Thai police opened an internal investigation on Monday after charges were dropped against the billionaire Red Bull heir in a fatal hit-and-run case as outrage boiled over a perceived culture of impunity for the rich.
Vorayuth ‘Boss’ Yoovidhya, the grandson of the co-founder of energy drink giant Red Bull, was accused of killing a police officer when he crashed his Ferrari in Bangkok in 2012.
One of the heirs to the family’s multi-billion-dollar fortune, Vorayuth’s case received renewed public scrutiny after news on Friday that all charges against him had been dropped in June.
The public has latched onto ‘Boss’ as an example of the kingdom’s ultra-rich apparently enjoying different standards, and took to social media to vent their anger.
Following a weekend of vitriol on Twitter which led to trending hashtags like #BoycottRedBull and #BossRedBull, the police spokesman announced a change of heart.
‘Police General Jakthip Chaijinda has set up an investigation team,’ said spokesman Krissana Pattanacharoen.
The 15-day probe will ‘find the facts and show transparency and justice to everyone to see whether the case followed police procedures,’ he added.
Police initially defended the decision, saying the attorney-general’s office had sent them a letter in June informing them they were dropping the charges.
One of the charges of reckless driving causing death had several more years before the statute of limitations was set to expire in 2027.
But by Sunday afternoon, under pressure, the attorney-general’s office announced it would set up a committee to investigate its own decision.
Red Bull’s maker TCP Group distanced itself from Vorayuth in a rare public statement on Sunday, saying he has never assumed any role in the company’s daily operations.
Government spokeswoman Narumon Pinyosinwat also announced that Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha was ‘uneasy’ about the decision to drop the charges, and has ordered all agencies involved to reinvestigate.
She added that the premier ‘confirms he has never helped nor interfered in the justice process’.
The investigation comes as Thailand is undergoing a burgeoning pro-democracy movement, with young Thais taking to the streets daily to protest against a government they see stacked with former military generals and royalist establishment.
Prominent senator Wanchai Sornsiri – who is seen as a pro-military establishment stalwart – took to Facebook to comment on Thais’ growing anger over issues big and small.
He said Vorayuth’s case would ‘explode at the same time that student protests are escalating’ around the kingdom. ‘It is the last straw and the fire has been lit,’ he wrote.
Thailand’s decision to drop criminal charges against Yoovidhya sparked huge backlash in the country.
Warrants for the arrest, including an Interpol red notice, of Yoovidhya, whose whereabouts are not known, were withdrawn, police said last week.
Porn-anant Klunprasert, brother of the dead police officer, expressed dismay over the decision of prosecutors to drop the charges.
‘Many of my friends called to tell me that the state prosecutors have dropped the case,’ he said. ‘It hurts me a lot. It shows no justice for the poor. Thailand has a very wide gap between the rich and the poor in every aspect, and this case is a clear example.’
Vorayuth’s current whereabouts remains unknown after he fled Thailand at the end of April 2017. He was last pictured leaving a £6.5million home in Knightsbridge, West London the same month.
‘This case is over,’ deputy police spokesman Kissana Phathanacharoen told a news briefing.
‘In June, we received a final order from the attorney general to not prosecute Vorayuth on charges of reckless driving and causing death,’ he said.
Police Lt. Col. Thanawuth Sanguansuk confirmed that all charges against Vorayuth Yoovidhya have been dropped, but the charge of causing death by reckless driving would not have expired for 15 years after the date of the crash.
The case attracted widespread attention because of perceptions that it showed the rich and well-connected have impunity in Thailand’s judicial system, which in recent years has also been criticized for alleged political bias, as have other state institutions.
Thanawuth said prosecutors who handled the case informed police last month of their decision to withdraw the last remaining charge.
‘Yes, they had informed us of their opinion to drop all charges. They are citing the fact the family members (of the police officer) have been compensated’ by Vorayuth’s family, Thanawuth said.
Vorayuth was allegedly racing down Sukhumvit Road, one of Bangkok’s main drags, in his Ferrari on September 3, 2012.
It’s believed he was at the wheel of the car that struck policeman Wichien Klanprasert on motorbike patrol on a main road in central Bangkok and dragged him under its wheels for dozens of metres.
The car then sped off, leaving the officer to die at the scene. Police followed a trail of oil and brake fluid to the Yoovidhya’s luxury family compound on a nearby side road.
Initially investigators said a chauffeur had been behind the wheel of the car, windshield now shattered, bumper dangling.
But after senior officers arrived, Vorayuth turned himself in, his cap pulled low, his father holding his arm.
Later that day, the Yoovidhyas put up $15,000 bail at the police station and went home.
The scion, whose billionaire father is Thailand’s fourth-richest man, never showed up for a formal indictment, allowing some of the charges against him to expire.
He avoided the charges against him by claiming to be ill or working overseas whenever a hearing was scheduled.
In total he missed eight summonses to appear in court in connection with the case before authorities issued a warrant for his arrest, five years after the accident.
Yoovidhya fled Thailand at the end of April 2017, just before authorities issued the arrest warrant after he repeatedly failed to meet with prosecutors.
In April 2017, the international playboy was seen leaving a £6.5million home in Knightsbridge, West London, accompanied by two female companions before climbing into a vehicle with blacked-out windows.
Later that day he, his parents and a cousin hurriedly left the address with a train of baggage.
An international request for the arrest of Vorayuth was made on August 28, 2017. The Red Notice went out to all 190 Interpol member countries.
Among other measures, it alerts border officials, in theory making international travel more likely to result in arrest. In May 2017, the authorities in Bangkok cancelled Vorayuth’s Thai passport.
The handling of the case has led to bitter criticism of the police and prosecutors, and accusations that the wealthy, well-connected family has in effect been exempted from justice.
Previously, police spokesman Col. Krissana Pattanacharoen said his agency has done everything in its power to charge Vorayuth.
‘I am not saying it is a case where the rich guy will get away with it.’ Krissana said.
‘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.’
Vorayuth’s grandfather, Chaleo, was listed as the third richest person in Thailand at the time of his death in 2012, at the age of 88, with an estimated net worth of $5 billion, according to Forbes magazine.
Many Thais saw Vorayuth’s treatment as lenient because of his family’s wealth, stirring debate about impunity for the rich.
But Kissana dismissed any such suggestion on Friday.
‘This is not a double standards,’ he said, adding that the case could be reopened if there was new evidence.
‘We are saddened by the loss of a fellow police officer,’ he said.