Flashy cop’s fall from grace

In the spotlight: Newsmen surrounding Thitisan as he leaves the Crime Suppression Division in Bangkok after surrendering to the authorities. — AFP

A flashy cop with a taste for fast cars falls from grace following the leak of spine-chilling footage of a brutal interrogation gone wrong.

Not the plot of a blockbuster thriller, but the vivid reality of a story that has gripped Thailand in recent weeks and spotlighted police corruption that experts say infects almost every level of society in the kingdom.

The case of Thitisan Utthanaphon, a former police station chief in a rural province – nicknamed “Joe Ferrari” for his extravagant lifestyle – has fired up calls for reform.

The 41-year-old stands accused of murder, abuse of power and other offences after a drug suspect was suffocated with six plastic bags wrapped around his head in an alleged attempt to extort about US$60,000 (RM251,300).

The incident was initially hushed up and recorded as an amphetamine overdose until a lawyer revealed the cause of death in a Facebook post.

In a move typical of the networks of patronage that critics say underpin systemic corruption, Thitisan was then transferred to a regional police bureau in a nearby province – commanded by the father of his television-presenter girlfriend.

But worse was to come for him: another lawyer released a chilling video leaked by a junior policeman that appeared to show Thitisan suffocating the handcuffed suspect while other officers held him down.

The footage went viral, shocking the kingdom and prompting police to arrest Thitisan and several other officers.

Thitisan denies all the charges against him.

Sittra Biabungkerd, the lawyer who released the video, said he did it to stop police “helping each other to get away” with murder.

“Many people may think that interrogating suspects using black plastic bags no longer goes on because times have changed.

“But this case shows that in reality it is still going on in secret,” he said.

Revelations about Thitisan’s wealthy lifestyle and a string of celebrity relationships made headlines after his arrest.

Investigators told local media he owned a luxury mansion in Bangkok, a fleet of 42 top-end cars including a US$$1.5mil (RM6.28mil) Lamborghini Aventador and had a personal fortune estimated at US$18mil (RM75.4mil) – all on a police superintendent’s salary of around 40,000 baht (RM5,000) a month.

Activist Srisuwan Janya said the anti-money laundering authority has been asked to investigate Thitisan’s wealth.

“It is impossible that a man with some 40,000-baht salary can have 40 cars including luxury cars,” Srisuwan said.

Some of Thitisan’s substantial wealth came from auctioning hundreds of imported luxury cars seized by Thai customs, according to senior officers quoted in local media.

Investigators are due to hand over their findings to the National Anti-Corruption Commission tomorrow before deciding whether to forward the case to the state.

Royal Thai Police Chief Suwat Jangyodsuk has blamed the current scandal on “one bad apple”.

But public trust in the police force has long been eroded.

Almost every Thai entrepreneur, whether their business is legal or not, is familiar with paying local police just to operate – from motorcycle taxi riders and street food hawkers to brothel owners and drug traffickers.

Nearly half of Thais said they had paid bribes to the police in the previous 12 months, according to a study by Transparency International published in November 2020. — AFP

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