BANGKOK – The dash cam video is jaw-dropping: On a virtually empty stretch of highway, a midsize car is seen traveling in the slow lane. Suddenly, a black Mercedes-Benz zooms into the frame and rear-ends the car at tremendous speed. Within a split second, a cloud of smoke and debris fill the video screen.
What happened next is now well known in Thailand and the focal point of growing outrage. The midsize car burst into flames and the couple inside, both graduate students in their 30s, died at the scene of the accident. The Mercedes driver, the son of a wealthy Thai businessman, survived with minor injuries and refused both alcohol and drug tests — and his wishes were respected. Police say he was driving at an estimated 240 kilometers (150 miles) per hour.
Since the video was widely shared on social media last week, the fatal March 15 crash has reignited a debate about the impunity of the rich and well-connected in Thailand who tend to get away with murder. A similar debate raged in the U.S. with the case of the Texas teenager who used an "affluenza" defense in a deadly drunken-driving wreck.
The Mercedes driver, Janepob Verraporn, 37, now tops a list of "Bangkok's deadly rich kids," as one Thai newspaper calls the children of privilege who have killed with their fancy cars. TV talk shows, social media forums and editorials have chimed in on a debate that asks whether justice will be served this time or — if history is any guide — if Janepob will walk away from the crime without serving time.
Police have rushed to defend themselves against criticism for initially mishandling the case and acting to shield Janepob, whose father owns a luxury car import company.
"The law is the law — whether you are rich or poor you have to pay for what you've done," national police spokesman Songpol Wattanachai said Monday, asking skeptics to have faith in the police. "Justice will be served. Just because he is rich doesn't mean he won't go to jail. I'm asking people not to think that way."
Police who initially handled the case in Ayutthaya province, about 50 kilometers (30 miles) north of Bangkok, were quickly sidelined after failing to test Janepob for alcohol and drug use — and then defending the blunder. Speaking on TV, a police commander said the suspect had the right to refuse breath and blood tests, adding that both police and rescue workers did not smell any alcohol on Janepob's breath.
Amid public uproar, police filed a charge last week against Janepob for driving while unfit or intoxicated, which carries a prison sentence of three to 10 years, said Ayutthaya's deputy police chief, Col. Surin Thappanbupha. Under Thai law, he said, a refusal to be tested is tantamount to driving under the influence.
Janepob faces another charge of reckless driving causing death and property damage, which carries a maximum of 10 years in prison. Janepob was spared provisional detention after posting 200,000 baht ($5,700) bail and is currently at one of Bangkok's private hospitals.
The Nation newspaper said in an editorial on Sunday that the case had hit a nerve in Thailand because of "the sense that there is one set of rules for the rich and influential and another for everyone else."
"Stop me if you've heard this one before," the editorial begins. "An expensive car crashes. One or more people die. A person with a recognizable name ... emerges from the wreckage and flees the scene. No breath test is administered. Compensation is offered and the family tries to wriggle their way out of any legal consequences. The police fail dismally at their job."
One of Thailand's most famous untouchables is an heir to the Red Bull energy drink fortune. In 2012, Vorayuth Yoovidhya, a grandson of Red Bull founder Chaleo Yoovidhya, slammed his Ferrari into a policeman and dragged the officer's dead body along a Bangkok street before driving away. Vorayuth, who was then 27, has yet to be charged. In that case, police initially attempted to cover up his involvement by arresting a bogus suspect.
In 2010, Orachorn Devahastin Na Ayudhya was 16 and driving without a license when she crashed her sedan into a van on a Bangkok highway, killing nine people. Orachon, the daughter of a former military officer, was given a two-year suspended sentence.
In a country that values deference and patronage, and where police are infamously corrupt, there have been many other similar cases. But Janepob's carried the added shock value of visuals. The video of the crash was taken by a nearby car's dashboard camera, and quickly went viral. A few days later, another video was uploaded and widely shared showing Janepob's Mercedes smashing through an Easy Pass toll gate about an hour before the crash.
Bangkok resident Nant Thananan, 35, was among many who expressed their exasperation on Facebook.
"It's so frustrating because there's nothing we can do. We know this case will go away. We've seen it before," said Nant, who owns a popular Bangkok food truck. "We keep asking ourselves, when are the police going to be ashamed enough to do the right thing?"
Associated Press writer Ying Panyapon contributed to this report.