They call him “Boss.” And Vorayuth Yoovidhya, the heir to the Red Bull fortune, is certainly happy to play the part. Exorbitant wealth, friends in high places, legal impunity, moral aloofness—Vorayuth has lived like a despotic executive or a Mafia overlord. But where even those kingpins might accept, at one point or another, that the buck must stop with them, the 35-year-old Bangkok playboy—grandson of the energy-drink co-inventor—takes on no such liability.
Instead, if Thailand’s prosecutors are to be believed, he is a buck dodger extraordinaire—a light-footed, label-swaddled sun chaser who will flee exactly as far as his supercharged sports cars will carry him. Which, in the case of one ugly night some eight years ago, wasn’t quite far enough.
Early on September 3, 2012, motorcycle cop Sergeant Major Wichean Glanprasert—who had no kids of his own but planned to put his brother’s children through college—was driving along the Sukhumvit Road, one of the main strips in the Thai capital, when he was struck by a Ferrari traveling at high speed. The car dragged the 47-year-old policeman and his bike more than 100 yards down the street, crushing him under its weight and killing him almost instantly—before driving off into the night. Within hours, the city’s police force had traced a greasy trickle of brake fluid from the crash site back to a wealthy Bangkok neighborhood and the gated home of Vorayuth’s father—where they discovered a gun-metal Ferrari with a splintered windshield and a hood like a crumpled accordion.
At first, a family chauffeur was served up to take the rap. As the damning evidence mounted, Boss was admitted for questioning at a police station, his father at his side, a denim cap over his blank face. Sure, investigators reportedly found plenty of alcohol in the energy-drink scion’s system. But this, Boss’s attorney assured the officers, was simply down to the nightcap he’d drunk at home, post-collision, in order to calm his jangled nerves. The police accepted a $16,000 bail check (fronted by the family), and Boss was set free that very same day. He has been at large ever since.
The car dragged the 47-year-old policeman and his bike more than 100 yards down the street.
Now, however, the joyride may finally be at an end. Last week, the Thai attorney general announced that the case against Vorayuth—who has been in jolly exile for several years—should be reopened, and with fresh intensity. A spokesman claimed there was new evidence about the Red Bull heir’s speed at the time of the crash that had not previously been included in the police report. (A forensic expert thinks he was going 110 m.p.h., as opposed to the police-determined 50 m.p.h.)
Just a fortnight before, Thai police had said they were dropping the charges entirely—an announcement that caused an uproar among a public that has long rallied against the kid-glove justice doled out to the rich and powerful. “This case is not over because the law says if there is new evidence, we are able to proceed,” Prayut Phetkun, the attorney general’s deputy spokesman, said on Tuesday, August 4. Vorayuth, it seems, is on the hook again.
Still, this official U-turn will hardly fill the public with confidence. The investigation in the preceding years might be described as a comedy of errors, if it wasn’t underwritten by such blatant human tragedy. (Actually, the tale is far closer to a specific plotline in Succession, the scions-behaving-badly HBO drama, where the patriarch’s wayward son kills an innocent waiter in a drug-fueled crash before trotting off scot-free. But we’ll get to the cocaine in a little bit.)
It took half a year for the Thai police to prepare charges against Vorayuth for speeding, reckless driving causing death, and fleeing the scene of an accident. (Vorayuth’s lawyers have denied the allegations.) Throughout 2013, the Red Bull heir batted off seven court summonses with a litany of excuses: overseas trips, vague illnesses. The Yoovidhya clan quickly paid off the family of the deceased with a lump sum of around $100,000 in exchange for a guarantee that they would not file a lawsuit themselves.
In April 2013, the Thai attorney general pledged to indict Vorayuth, but flip-flopped soon afterward when the family’s lawyers questioned the validity of the speeding charge. By September of that year, the statute of limitations on that charge had expired, the news cycle had churned on—and Vorayuth had disappeared from public view entirely.
A forensic expert thinks he was going 110 m.p.h., as opposed to the police-determined 50 m.p.h.
Well, not entirely. As it happens, anyone with an Instagram account and an interest in the leisure habits of the global nouveau riche might have racked up a few sightings of the errant heir. Vorayuth on a Red Bull–branded jet. Vorayuth in Monaco’s harbor. Vorayuth on a ski slope in the Japanese mountains. Vorayuth in his black Porsche Carrera in London (custom license plate: B055 RBR). It was like a multi-time-zone, champagne-soaked game of Where’s Waldo, only with louder sweaters. The playboy is reportedly believed to have multiple passports, an international network of wealthy friends, and an appetite for what he perceives as the good life. His siblings, by way of illustration, go by the names Champagne and Porsche.
While Boss was at large, his cousins posted a photo on social media of the fugitive strolling into a London town house, accidentally revealing his address. In April 2017, Boss’s lawyers had told a Thai court that their client couldn’t attend hearings because he was on a mission in the United Kingdom. Reporters showed up at his door: “Boss, what is your mission in the U.K.?” they asked. “What are you doing here? Are you going to Thailand to meet with prosecutors?” Vorayuth hasn’t been seen in public since. In August 2017, nearly five years after the crash, Interpol issued a warrant for his arrest. It has so far proved useless.
This will not surprise anyone familiar with Thailand’s peculiar relationship with the young, rich, and reckless. In fact, Vorayuth’s case is an eerie echo of several others in the Thai capital. The media speaks of “Bangkok’s deadly rich kids,” citing a handful of recent cases that follow the same gruesome pattern: a young child of a wealthy or powerful family; a European sports car careening out of control; a bloodied crime scene with several dead; a handsome and hasty payout; a slap on the wrist. And then—silence. Kanpithak Pachimsawat, the son of a businessman and former Miss Thailand, rammed his sports car into a crowd at a bus stop, trapping three people underneath, killing one, and mauled the conductor with a rock. He received a two-year prison sentence.
The Yoovidhya clan quickly paid off the family of the deceased with a lump sum of around $100,000 in exchange for a guarantee that they would not file a lawsuit themselves.
Orachorn Devahastin na Ayudhya, who at 16 was too young to drive, rear-ended a van on the Don Muang tollway, killing nine. She was ordered to complete 138 hours of community service as part of a suspended sentence and banned from driving until the age of 25. Janepob Verraporn, an heir to the Lenso Group chemical dynasty, allegedly crashed his Mercedes-Benz into a Ford Fiesta on the Ayutthaya highway in 2016, causing an instant fireball. The couple inside were pronounced dead at the scene. At the time, his lawyers claimed he was not mentally fit to stand trial.
In Thailand, they speak of the power of sensai—the network of lines, strings, and connections that undergirds high society. In Bangkok, it is woven into a safety net, strung high above the average citizen, shielding the elite from the burden of responsibility. “In the pyramid of privilege, the boss stays on top,” columnist Kong Rithdee wrote of Vorayuth in the Bangkok Post in 2017. “In the food chain of injustice, the boss reminds us again, and again and again, who the boss is.”
But pyramids can be toppled. Along with the updated speeding evidence and the fresh public anger, Vorayuth may also face a new charge relating to apparent drug use. It had now emerged that blood samples, taken from the driver at the time of the incident, reportedly show cocaine in his system. (When questioned by a parliamentary committee last week, police said they had not followed up on the drug test because Vorayuth’s dentist had assured them it was simply a false positive from a medical treatment.)
At the same time, Red Bull has sought to distance itself from its wayward heir after a campaign to boycott its products in Thailand gathered momentum. TCP Group, which owns the Thai Red Bull brand, said that Vorayuth has “never assumed any role in the management and daily operations of TCP Group, was never a shareholder, nor has he held any executive position within TCP Group.” Finally, in late July, Thai prime minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, previously silent on the controversy, said that the dropped case had made him “uncomfortable” and stressed that he had never conferred personal favors. For Boss, at least, the safety net is beginning to fray.
Joseph Bullmore is an Editor at Large for AIR MAIL