By the time his first arrest warrant was issued by Thai police in 2017, he had fled the country in his private jet. Shortly after, he was put on Interpol’s red notice, the organization’s highest alert for wanted criminals. But the heir remained elusive, and by the end of that year, three of his four initial charges had expired. The statute of limitations, common across the world, stipulates a maximum time after an event where legal proceedings can be initiated for an offense. It is intended to ensure that offenders are promptly prosecuted before important evidence is lost or witnesses’ memories become blurred, lessening the chance of unfair prosecutions. Also common around the world, however, is that the most serious crimes do not carry a statute of limitations. In recent years, countries like Japan, South Korea and Norway have abolished limits on prosecuting murder. In some countries, such as the Philippines, the limitation period isn’t clocked if the offender is out of the country. But there aren’t such safeguards in Thailand, where the longest statute of limitations is 20 years. There have been cases of murder suspects arrested just one day before their case was due to expire, while in other cases, unsolved murders were closed after two decades with no resolution. In one high-profile case in 2020, Thai officials confirmed that they would no longer be able to prosecute anyone for the rape and strangulation of British backpacker Kirsty Jones in Chiang Mai in 2000, much to the dismay of her family.
“You have charges against you, you flee to another country and stay in that country until the statute of limitation runs out, and you can come back and live a free man.”
Vorayuth "Boss" Yoovidhya, whose grandfather co-founded the energy drink company Red Bull, walks to his car as he leaves a house in London in April 2017. Photo: AP / Matt Dunham, File
For a full five years after striking and killing a man with his car, the billionaire heir to Thailand’s biggest energy drink empire continued life as normal. Vorayuth “Boss” Yoovidhya led a lavish lifestyle, documented on social media for all to see, cheering on the Red Bull Formula One racing team from VIP seats in Bangkok, posing next to his black Porsche in London, and dining in upscale restaurants with his family in Laos.
While he was eventually sent into hiding in 2017, he has managed to stay untouched for the grisly crime he committed 10 years ago—one that remains etched in Thailand’s public consciousness, and which he himself has admitted to committing. In the early hours of Sep. 3, 2012, the then-27-year-old sped at over 100 mph through the streets of Bangkok in his black Ferrari. He struck Wichien Klanprasert, a police officer on his motorcycle responding to a robbery call, dragging his body for around 100 meters, refusing to stop as he sped home. A trail of brake fluid led investigators to his damaged sports car, nestled in a mansion in one of Bangkok’s most affluent neighborhoods belonging to one of Thailand’s richest families.In a few weeks’ time, 10 years will have passed since that fatal hit-and-run—and 10 years that Vorayuth, the grandson of the late Red Bull co-founder Chaleo Yoovidhya, has evaded prosecution for his crimes. His location unknown since fleeing Thailand in his private jet in 2017, each year that passes sees Vorayuth edge closer to immunity for his crimes, as a quirk of Thai criminal law allows charges for even the most serious crimes to expire given enough time. For the Thai public, Vorayuth’s case continues to spark anger, as it has come to represent one of the most egregious examples of the impunity that elites enjoy in the country.
“It's such a perfect reflection of how law can become sort of ineffective when it has something to do with the Thai elite,” Pavin Chachavalpongpun, an associate professor of Thai politics at Kyoto University in Japan, told VICE World News. “I was born and raised in Thailand with this idea that rich people get away with things… This is a classic case. This is not the first and he will not be the last.”On Tuesday, a spokesperson of the Office of the Attorney General confirmed that one more of Vorayuth’s crimes had expired. His charge of cocaine consumption has now officially lapsed due to a new narcotics law that came into force in December last year, reducing the statute of limitations from 10 years to just five. This means that all but one of Vorayuth’s charges—which also included speeding, drunk driving, and fleeing the scene of an accident—have expired.The only remaining charge facing Vorayuth is reckless driving causing death, which carries up to 10 years in jail. With a 15-year statute of limitations on the crime, authorities are left until 2027 to bring Vorayuth to trial. They’ll have to get their hands on him first though, with rumors circulating late last year that he’s hiding out in Austria. If he manages to hold out, he’ll be free to return home, begging the question: Can someone in Thailand really get away with killing a police officer by simply evading authorities for long enough?
“Of course,” Voranai Vanijaka, a journalist-turned-politician, told VICE World News. He is the leader of the Ruam Thai United Party, a newly founded political party built on an anti-establishment platform.“Once the statute of limitation is over, he can come back. The ordinary people would not like it… But at the end of the day, he'll be back among his peers and his friends and his family and continue to live a very luxurious life in Thailand.”“What can anyone do? The system is rotten to the core.”At the top of Thailand’s social pyramid are families like Red Bull’s Yoovidhya’s, who enjoy close links with the military-aligned government. When Chaleo, the family’s patriarch, died in 2012, the 88-year-old was listed among Thailand’s top five billionaires with an estimated net worth of $5 billion, according to Forbes. The wealth of the Yoovidhya clan is now estimated at $26.4 billion, the second richest family in the country.Shortly after Vorayuth’s deadly car crash, the family’s chauffeur was initially arrested by police, who had allegedly attempted to pin the blame on a bogus suspect. While Vorayuth soon admitted to knocking down the policeman and was charged, he was released on a $16,000 bond and allowed to walk free.Vorayuth’s trial was delayed for five years while he missed multiple court dates, claiming through his attorney that he was sick or on overseas business trips. But while dodging legal proceedings, Vorayuth wasn’t exactly hiding. Just weeks after the crash, “Boss” was spotted on social media touring in his private jet. In the years that followed, he was photographed celebrating his birthday at upscale restaurants, watching a football game from a luxury box, and playing in the snow with his family in Japan. In one picture taken in 2015, he is seen posing beside his black Porsche in London, the figures “B055 RBR” (as in “Boss Red Bull Racing”) crafted on its custom license plate.
For Thailand’s most privileged who fall foul of the law, the statute of limitations is wielded as a weapon to evade prosecution for years on end—in Vorayuth’s case, 15 years. “This statute of limitation gives a loophole for the elite people who can afford to flee to another country and just wait it out,” said Voranai. “You have charges against you, you flee to another country and stay in that country until the statute of limitation runs out, and you can come back and live a free man.”But it’s not just time that Vorayuth has on his side. In July 2020, the police suddenly announced that they were dropping all charges against Vorayuth, without further explanation. Public outcry escalated over Vorayuth’s acquittal, leading to a boycott of Red Bull products. At that time, Thailand was caught in a massive wave of pro-democracy protests that saw youths railing against the military-aligned government, with Vorayuth’s case held up as representing some of the worst excesses of elite privilege. Consequently, the Thai Red Bull brand sought to distance themselves from Vorayuth, and Thai prime minister Prayut Chan-o-cha ordered renewed investigations into the case. According to the new inquiry, a blood test done on Vorayuth shortly after his crash had detected cocaine. The police claimed this didn’t make it into the original charges because it had been used as a component of his dental treatment—a claim that dentists themselves rejected. By the end of the investigation in August 2020, Vorayuth was slapped with fresh charges for drug use and reckless driving causing death. (The drug use charge was the one announced by officials this week to have expired, a little over a year after it was issued.)
With their deep pockets, the family has shown no qualms about using money to solve their criminal troubles. In 2012, the dead policeman’s brother signed a contract with the Yoovidhyas to receive 3 million baht ($96,600) in compensation. In exchange, his family agreed to not initiate criminal or civil charges over his brother’s death—though this didn’t shield them from a case brought by Thai prosecutors. “If you are common people like us, I think the case is already finished,” the policeman’s brother said in a 2013 interview. “He is going to try very hard not to be charged—or at the very least to get a suspended sentence or no punishment at all.”Politician Voranai says that if the billionaire heir walks away scot-free in five years’ time, it will send Thai people two messages. The first: “Things are still the same, the rich can get away with everything.” The second: “People will feel even more that things can no longer stay the same. We can no longer put up with this. We need a new system. We need a new mindset.” “Change has to start with the people voting the right people into office,” he added. “Change will happen. It's just not going to happen tomorrow, or even five years from now.”Follow Koh Ewe on Twitter and Instagram.