Playing “catch me if you can” with the law.
- Grandson of Red Bull energy drink founder, heir to billion-dollar empire
- Killed motorcycling policeman in hit-and-run
- Bail of only 500,000 baht ($15,900)
- Paid ‘funeral fee’ of 3m baht ($97,000) to victim’s family, to avoid civil charge
- Failed to appear before authorities 8 times
- Cover-up, delay tactics, flawed handling of case
Pre-dawn on Sep 3, 2012, Vorayuth Yoovidhya hit a motorcyclist with his black Ferrari and then ran away. The motorcyclist, Sgt Maj Wichian Klanprasert, was dragged about 200 metres along the road. He died of a broken neck and multiple broken bones.
Police traced oil streaks from the hit-and-run scene to the Yoovidhya family’s gated estate in a wealthy neighbourhood of Bangkok. Vorayuth was taken into custody, charged with causing death by reckless driving, but was released on a 500,000 baht ($15,900) bail. He admitted driving the car and hitting the motorcycle but claimed he was suddenly cut off by the bike.
In the aftermath of the incident, popular Thai online forums were filled with commentaries about the highest-profile case in years, many sceptical that justice would be served.
In media reports, Bangkok’s top police official, Lt Gen Comronwit Toopgrajank, said he took charge of the investigation after a policeman initially tried to cover up the crime by turning in a bogus suspect. The police officer who attempted to subvert the investigation was suspended.
“A policeman is dead. I can’t let this stand. If I let this case get away, I’d rather quit,” Comronwit told reporters. “I don’t care how powerful they are. If I can’t get the actual man in this case, I will resign.”
Comronwit is no longer Police Commissioner and Vorayuth is still at large, five years after the fact.
The Yoovidhya family later paid the siblings of the deceased a ‘funeral fee’ of 3 million baht $97,000 – the “blood money” being small change for the family that Forbes ranked as fourth richest in Thailand – to protect Vorayuth from a civil lawsuit.
The Australian news.com portal reported that according to Thai authorities, Vorayuth had tested positively for cocaine in his blood, although it was not verified if he ingested it before the hit-and-run.
In 2013, Attorney-General Chulasingh Vasantasingh ordered the prosecution of Vorayuth on three counts, including speeding.
According to media reports, prosecutor Reuchai Krairerk said that if Vorayuth failed to show up in court on Sep 2, 2013, an arrest warrant would be sought and two other more serious charges would be added – reckless driving causing death and failure to stop the vehicle and get out to help the victim.
Vorayuth failed to attend court, with his lawyer claiming that he came down with influenza while on a business trip to Singapore. Defence lawyer Thanit Buakeaw showed reporters a medical certificate issued by a Singapore clinic that said Vorayuth was “unwell” and was advised to rest for one or two days.
“He has no intention or cause to flee but he really can’t be here today because he became suddenly ill,” Thanit said.
Dr Neo Wee Suan, who issued the medical certificate, said that he could not confirm whether he treated Vorayuth because of patient confidentiality.
Vorayuth’s absence meant the speeding charge had to be dropped as the statute of limitation had expired. He still faced the two other more serious charges, which carry a maximum sentence of 10 years.
By the time Vorayuth’s indictment had been postponed for the sixth time, Ruecha acknowledged, “Prosecutors have discussed and decided that the defendant appeared to be fleeing and we will oppose his bail request during the trial process”.
Without the elusive accused, there has yet to be a trial.
A committee of inquiry was set up in March 2016 to investigate a group of police officers handling the case on how Vorayuth could have avoided prosecution and been allowed to leave the country.
The Bangkok Post reported that Bangkok’s acting police chief Pol Lt Gen Sanit Mahathaworn admitted police had made an error by not charging Vorayuth with drink driving. He said he was surprised that a charge of “drink after drive” was included instead.
“Why did it have this charge? It’s not an offence. They began with drink-driving, but after the investigation, they ended up with ‘drink after drive’,” he said.
It was revealed that Vorayudh was found to have had a blood alcohol concentration level exceeding the legal limit. But his lawyer claimed he had drunk alcohol after the fatal accident due to feeling stressed.
Apparently, prosecutors could not determine if Vorayudh drank before or after the accident, despite the test being conducted in the afternoon of the pre-dawn accident.
Sanit pledged to “clarify all doubts raised by the public” regarding the case. However, he said he could not tell yet if the police in charge of the case refused to charge Vorayudh with drink-driving in order to help him.
“If investigators don’t distort facts, injustice will not happen and all cases will be completed based on just principles. The law exists to protect the good regardless of their wealth and all must be treated equally,” Sanit said.
He also said that the accused apparently exploited a technicality to drag out the investigation by lodging a petition with Attorney-General Chulasingh Vasantasingh to seek a fair investigation.Vorayudh submitted six separate petitions, all of which were granted.
Two polices officers who were probed by the committee of inquiry for delaying the investigation were found guilty of a minor breach of conduct, and “punished accordingly”.
Vorayudh was given the ultimatum to report to prosecutors by May 25 last year. Predictably, he failed to show.
The lack of progress in the case and repeated court delays angered a public already convinced that the rich and influential in Thailand never have to face justice.
The victim’s elder brother Pornanand Klanprasert told the Matichon newspaper that he had expected legal proceedings in the case to be “extremely slow”.
“In big cases in our country, those with money can be exonerated or have penalties relieved. If the poor commit an offence they are probably indicted quickly,” Pornanand noted.
With the warrant of his arrest finally issued, Vorayudh is now on the run.
Authorities had claimed they did not where he was – which was strange, as the jet-setter was not in hiding but visibly living it up. That, as they say, is another story. Follow our next report on how Thailand’s most high-profile fugitive was having a great time the past few years, openly defiant of the law.