In 2012, the driver of a Ferrari, an expensive Italian sports car, hit a motorcycle police officer in Bangkok, Thailand, dragged him along the road and fled.
A trail of brake fluid led investigators to the home of one of the country’s richest families. The car belonged to Vorayuth Yoovidhya. His grandfather co-found the Red Bull energy drink company. Forbes magazine estimates the family’s net worth is around $10 billion.
The first reports said a family employee had been driving the car, which was heavily damaged -- its windshield shattered. After top officers visited the house, Vorayuth, who was 27 at the time, went to the police station with his father. The Yoovidhyas paid $15,000 bail at the police station and Vorayuth went home.
Almost five years later, Vorayuth has avoided legal action against him. The statute of limitations on some of the charges against him – will end this year.
Government lawyers have ordered Vorayuth to court to hear the charges against him, but he has not appeared. His lawyer has given different reasons for the absence, including sickness and involvement in international business deals.
Enjoying family’s wealth
Many people thought Vorayuth was hiding in Thailand or overseas, living a quiet life and hiding his identity when in public. But the Associated Press news agency reports that the Thai man is not hiding. It found that, within weeks of the accident, Vorayuth was out in public enjoying his family’s wealth. AP says he often flies around the world on company airplanes, attends car races, and drives around London in a costly sports car.
The AP says it tracked him easily by reading social media messages. Reporters for the news agency found Vorayuth and his family on vacation in Luang Prabang, Laos, at a $1000 a night hotel. The reports say the family ate at a costly restaurant, visited temples and swam in the hotel pool before flying home to Bangkok.
The lawyer for the Yoovidhya family did not answer Associated Press requests to talk to Vorayuth.
Police officer was first to leave family’s farm
Police Sergeant Major Wichean Glanprasert was the victim of the hit-and-run. It happened in the morning of September 3, 2012 on one a main road in Bangkok.
The youngest of five children, Wichean was the first in the family to leave the family’s coconut and palm farm. He paid for his parents’ care until they died. He helped his sister, who had cancer. He had no children, but planned to pay for his brother’s children to attend college.
Vorayuth’s lawyer met with Wichean’s family. They accepted a payment of about $100,000. In exchange, they agreed not to demand that Vorayuth face criminal charges.
In this Sept. 3, 2012, photo, a Ferrari, that was driven by Vorayuth Yoovidhya, a grandson of late Red Bull founder Chaleo Yoovidhya, and a motorcycle, both involved in an accident, are displayed by police in Bangkok, Thailand.
Comronwit Toopgrajank was the head of Bangkok’s police department when the accident happened. Many people believed Vorayuth’s wealth and his family’s power would keep him from being punished. But Comronwit promised the driver would be punished.
“We will not let this police officer die without justice, believe me,” Comronwit said. “The truth will prevail in this case. I can guarantee it.”
But when Comronwit retired in 2014, Vorayuth had not been punished. Comronwit now says “I am disappointed.”
A culture of impunity
Critics say the lack of progress in the case shows that rich people in Thailand are not held responsible for violating the law. The country has struggled with the rule of law for many years.
Chris Baker is a British historian. He and his Thai wife have written a lot about inequality, wealth and power in Thailand. He said he is not surprised that Vorayuth has not been tried.
“There is most certainly a culture of impunity here that big people -- which means, roughly, people with power and money -- expect to be able to get away with a certain amount of wrongdoing,” he said. “This happens so often, so constantly, it is very clearly part of the working culture.”
Vorayuth is not the only child of a rich family who has not been punished for a suspected crime.
Last year, the son of a rich Thai businessman was speeding in his car when he hit a smaller car. The crash killed two graduate students. No legal action has been taken.
In 2010, a 16-year-old daughter of a rich former military officer crashed her car into another vehicle, killing nine people. The girl was sentenced to two years but did not go to prison. She was instead ordered to do community service.
The strong ties between money, power and politics in Thailand have led to government overthrows and violent protests.
In 2006, a billionaire prime minister was found guilty of corruption. He avoided jail by living outside of Thailand. In 2011, his sister came to power. The military removed her from office.
Vorayuth Yoovidhya's family owns Red Bull and sponsors the Red Bull Racing team.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha is a former commander of the Thai Army. He says he will fight corruption and crime. But the lack of action against Vorayuth and other rich people make it difficult for Thais to believe him.
Police spokesman Col. Krissana Pattanacharoen said his agency has done everything it is able to do to charge Vorayuth. And the agency has told Vorayuth’s lawyers that he must appear at the prosecutor’s office on Thursday, March 30.
“I am not saying it is a case where the rich guy will get away with it,”' said Krissana. “I can’t answer that question. But what I can answer is, if you look at the timeline here, what we did, by far there is nothing wrong with the inquiry officers who are carrying out the case.”
Pokpong Srisanit is a law professor at Thammasat University. He says the situation is “not normal,” but appears to be legal. He says Thai law is flawed by the statute of limitations. If enough time passes between a crime and the legal action to deal with it, people can escape punishment.
I’m Jonathan Evans.
And I'm Kelly Jean Kelly.
The Associated Press news agency reported this story from Bangkok. John Smith adapted the report for Learning English. Hai Do was the editor.
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Words in This Story
trail - n. marks, signs, ... left behind by someone or something
brake fluid - n. oil used in device to slow or stop a vehicle
shatter - v. break into many small pieces
bail -n. money given to a court to allow a prisoner to leave jail and return later for a trial
statute of limitation - n. a law that states the amount of time that must pass before a crime can no longer be punished
prevail - v. to win, especially in a long or difficult contest
disappointed - adj. sad, unhappy
rule of law - n. a situation in which the laws are obeyed by everyone
impunity - n. freedom from punishment
roughly - adv. not exactly but close in meaning
constantly - adv. happening all the time
inquiry - n. request for information
flawed - adj. having a mistake, fault or weakness