The cool cop who brought in 'the Godfather'
He's credited with putting an end to one of the most highly publicised fugitive hunts in modern Thai history, but the celebrity he's obtained sits uneasily with Pol Col Athip Thaennil.
- Published: 17/02/2013 at 12:00 AM
- Newspaper section: topstories
The investigator, who led the team that brought down the notorious ''Godfather of the East'' Somchai ''Kamnan Poh'' Khunploem after, relied more on technology and smarts than brute force and bravado in his investigation. And he is likewise a bookish type, who confesses to feeling ''a bit awkward'' when people stop him on the street following his headline-grabbing success in putting an end to Kamnan Poh's seven years on the lam.
''Since we caught Kamnan Poh, people have become familiar with my name and my photo,'' he said. ''However, this doesn't affect my life at all. I'm neither excited about the recognition nor especially happy. I don't really feel I'm in the spotlight.''
Pol Col Athip, commander of the Special Forces Unit of the Crime Suppression Division (CSD), knew from an early age that he wanted to follow in the footsteps of his father.
Pol Col Athip's dad was the late Pol Col Sorasi Chin-aram, former deputy commander of the Metropolitan Police Bureau's Region 1 in charge of investigation.
''As a kid, I always dreamed of being a policeman because I admired my father,'' said the 42 year old. ''I was practically raised at the police station and I vividly remember the old wooden two-storey building and the rough red dirt road my father drove his blue Volkswagen to work on.
''He took me everywhere he could because I was his only son and I enjoyed tagging along with him.''
That early passion translated quickly into a career that saw him advance rapidly through the ranks. After graduating from the Royal Police Cadet Academy, he was appointed deputy inspector in charge of investigation at Sutthisan police station, then Phahon Yothin station, and not long afterward taking on the same role at Bang Sue police station.
His career has always been focused on criminal investigation _ questioning suspects and victims of crime and gathering evidence for the court.
Investigators conduct most of their work at the station, which at first jarred with Pol Col Athip who wanted to be a detective and have a taste of the action on the streets.
Growing up as he did, he realised that a detective's life was not nearly as glamorous and action-packed as it's made out to be in the movies, but he confesses that the Hollywood image did influence his ambitions. And at any rate he didn't want to be behind a desk, but ''go out there and fight the bad guys''.
It was that desire that led him to ask his dad _ at the time the deputy commander of the Northern Metropolitan Bureau _ to pull strings and get him assigned as a detective.
His father listened to his plea, but said _ and did _ nothing.
''I was very angry at my dad and didn't talk to him for a year. I didn't understand why he wanted me to remain an investigator when I was dying to be a detective,'' he said. ''But as the years passed I realised how perceptive he was. My dad knew that the job of investigator requires a lot of skills _ tactfulness, problem solving skills and an attention to detail _ to be able to gather all the evidence for the court.''
A MENTOR AND AN OPPORTUNITY
Pol Lt Gen Pongpat lays much of the credit for the Kamnan Poh's capture with Pol Lt Gen Pongpat Chayaphant, Central Investigation Bureau (CIB) commander, who he said devised the operation. And it was Pol Lt Gen Pongpat who gave Pol Col Athip the opportunity to realise his dreams of being in the thick of the action.
Pol Col Athip said that when Pol Lt Gen Pongpat was appointed CIB commander, the bureau had many high-profile cases on the go, but one in particular stands out in his mind. Walking by the the young cop one morning, Pol Lt Gen Pongpat asked him if he was free to accompany him to investigate a homicide in Cha Choeng Sao province.
''During the long drive, he taught me so many things. I remember, for example, that we talked about preliminary investigation and crime re-enactment. That was four years ago. The lessons learned in the car that day laid the foundations for my police work,'' said Pol Col Athip.
From that day on, Pol Col Athip's carer path has been on the upswing, and he's even been able to live his old dream, as Pol Lt Gen Pongpat has given him detective duties on several occasions.
Pol Col Athip has made significant contributions to several investigations pertaining to national security and was recommended by Pol Lt Gen Pongpat for the position of of chief of the CSD's 5th subdivision despite his youth, and a year later moved to his present position as commander of the Special Forces Unit.
Pol Col Athip said he's happy with how his career has developed and credits Pol Lt Gen Pongpat with helping him develop his technological skills, which he says now play an essential role in his investigations.
He has also had the opportunity go abroad for training, for example taking courses VIP protection in the US in 2011 and modern investigation in Canada last year.
Pol Col Athip says that his time spent interviewing both criminals and their victims has also taught him a great deal about human nature. These skills were also sharpened under the tutelage of Pol Lt Gen Pongpat, he said.
TRACKING THE KAMNAN
The operation to bring in Kamnan Poh took more than two months to carefully plan and quietly execute. According to reports, even the chief of the CSD, didn't have a clue about it until Kamnan Poh was nabbed.
It all started in early December last year when Pol Lt Gen Pongpat received a letter of complaint from residents of Chon Buri who said they'd seen the fugitive moving about in the province. The letter gave clues as to where he might be hiding out, and ridiculed local officers, accusing them of being afraid to take down the former mobster even though it was common knowledge he was seen openly out in public at times.
Kamnan Poh is the father of two highly influential politicians: Culture Minister Sonthaya Khunploem and Ittipol Khunploem, the mayor of Pattaya.
In response to the letter, Pol Lt Gen Pongpat authorised Pol Col Athip to lead the top secret operation to bring Kamnan Poh to justice. He formed an undercover team of 30 officers. They talked to locals who said they had seen the fugitive, and also checked leads from the internet, which turned to be very useful as many people randomly posted reports of sightings of Kamnan Poh. Many even said he often stayed at his old mansion in Chon Buri.
Pol Col Athip, along with inspectors Pol Lt Col Songrak Khunsri and Pol Lt Col Wattana Pol-Ngarndee, went to Chon Buri and divided their team of 30 into 10 units covering most areas of the province, also assigning some officers at crossing points on the Thai-Cambodian border. At the end of December, after gathering information and staking out various places including the mansion, Pol Col Athip and his team were certain that the fugitive hadn't fled the country and was in fact living in his old home.
By then the investigative team was familiar with Kamnan Poh's daily schedule, and they knew he regularly travelled to Bangkok to receive medication for nose cancer and high blood pressure at Samitivej Srinakarin Hospital in Bangkok. On Jan 30, as soon as his black Lexus left the mansion, undercover officers followed him, and the arrest was made as he left the hospital.
The downfall of the ''Godfather of Chon Buri'' began when he was implicated for masterminding the murder of political rival Prayoon Sitthichoke at a wedding reception in March 2003. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison for that crime and another five for a corruption charge, but jumped bail after sentencing.
Pol Col Athip told Spectrum that he never thought he would be assigned to lead such a high-profile operation, but when he was informed he'd been chosen by the CIB commander he said he felt ''surprisingly calm''.
''When the assignment came, all I thought was that I must do it and I was capable of doing it. I've always believed that if I try my best, I will succeed.
''There's no room for failure in a case like this. However, it's not the hardest or riskiest case I've been involved in,'' he said. ''Being on the trail of a hitman or a terrorist is much more dangerous. They're armed, ready for a do-or-die situation, and may even carry a bomb.''
LIFE AFTER FAME
As the man who finally brought Kamnan Poh to justice, Pol Col Athip achieved instant acclaim, but he is quick to divert praise. ''All the credit doesn't go to me, of course. It was a team effort , based upon a masterful plan organised by my boss, Pol Lt Gen Pongpat.''
He said in the age of the internet, the sources of information _ both useful and diverting _ are numerous and the challenge for a detective to parse through it all is all the more complicated. ''A detective now must be more focused, well-rounded and open to many sources of info,'' he said.
Pol Col Athip says that he's always ready to be called into the action, but he does make a point of finding time to relax.
On weekends if he's not on assignment, he enjoys riding his bike in the mornings, sometimes going as far as 20km. When his schedule is tighter he can often be seen jogging around his department headquarters.
''My favourite sport is shooting. It helps in my work and also with my concentration. You need to be all set when you pull the trigger,'' he said. ''I don't fire a gun outside the shooting range unless I need to, because once the bullet flies it could cost a life.''
Pol Lt Col Athip also enjoys photography, which he says helps sharpen the skills he uses to track criminals. ''Taking a photo is a well-balanced combination of art and science,'' he said. ''You need to know the basics well enough to capture a good image, but you also need to be artistic in order to catch emotion and portray it in photos.''
Pol Col Athip is a bachelor, and helps to take care of his mother and his sisters' children. But he's not ruling out marriage, saying he's still young enough to take that step when it comes. For now he's happy with his life and the opportunity to serve his country.
About the author
- Writer: Wassayos Ngamkham
- Position: Reporter