BANGKOK » People in Thailand often joke that prisons are reserved for the poor, because the rich and privileged tend to get away with murder.
Popular online forums were filled with commentary Tuesday about the justice system’s highest-profile test case in years, in which an heir to the Red Bull energy drink fortune allegedly slammed his Ferrari into a policeman and dragged the officer’s dead body along a Bangkok street before speeding away.
Police initially attempted to cover up the heir’s involvement by arresting a bogus suspect — underlining what many people describe as selective law enforcement and the power of political connections.
But Bangkok’s police commissioner, Comronwit Toopgrajank, then took charge of the investigation of Monday’s accident. He suspended the district police superintendent for attempting to subvert the probe and vowed to deliver justice regardless of the defendant’s family name.
"We will not let this police officer die without justice. Believe me," Comronwit said Tuesday. "The truth will prevail in this case. I can guarantee it."
Vorayuth Yoovidhya, the 27-year-old grandson of Red Bull creator Chaleo Yoovidhya, has admitted he was driving the Ferrari, but said the police officer’s motorcycle abruptly cut in front of his vehicle.
Witnesses said they saw the sports car dragging the police officer dozens of meters (feet) as it sped from the crime scene.
Police followed oil streaks for several blocks to the gate of Vorayuth’s family mansion. Photos of his charcoal gray Ferrari — with a crumpled front fender and a shattered windshield — were plastered on Thailand’s front pages Tuesday.
He faces charges of causing death by reckless driving but was released on 500,000 baht ($15,900) bail.
His grandfather, Red Bull founder Chaleo Yoovidhya, died in March at the age of 88. The Yoovidhya family was ranked the fourth richest in Thailand this year by Forbes magazine, with a net worth of $5.4 billion.
One commentator on the popular Pantip Web forum echoed the skepticism of many: "If you’re rich, the verdict will take ages to be delivered, and will then come down as a suspended sentence. If you’re poor, the verdict comes faster than the speed of light: Go to jail immediately."
That was the outcome last week for another child of privilege who killed nine people in a car crash in 2010 and was given a two-year suspended sentence.
Orachorn Devahastin Na Ayudhya was 16 and driving without a license when she crashed her sedan into a van on a Bangkok highway. A court initially sentenced her to a 3-year prison term but reduced the sentence last week, saying she had provided "helpful" testimony.
One of Thailand’s most infamous untouchables recently resurfaced in headlines. Duang Yubumrung, the son of Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yubumrung, was linked to the 2001 shooting of a policeman in a nightclub brawl. He was acquitted of murder in 2004 on grounds of insufficient evidence.
Duang has since joined the Bangkok police force and in July was assigned as a sharpshooter. News reports quoted his father as saying he was proud of his son’s skill because "His shooting accuracy is 100 percent!"
In a country that values deference and patronage, even the police oblige, said social commentator Somkiat Onwimon.
"Police are afraid of influential people," he said. "They treat the famous people differently and let them break the law."
Associated Press writer Thanyarat Doksone contributed to this report.