon was the last anyone would see of Passaporn until 3.3 kilograms of her flesh and vital organs were dredged weeks later from the stinking cesspools of a hospital dormitory and a hotel.
It's a case that has shocked even the most jaded residents of Bangkok, a city largely inured to random violence and nourished by daily doses of tabloid gore, and one made all the more bizarre by its resemblance to another case of dismemberment in the same upmarket district three years ago.
Police allege Dr Wisut Boonk-asemsanti, one of Bangkok's top gynaecologists and a medic to the rich and famous, as well as a leader in in-vitro fertilisation techniques at prestigious Chulalongkorn Hospital, killed his wife in cold blood, then drawing on his medical knowledge, cut her body into tiny pieces and flushed them into the city's sewers.
Police were confident they had built an unassailable mass of circumstantial evidence when they handed the case over to the public prosecutor at the beginning of the month. It was not a view shared by the prosecutor, Sermkiat Woradit, who ordered Wisut released and the charges dropped. As the doctor led a procession of paparazzi back to his Ladphrao townhouse, senior police were already trading public blows with Sermkiat as Passa-porn's family howled with outrage.
'We have no body, no witnesses and no murder weapon,' said Sermkiat, refusing to commit Wisut to trial. 'Not touching on the fact that the death can only be presumed, we have been unable to ascertain whether Passaporn's demise resulted from a stab wound, gunshot wound, poisoning or asphyxiation. Without those details, we cannot prosecute a suspect.'
Deputy Police Commissioner General Sant Sarutanont, a fav-ourite in the race to become the next police commissioner, was quick to hit back. 'We gave them [the prosecutors] everything but a front-row witness to the murder,' he said. 'We reconstructed the suspect's every move before and after the murder and what we got strongly pointed at him as the prime suspect. Every jigsaw piece simply fits together.'
Sant and his men now must find a few more pieces of the jigsaw if they are to convince Attorney-General Suchart Traiprasit to overrule the prosecutors and send Wisut to trial.
Sant left for the US just days after Sermkiat's decision, amid speculation that he has gone to seek help from forensic scientists there. Certainly the police case makes for stomach-churning reading.
Passaporn goes missing on February 20. On February 22, Wisut files a missing persons report at Phayatai police station and officers begin to scour the city.
Three days later, the Burachat Chaiyakorn Hospital, where Pass-aporn worked, informs Wisut about her unexplained absence from work. Shortly after, the hospital receives a letter, supposedly from Passaporn, saying she was tired and had taken a vacation.
Police become suspicious when it is noted that the letter is incorrectly addressed. It is written on a computer, despite the fact that the Chanthaburi meditation centre where the letter says she is staying has no computer or e-mail facilities.
Police also note that the stamp on the letter seems unusual. Wisut, they learn, is an amateur philatelist. He is called in for a medical examination and cuts and bruises are found on his hands. He gives an interview to the Nation channel, proclaiming his innocence and accusing his wife of staging her disappearance to harm his career. Colleagues, including Chulal-ongkorn University Council president Professor Kasem Suwan-nakul, issue a statement in Wisut's defence.
relationship with Wisut, including details of her plans to expose his alleged affairs with rich and beautiful patients from Thailand's glittering 'hi-so' scene that might have seen him struck off, on ethical grounds, by the Medical Council.
Her father tells police that he witnessed fights between the pair that on occasions became physical.
Police, meantime, track down Passa-porn's maid, who says her employer talked to Wisut on the telephone before leaving the house. She never returned. Wisut admits meeting his wife at Oishi restaurant in Siam Square, but only after he is shown a closed-circuit television recording of the pair leaving the premises.
The recording shows them nibbling at food and drinking. When they leave, Passaporn appears faint. Staff ask if she needs help, and Wisut tells them she drank too much punch. The punch, however, is non-alcoholic.
Police discover that days earlier, Wisut signed off for more than 50 pills of Dormican, a powerful sedative, from the Chulalongkorn Hospital dispensary.
Two hours after they leave the restaurant, Wisut picks up his daughter from nearby Sathit Chula School. Police comb the area for hotels where he could have dropped off his wife first. They draw a blank, until they are tipped off that the university, close to Siam Square, has a building that provides temporary accommodation for staff. They learn Wisut checked in to a room in the dormitory at 11am, before meeting his wife.
Police find a credit-card slip showing Wisut bought heavy-duty plastic rubbish bags, toilet paper, rope, adhesive tape and deodorant from the Silom branch of Robinson Department Store. He cannot, or will not, explain what he needed them for.
Police search Room 318 and find traces of blood in the bathroom. They check the building's cesspool, and recover about 30 tiny pieces of human flesh. Sant orders the police Institute of Forensic Medicine team to compare the DNA of the flesh to hair samples taken from Passaporn's brush.
They then learn Wisut checked out of the dormitory at 6am the next day, then checked into the Ladprao Sofitel. More pieces of human flesh are found in that hotel's sewage system. He is arrested, charged with his wife's murder and taken into custody on March 23.
On April 10, police announce that DNA tests confirm the chunks of flesh belong to Passaporn, and ask the court for an extension to Wisut's detention, so investigations can continue. They say they have recovered 3.3kg of her flesh.
Another deputy police commissioner, Jongrak Chuthanont, says the recovered flesh comprises 'certain important internal organs' that had been cut out by an expert. There is no way, he says, she could have survived their removal.
On May 1, the case is referred to the public prosecutor who, a week later, announces that he will not proceed. Wisut is released from jail after 48 days in custody to a storm of outrage. Passaporn's family vent their anguish. 'My sister's flesh was found at the places he stayed. Doesn't this mean anything to the prosecutors?' asks Piangchai Watcharasin, Passaporn's younger sister. 'She was not only killed. She was killed in cold blood.'
Her father is too distraught to speak. He stares mutely at the cameras, mouth open in a silent and bewildered howl of pain.
Meechai Ruchuphan, a former Senate Speaker-turned-Internet pundit wades in with an opinion piece on his Web site, hailing the prosecutors as heroes who took a moral stand against police who had already tried and convicted Wisut in the court of public opinion, based on nothing but hearsay and forensic evidence of dubious reliability.
Wanchai Sonsiri, secretary-general of the Law Society of Thailand, says Wisut probably would have been acquitted based on the evidence offered by police.
'It was the perfect murder. That is what people are bound to think,' opines The Nation newspaper in a lengthy editorial calling for an urgent overhaul of the country's criminal justice system. 'As far as our justice system is concerned, whether the subject butchered his wife is secondary to whether the benefit of the doubt he has enjoyed is some kind of social privilege.'
Had the case instead involved a 'debt-ridden amphetamine addict', suggests the paper, a predictable verdict would have followed a speedy prosecution.
Wisut's lawyer, meanwhile, shouts through the closing window of his gold Mercedes that his client doesn't plan any legal action against the police and would simply like to be left alone.
More than 30 journalists and cameramen are camped out in the quiet lane fronting Wisut's townhouse. They've been there five days, and have no intention of leaving him alone. Wisut left the day before in his lawyer's Mercedes. A high-speed chase tracked him as far as Chulalongkorn Hospital, where he disappeared.
He will be sighted two days later in Rayorn province, near the Cambodian border, in the company of a wealthy local woman, and then later at a casino in Burma, lounging by the pool.
For the time being, the stakeout continues. Neighbours peer out from curtains as bored and sleep-deprived reporters slurp noodles and give full vent to black humour.
'Someone should have a look inside that,' says one, pointing at a big chrome water tank in the front yard. Bemused workers carry on with renovations next door. Kids run around, yelling, wanting someone to blow up their balloons. Across the road, a sign proclaims 'Ghosts Co Ltd'. I assume it's a prank but inquiries reveal it is the real name of a software company.
Inside the fence, fringed by papaya trees, goldfish swim lazily in a lily pond. Rusty dumbbells sit next to a weight-lifting bench and a collection of brooms and mops. The postman arrives, and noodles are spilt and beer cans kicked over as the cameramen rush for the fence. Wisut's teenage son, Chatchiwan, slouches through the sliding doors. 'Please leave us alone,' he says. There are dark circles under his eyes, which are bloodshot. 'I don't know where my father has gone. He didn't say.'
Back at Bangkok's Ramathibidee Hospital, Dr Porntip Rojanasunant is holding court. The whippet-thin forensic pathologist with a wild and spiky dyed-red mane became a household name in Thailand after her work on another dismemberment case three years ago.
In that case, Serm Sakhonrat was jailed for life after admitting shooting his sweetheart, fifth-year medical student Jenjira Ployangunsri, then chopping her body into small chunks and flushing it piece by piece down the toilet. Footage is regularly replayed of Porntip sifting through unspeakable filth for little bits of bone and tissue in sewers beneath the killer's apartment.
Porntip is scathing in her criticism of police conduct in the Passaporn case and says she fears it will provide a guidebook for future killers. 'Forensic science is something best left to professionals,' she says. 'Many, many people have escaped justice in this country because of police not doing their job properly. They have substandard equipment and the results of their DNA testing may be open to challenge in court.'
In the early stages of the investigation, she was asked to help with DNA testing of bloodstains found on carpet, towels and shoes at Wisut's house. These turned out to belong to the doctor, not his wife. Soon after, she was told by police her help was no longer required.
'I suspect General Sant and his men wanted to take all the credit for cracking the case,' she says. 'This silly kind of rivalry is typical in Thailand. What we need is an independent institute of forensic science.'
As police work to rebuild their case against Wisut, the doctor is now free to return to work, or even to leave the country if he wishes. The Medical Council's deputy secretary-general, Dr Chumsak Pruk-sapong, says there is no reason Wisut cannot carry out medical duties provided his employer permits it.
A spokesman for Chulalongkorn Hospital says it will discuss the matter after the attorney-general makes a final decision on the case.
Sant and his men must now hope they get the go-ahead to reopen the investigation. One police source says a special panel is now reviewing the case, trying to find ways to bolster it. Police have also appealed for witnesses who may have seen the doctor with his wife in the vicinity of the hospital to come forward.
For Passaporn, there is no hope of anything resembling a burial, and her family is distraught. 'She'll know no peace,' says one family member, who did not want to be named. 'I pray her ghost will lead the police to the evidence they need.'
Even white-coated rationalists like Porntip refuse to discount the possibility of assistance from strange quarters. 'You know, it's a funny thing,' she says. 'In the Jenjira case, it was a snake that led police to a plastic bag hidden in the roof of the killer's flat. That bag contained a lock of the victim's hair, her car number plates and her ID card. If the bag hadn't been found, the killer might never have confessed.' She runs her hand through her red spikes. 'Maybe we will have to wait for another snake.'