Joe Ferrari: The high-rolling life of Thailand's controversial ex-police chief

The shock of the Thai public was not only the video that showed the chief of the local police suffocating a suspect in torture, but also the shocking revelations about the death and torture occurring in police custody.
Colonel Thitisant Utthanaphon was the former chief of police. He was commonly called Joe Ferrari, a reference to his extravagant tastes.

Along with six other men, he was seen wrapping plastic bags around the head and neck of a 24-year old suspect arrested for selling methamphetamine. The suspect died eventually. The suspect died shortly after he admitted that he had mistreated him, but he denied asking for a bribe.

Police raided the luxury Bangkok home of Mr Thitisan and found 12 high-priced cars.

According to the Customs department, he is believed to own at least 42 cars. One of these rare Lamborghini Aventador Anniversarios, which were only 100 made, was priced in Thailand at 47 Mbaht ($1.45m, 1.05m).

How did he manage to accumulate such wealth at 39 years old on just 43,000 baht (or just over $1,000) per month?

The path to wealth and success

Joe Ferrari might not have been known if he had not placed six bags of plastic over the head the suspect.

The police failed to revive the suspect and took him to the hospital. According to investigators, he claimed that he had fallen during his arrest. The investigation of abuses committed by security forces in Thailand is rare.

The dramatic rise and fall of Mr Thitisant reveals a lot about Thailand's police force.

Most Thais associate the image of lower-ranking officers engaging in small-scale acts of extortion or self-enrichment with bumbling lower-ranking officers. This is a false perception of the institution's essential role in the country's opaque power networks.

Many young Thais are motivated to become successful and wealthy by the police.

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Paul Chambers, Center of ASEAN Community Studies at Naresuan University says that "the police have always been central to Thailand’s political power structure."

They have kept it, are armed and legitimated as a domestic enforcement agency to the palace, army and powerful individuals. They are also allowed to run endless extortion schemes with impunity, a legal mafia. Thailand is known for 'discovering' Joe Ferrari-type cases.

Thaksin Shinawatra was also an ex-student at the Armed Forces Academies Preparatory School

Born in Bangkok to an ordinary family, Mr Thitisant was awarded a spot at the prestigious Armed Forces Academies Preparatory School. He then went on to the Police Cadet Academy and graduated in 2003.

Ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra followed exactly the same career path. Both institutions allow students to establish important connections with future police and military leaders.

There, Mr Thitisant was taken to the Bangkok narcotics suppression center, then to Narathiwat, a deep south area, near the notoriously porous Malaysian border.

Officers have a wealth of illicit money to use in policing the massive illegal drug trade in Thailand. Another lucrative operation was Mr Thitisant's involvement in the confiscation of luxury cars.

Thailand has a tax of more than 300% on supercars such as Lamborghinis and Rolls-Royces. This is because Thailand is home to many billionaires.

It has led to a significant business in tax avoidance. This can be done by either bribing customs officials to report a lower value or by calling the cars parts or partially-assembled.

Supercars in Thailand are subject to taxes exceeding 300%

Some of these cars are stolen and smuggled into other countries. Confiscated cars can be auctioned. Until recently, police and officials were paid "finders fee" for around half of the car's value. This netted well-connected officers millions.

Thai customs officials claim that Mr Thitisant has confiscated 368 of these cars since 2011, which could have potentially earned him 400 million baht.

He married into a well-off family in 2009, and posted pictures of him enjoying high society events with the new wife.

In 2014, he proposed marriage to a well-known actress in a videoed ceremony. He then lowered his knees with a large bouquet and flowers.

He claimed he had divorced his wife after being challenged about his marriage. But the actress rejected him. She told Thai media in 2017 that he had promised her 230 millions baht in cash.

Most recently, he was in a relationship in Thailand with another television personality. His father was his boss and a powerful regional police commander in northern Thailand, where Mr Thitisant had been posted for the last two times.

His extravagant lifestyle and a taste for luxury cars made it difficult to conceal his wealth.

Many of Thailand's top police officers have millions in assets that they cannot possibly have accumulated on their regular salaries.

The police of Thailand play an important role in the opaque power networks that run the country.

Forbes listed Wirachai Songmetta as Thailand's 36th richest man this year. This was based on an energy company his family owned that he ran for many years while rising through the ranks. You can expect top police officers to be promoted into more lucrative positions in politics and business.

It is simple to become rich as a police officer. This is because law enforcement in this country is flexible and, to be polite, open to all kinds of opportunities.

Major Chavalit Laohaudomphan (a former police officer who is now an MP for the Move Forward party) says, "There are so many that it's hard to name them all."

Let's just say that the police can ask for bribes for illegal activities. The police will also request money for 'the cost of proceeding the case' for citizens who seek help.

"Remember, police officers at lower ranks must pay their bosses to make sure they get promoted to higher positions and earn more money."

According to one of the lawyers who saw the video, Mr Thitisant demanded a large bribe while torturing the poor suspect.

According to sources, he was a rising star in the police force, but he was a mere cog in the money-making machine. He made a lot of it himself, but funneled much of it up into more powerful players who, until his misjudgment with the plastic bags would almost certainly have protected.

Successive Thai governments promised to reform police but have not yet fulfilled those promises.