Botched murder inquiries haunt Thai police

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 October, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 October, 2003, 12:00am

With world attention on Thailand during the Apec summit, top police have been embarrassed by two botched high-profile murder cases that have come back to haunt them.

Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra wants the world to see a Bangkok that is shiny and clean, free of prostitutes, beggars, stray dogs and the homeless, not to mention terrorists and villains.

But visiting dignitaries who bother to pick up local newspapers are getting another view: one of the capital's dark underbelly, of a law-enforcement system riddled with incompetence and corruption, and of a leader increasingly at odds with his national police chief.

The first of two notorious cases suddenly in the headlines again is the 1986 murder of Thai-American schoolgirl Sherry Ann Duncan, for which four men were wrongly convicted in a sordid saga of sex, lies and jealousy.

The second is the 'suicide' of billionaire businessman and politician Hangthong Thammawattana, which now looks increasingly like a murder.

Mr Thaksin has ordered a fresh probe into the case, although investigators might find their job harder after a fire broke out in a Parliament House annexe last week, destroying more than 2,000 pages of documents vital to the case.

In the Duncan case, the Civil Court last week ordered that the Royal Thai Police Office pay 26 million baht (HK$5.04 million) in compensation plus interest for the wrongful conviction of four men jailed for murder.

It came too late for three of them, who died in the squalid confines of Bang Kwang maximum security prison before the Supreme Court reversed its verdict and found them innocent in 1993.

The money will go to the only survivor, Krasae Ploykum, who cannot walk as a result of spinal injuries he sustained in prison, and the families of the other three men.

The case has highlighted a growing rift between Mr Thaksin and national police chief Sant Sarutanont, sparking a war of words over police moves to appeal against the payout.

Mr Thaksin described the case as a 'gross distortion of justice' and 'slipshod work', warning the police not to bother appealing.

The pair have been at odds since massage parlour king Chuwit Kamolvisit's sensational revelations three months ago about massive bribes he claims to have paid to many senior Bangkok policemen to protect his commercial sex empire.

Following a fresh investigation into the Duncan killing by the police crime suppression division in the early 1990s, it was revealed that the four men jailed were victims of a police 'verbal', in which evidence was fabricated and witnesses paid or intimidated into falsely accusing the men.

New light was shed on the case in 1995, when a woman brought a wristwatch to police, saying her husband had taken it from Duncan after he strangled her in a taxi and dumped her body on busy Sukhumvit Road. The plot thickened when the husband and his brother were caught by police and confessed, alleging they were hired by Suwibol Patpongpanit, daughter of the owner of Bangkok's notorious Patpong Road red-light district, to kill Duncan because she was having an affair with Suwibol's husband.

Police said last week they would seek the extradition from the United States of the officer in charge of the case, police colonel Mongkol Sripho, who is accused of fabricating evidence against the four men originally jailed for Duncan's murder and who, according to some Thai newspapers, embarked on an affair with Ms Suwibol during the course of the investigation.

Mongkol had retired from the force before he was found to have fabricated the evidence. He was retroactively dismissed and his pension frozen, but by that time he had already fled to the United States. The House committee on police affairs this week demanded that several other officers involved in the frame-up also face civil and criminal charges.

The confessed killers are now serving life terms, but Ms Suwibol, whose family has also been linked to illegal casinos in the capital popular with Hong Kong and mainland high-rollers, was released in 1999 due to lack of evidence. This was hugely controversial at the time, because she had earlier been sentenced to death following a trial in the Criminal Court.

Duncan's parents had vowed never to cremate their daughter's body until all the culprits were behind bars, but changed their minds and allowed the cremation at a Bangkok temple as part of the promotion for the 2001 film Sherry Ann.

Police chief Sant hit back at the PM, and said it was not Mr Thaksin's business to tell the police whether to appeal over the payout, as it was solely a matter for the force's legal department. Mr Thaksin then upped the ante, threatening to seek a cabinet resolution barring any police appeal. This did the trick, and a day later a police spokesman said there would be no appeal and the money would be paid in full.

Mr Thaksin has also ordered a murder investigation into the 1999 death of Hangthong after a second autopsy cast doubt on the police verdict of suicide.

The billionaire scion of the feuding Thammawattana family, which made its money from Bangkok's sprawling Yingcharoen market then spent years fighting over it, was found dead in the family mansion, victim of a gunshot to the head. Police quickly ruled the case a suicide and pronounced the matter closed.

That did not satisfy Naruemol Mangkornpanich, who refused to believe her brother took his own life. She persuaded British forensics expert Adrian Linacre to analyse photographs from the scene, leading Dr Linacre to conclude last month that Hangthong may have been murdered.

This sparked a second autopsy by high-profile forensic pathologist and best-selling author Porntip Rojanasunant, who agreed that murder was more likely, given the bullet's trajectory and severe bruising to Hangthong's legs and chest inflicted before death.

But more than 2,000 pages of documents, including autopsy reports and interrogation records, were destroyed in a blaze that broke out in an annexe to Parliament House last week, and police suspect arson. The fire broke out on the third floor of the seven-storey building, close to where many of the documents were stored.

Hangthong's brother, Noppadol Thammawattana, said recently he had no motive to murder his brother and offered to take a lie-detector test.

He added that he feared he was now a prime suspect because the body was discovered in his room in the family residence, and he was the last person to see Hangthong alive.

He denied reports that he paid police 50 million baht to 'fix' the case.

Deputy Permanent Secretary for Justice Manit Suthaporn will now take over the investigation from police, and may summon all 67 of the original witnesses for questioning.

Mr Manit said the investigating officers had acted 'strangely' in rushing to wash the victim's shirt and then return it to the family, as well as ordering a rapid clean-up of the scene which may have destroyed vital evidence.

A member of the original investigation team, police Major-General Chakthip Kunchorn na Ayutthaya, said the investigation had been 'thorough' and he denied any suggestion police received kickbacks in return for a suicide verdict.

Meanwhile Mr Thaksin has ordered officers to clean up their act. 'Professionalism seems to have disappeared [in the police force] lately and been replaced by a culture of selfishness,' he said. The prime minister also warned police chief Sant that the days of tolerating grafters and bunglers were 'long gone'.