At five in the morning of Tuesday, September the 4th, a 27-year-old Red Bull heir Vorayuth Yoovidhya drove his million-dollar Ferrari on the road in a fashionable area of Bangkok where he hit a policeman on a motorcycle on patrol. The driver failed to stop after the impact. From the look at the damaged Ferrari it appears it had been driven fast.
The Ferrari after the accident (Bangkok Post)
How fast was the Ferrari going before the accident? Did the policeman suddenly cut in front of the Ferrari as claimed by the Ferrari driver? Did the accident happen while the driver was sober as his family lawyer claimed? The press reports from the English language papers add new details daily and contradict earlier reports. The basic facts are reported in The Nation. The Ferrari was estimated to be traveling at 200 kph when the accident happened. As with many crime and accident scenes, the press leaked information. Whether this information is accurate is another question. What we know from the press is: “Impact traces show that the Ferrari crashed straight into the rear of the motorbike, leaving an imprint of the bike’s exhaust pipe on the car’s front.”
The body of the policeman appeared to have been stuck on the bonnet; his motorbike was dragged 200 meters before the Ferrari finally drove clear of the wreckage. Before that the policeman’s body fell from the car onto the street, whereupon he was assumed to die, with a broken neck and multiple broken bones.
Was the driver drunk at the time his car rammed into the back of the police motorcycle?
According to the Bangkok Post, Vorayuth’s alcohol level exceeded the legal limit. As the test was taken hours after the accident it might be assumed at the time of the accident it was higher. Why the delay in testing for alcohol in a hit and run case involving the death of a police officer? Because the police were refused access to enter the Red Bull family compound where the driver was hiding after the accident. The family driver falsely claimed that he had been driving the Ferrari.
Influential, wealthy people don’t like inconvenient facts or evidence. One of the hugely important aspects of great wealth and power is to control information. To make certain that information channels pitch your story in the best possible light and ignore facts or evidence that might discredit that story.
We have a story to tell of the driver, the grandson of a wealthy family, who drove his heavily damaged million dollar car, leaving behind like bread crumbs a trail of engine oil from the accident scene right to the family house and underground garage. He parked the car and went into the house.
Shortly after 5.00 a.m., at the moment of impact everything changed for the two men involved. One was a cop who died. The other was a rich kid doing what rich kids do—seeking refuge in the family mansion. Vorayuth could have stopped his Ferrari and went to the aid of the police officer he had struck. It is impossible to know whether the initial impact or the subsequent dragging of the officer resulted in his death. However small the chance, it might have made a difference. At least to the driver’s humanity.
What happened next is revealing on a number of cultural, social and political levels. Let’s be honest. People panic. People make mistakes. People exercise poor judgment in a crisis, and, at this crucial time, the cultural training of a lifetime comes into play as they go into automatic pilot. This is the moment when what people are taught by their parents, schools, and others in their lives can be understood more clearly.
If you live in a place where the default is to game the system, you couldn’t ask for a better case study.
The initial contact at the family mansion was by the local police who showed up at the door and were denied entry—by a maid. The door was shut. The police walked away. Yes, an officer has been killed, and the servant at the wealthy person’s door said they could not enter. Wealth and influence induce fear and the police rather than pressing ahead, did what one comes to expect. Find a ‘middle way’—meaning a way to fix the problem. A senior police officer from the local district police station (the one where the dead officer was assigned) apparently made a deal with a servant of the family to let someone else in the household (another servant of course) to take the fall for Vorayuth. They went in the side door.
This was a hard switch to make plausible. It wasn’t as if the driver had taken the second hand pickup out for a run. Maids, gardeners, and drivers normally aren’t given the keys to million dollar sport’s cars to have a little fun early spin around the neighborhood. The set up smacked of desperation or arrogance; probably a bit of both.
I want to pause for a moment and ask you to consider how culture comes into play in such a tragedy. Privilege, entitlement, influence, connections are words we all know. They are abstract concept but with real consequences. The default action of the family and the police was to game the system.
That’s how immense power works everywhere, and it is why the rule of law is the only mechanism we have to restrain those with such power from running us over and pushing a servant forward as the ‘cut out’ or ‘fall guy’ so that the heir to the family fortune can have the Ferrari repaired and ready to drive another day.
After hours negotiation between the police and the family and their lawyer, the 27-year-old heir was taken to police station and promptly released on a USD16,000 bail.
One of the saddest aspects of the case is the likelihood that money will talk and punishment will be reduced to compensation for the victim’s family. It has happened before. After enough incidents of this kind it is difficult to not to conclude that this is how the system works. It’s not a freakish outcome; it’s a normal one where officials and someone in a rich family work out a corrupt solution to ‘fix’ the problem. If the servant of the Red Bull heir had taken the place of the driver, an innocent man would have been sent to prison to serve the time for the wrongful death. This is the heart of corruption, of the system gamers, the flaw of the patronage system—all of it played out on Sukhumvit Road, inside a mansion, the parties locked in the embrace of cover up and corruption.
It’s not necessarily that Thais don’t have a sense of justice but they have seen too many examples of impunity enjoyed by the rich and powerful when they break the law. This Red Bull heir case came just a few weeks after a ‘hi-so’ teen driver, daughter of a high ranking official, was given two-year suspended sentence after having been found guilty of reckless driving causing 9 deaths. She was just 16 and driving without license when the fatal accident happened on an express way two years ago. Besides the suspended sentence, the punishment included 48 hours of community service and banned driving until 25.
Thais are asking: Will the Red Bull heir join a long list of Thailand’s privileged youths who have killed ordinary people with their cars and have served no time? Actors, singers, celebrities, and children from well-connected families with influential surnames and ranks, are often given a ‘Get out of Jail’ card. Here is a small sample made by a Thai in 2010.
In this case, the wealthy family lost control of the information. The evidence was overwhelming and obvious who was the driver and who was lying to protect him. The senior police officer involved in the failed coverup was soon transferred to what is called in English an ‘inactive’ post. Unless you’ve lived in Thailand you might not be familiar with inactive posts. Think of an inactive post as a secular purgatory where cops, bureaucrats, and other public servants are sent. It is a temporary limbo existence for those who have been caught taking bribes, fiddling the books, planting evidence, abusing their authority or otherwise breaking the law as punishment.
The official in the inactive post continues to draw his salary and stays at home or catches up on his golf game, waiting until the scandal blows over. At the point—weeks or months—the official is quietly eased back into service. People forget about it. There is no memory. No follow up in the press. It is as if it never happened. The inactive post is what passes for ‘punishment” and justices in cases such as this one.
In other legal systems, a cop conspiring to subvert justice would have committed a serious crime. His action would be seen as undermining the rule of law and he would be arrested and charged of a crime and if found guilty sentence to prison. An ‘inactive’ post is a telltale sign that the rule of law is not a justice system that applies equally to all citizens. In this Orwellian world of fixers, the money card trumps the justice aspiration. What happened in the Ferrari hit–and-run case is not unique. If you live abroad, you know about this case because the weight of Red Bull fortune puts the family on the radar screen of the richest people on the planet. People take great interest in the lives of the rich and famous especially when they run afoul of the law. They want to know how that person will be treated, knowing the outcome will speak volumes about the strength of the legal system against the weight of money and influence.
The Bangkok city police general took control over the investigation saying that he would see the driver in the dock or he would resign. In reality criminal cases like this one often drag on for a long time. It is not uncommon for years to pass before there is a verdict. Most Thais are skeptical. Reuters published a piece on impunity for the rich and famous following this case.
“Jail is only for the poor. The rich never get punished. Find a scapegoat,” said one of a stream of comments posted on the popular Thai website, Panthip.com.
Another on news site Manager.co.th read: “He’ll probably just get a suspended sentence. What’s the cost of a life?”
Suspended jail terms do seem to be the norm for politically powerful or well-connected Thais.
There is a chance the family driver might go to jail for his willingness to take the fall for the family. The senior cop who had conspired to help the family might also suffer more than the usual punishment of a couple of month in an inactive post. They are the little people in this drama. What will happen to the driver? The Reuters report gives a hint of what most Thais believe to be the outcome.
The rule of law protects the ordinary man or woman, but inside a system of titans who are viewed as being blessed by their good karma—blood money exchanges hands. Such big people are to be respected and deferred to and never challenged. When you live in a position above the law you and your family can commit crimes knowing, that at the end of the day, you can’t be touched personally so long as you open your wallet. The amounts paid in such cases by Western standards are very small. And that’s the way things are. In a few weeks, other news will overtake this story. It will be buried. Like the dead police officer, the Red Bull Ferrari story will rest in a forgotten grave that only a few people will visit.