When lawyer Sittra Biekamnerd received a Facebook message from a stranger, he could never have imagined it would kickstart a scandalous series of events that would grip Thailand and bring down a police chief.
Clicking on that message led him to chilling security camera video of what appeared to show a suspect being tortured while in police custody.
He shared the video, and watched it quickly go viral.
In the days that followed, there would be six officers arrested, 29 expensive cars seized from a luxury estate, accusations of extortion and corruption, and a nationwide hunt for the cop said to be at the centre of it all: a police chief with the nickname “Joe Ferrari”.
Sittra Biekamnerd told the ABC the person who messaged him on Facebook was a junior police officer based at a station in Nakhon Sawan, 250 kilometres north of Bangkok.
“He then sent me a video clip and asked me to bring it as evidence to a court and release it to society,” the lawyer said.
This is a story that almost never came to light, but ever since it has, one development after another has shocked Thai people and intensified calls for police reform.
The video that changed everything for Joe Ferrari
Jeerapong Thanapat, 24, who had been arrested on suspicion of selling methamphetamine pills, was allegedly suffocated to death while in police custody on August 4.
Several plastic bags were put over his head during what Sittra Biekamnerd said his source told him was an attempt to extort $82,000.
In the footage, Mr Jeerapong appears to have struggled and sobbed before going quiet.
Then some of the officers can be seen trying to resuscitate him.
The local police chief, Colonel Thitisan Utthanaphon, 39, commonly known as ‘Joe Ferrari’ for his vast collection of expensive cars, is accused of being the main offender.
“I was shocked to see that in this era, there was such abuse of a police suspect. What about his human rights?” Sittra Biekamnerd said.
The lawyer said he had heard rumours about a death in police custody in Nakhon Sawan two weeks before receiving the video, but the incident was reported as a drug overdose.
The footage he uploaded suggesting otherwise has been viewed more than 5 million times.
“In Thailand, if a case doesn’t get interest from the media or society, it can be slowly investigated or twisted or the accused might be dismissed, but when a case gets high attention, it can be investigated quite fast,” he said.
If the CCTV footage had never been leaked, Joe Ferrari might still be enjoying the lifestyle that earned him his nickname.
Joe Ferrari’s extreme wealth exposed during police search
The CCTV footage dominated the news and shocked the public, with some Thais drawing comparisons with the death of George Floyd, the African American man murdered while in police custody in the United States last year.
As investigators began rounding up the officers allegedly involved, Colonel Thitisan went on the run, but eventually handed himself into police hundreds of kilometres south of his station.
As that was happening, revelations about his wealthy lifestyle, flashy cars and celebrity connections were making headlines, and news footage of a police search of his home would shock Thais once more.
It showed a luxurious mansion on a beautifully landscaped property, with several garages housing a fleet of expensive cars.
Thailand’s Department of Special Investigations (DSI), which investigates complex criminal cases, told the ABC the policeman owned 29 cars in all.
His collection included a rare Lamborghini Aventador, a Ferrari, four Porsches, six Mercedes-Benz, three Audis and a Bentley.
Despite working as a civil servant and earning a meagre salary of about $1,700 a month, no-one had publicly questioned or investigated how Joe Ferrari could afford such a collection — until this case came along.
How Joe Ferrari built his wealth
It has been widely reported in Thailand that Colonel Thitisan did not come from money, but was born into an ordinary family in Bangkok.
He studied at the Armed Forces Academies Preparatory School and graduated from the Police Cadet Academy in 2003.
His first wife came from a wealthy family, his next partner was a high-profile actress, and his most recent girlfriend is a well-known television personality whose father was one of his superiors.
Thai media says Baitoey Pornpjee Sirisit is currently taking a break from her TV work because of stress.
Colonel Thitisan spent much of his career policing Thailand’s illicit drugs trade, but has also been involved in confiscating luxury cars illegally imported by people trying to avoid paying the high taxes Thailand imposes.
This can be a lucrative enterprise.
After the cars are confiscated and court processes are complete, the government sells them at a public auction, and any informants and police involved in their seizure get a cut of the sale price.
“It was 30 per cent for informants and 25 per cent for officers, but the law has recently changed to 20 per cent for informants and 20 per cent for officers,” Mahesak Punsanga, from the Department of Special Investigations, told the ABC.
Up to $205,000 can be awarded per case.
“Cases of Customs avoidance are dangerous cases.
“Most of the accused people will fight and are armed with weapons, which makes it risky work, so the [financial] reward is a motivation for officers.”
Investigators have reported Colonel Thitisan confiscated 410 cars over the past decade, and had received payment for 405 of them, which earned him about $24 million.
Even so, Mr Mahesak told the ABC he believed there were loopholes in the system and said his team was investigating whether Colonel Thitisan took advantage of them.
“We are trying to investigate his money transactions,” Mr Mahesak said.
“He claims that his assets come from rewards from seizing Customs avoidance goods. Is it true or not? I don’t think all of it came from that.”
Thai Customs officers took the ABC to a multi-storey car park beside a motorway in Bangkok, where hundreds of impounded vehicles were stored awaiting a public auction.
At the top end of the scale were Lamborghinis, McLarens, Porsches, BMWs, and Bentleys — once polished showpieces, now covered in grime from pollution, with deflated tyres sitting in inches of rainwater.
Five luxury cars seized by Colonel Thitisan sat amongst them waiting to go under the hammer.
What now for Joe Ferrari?
When Colonel Thitisan was eventually put in handcuffs after handing himself in, the case took another bizarre turn.
The cop-turned-detainee was allowed to phone into a late-night press conference organised by police, where he claimed the suspect’s death was an “accident” and denied being corrupt.
He has been charged with murder by torture, deprivation of liberty, and abusing his power.
Since the press conference, Colonel Thitisan has denied all the charges and vowed to fight them.
On October 4, a court in Nakhon Sawan will hold a two-day hearing to determine the exact cause of alleged drug dealer Mr Jeerapong’s death.
Colonel Thitisan is expected to go on trial in the months ahead, and is also the subject of corruption investigations.
Thailand’s former Human Rights Commissioner Angkhana Neelapaijit told the ABC she believes this case was “only the tip of the iceberg”.
“This was the first time that I saw CCTV [of torture] but I have listened to many victims and during my time as human rights commissioner I investigated a lot of cases of torture,” she said.
“This is what happens in reality in the Thai justice system.”