Mum's tears over slow police probe
A mother struggled to make police investigate her daughter's disappearance — then it was too late
For as long as she could remember, it was a daily ritual for single mother Patcharee Punthong, 51, and her daughter, Ploynarin "Nong Ploy" Palipol, 22, to have dinner together after work in the Tha Rue district of Ayutthaya, where they lived only steps away from the factory where they both worked. Nong Ploy usually commuted to and from work on her bike.
"Mum, please buy me some yum woonsen," Nong Ploy wrote one night in a Line message to her mother. "I'm craving something spicy tonight."
On May 21, 2014, Ms Patcharee knew that her daughter was planning to attend a meeting after work. She expected her to come home a few hours later than her normal time of 5pm.
But on that evening, as the hours dragged on, Ms Patcharee got suspicious. By 8.15pm, she thought to call Nong Ploy to see when she would be home. Her daughter did not answer.
After four attempts to get through, she realised something must be wrong. The phone line rang but no one picked up. She knew her daughter to be usually more responsive than this.
Ms Patcharee left the house and took a stroll in the area. She wandered back to the factory, where she received confirmation from staff that Nong Ploy had left the office at 8pm.
She proceeded to dial up her daughter's friends, asking them if they had any clue where she might be. But none of them could offer her anything but "I don't know where she is".
Since that day, Ms Patcharee has spent the past three years searching for her daughter. She has made several attempts to seek help from crime-solving groups and police officers. But at the end of the day, the distressed mother found herself largely alone in search efforts.
That is until one day after Mother's Day this year when she realised her Nong Ploy was gone for good.
After Nong Ploy went missing in May 2014, Ms Patcharee filed a missing person report at Tha Rue police station straightaway. However, a person cannot legally be declared missing until they have been gone for 24 hours. She had no choice but to wait until the next day.
So she returned to the station the next day. She had a small suspicion about why her daughter had gone missing -- she thought she might have been abducted by ex-boyfriend Polkrit "Es" Wiset, who Nong Ploy had recently broken up with.
"The officer on duty made a comment that my daughter might have voluntarily run away with Polkrit," said Ms Patcharee.
"He said she might come home with a baby one day. I was very upset that they made such an assumption when they didn't know what was really going on. They even had a good laugh about it. Finally, the police wrote a report and told me to wait for the investigation."
After returning from the police station, Ms Patcharee got a phone call from Polkrit. He said he had caught word that Nong Ploy had gone missing. He asked if they had heard from her.
"Did you take my daughter away?" Mrs Patcharee asked Polkrit outright.
Polkrit said "no", adding he had no involvement in the case whatsoever.
The next day, Ms Patcharee received a lead from a police officer who wishes to remain anonymous. He said he had tracked Polkrit's mobile phone signal from the number she had given to police, verifying that he was in the factory area at the time of the crime.
He was then seen going back to his native Lop Buri.
Ms Patcharee contacted Polkrit and informed him of the latest findings from the police. She demanded answers from Polkrit. She asked him, once and for all, if he had taken Nong Ploy.
Polkrit replied: "Maybe, I don't know."
Mrs Patcharee reached out to Polkrit's father to explain what had happened to her daughter. His father promised to contact his son to ask about Nong Ploy. He was unable to connect with him for three days, starting May 30, 2014. His father's phone was turned off.
PHOTO: Patipat Janthong
He has been unreachable since.
She returned to Tha Rue police station to inquire about the investigation's process. The police had a new finding -- video footage of Polkrit escorting Nong Ploy into his truck from the factory. The police wanted to know more about the relationship between the two.
Nong Ploy's behaviour changed in the time since she started seeing Polkrit, according to Ms Patcharee. She noticed her daughter becoming increasingly unhappy and unsettled.
Nong Ploy and Polkrit had known each other since they studied together at a vocational school in Ayutthaya. Nong Ploy later went to college and Polkrit to military school elsewhere.
But the pair remained together.
"Es is a jealous person," said Ms Patcharee. "He always controlled Nong Ploy, from how she dressed to who she talked to. He didn't want her to be with anyone else as he got jealous easily.
"One day shortly before Nong Ploy graduated the college, Polkrit took his stepmother and his father to my home. He wanted to ask my permission to marry Nong Ploy, but I said no. Nong Ploy didn't want to marry him either."
After the failed proposal, Polkrit contacted Nong Ploy every day on Line and Facebook. If he couldn't have her, no one else could, he told her. He sent her a message threatening to cut her face with a knife so that no one would ever desire her.
The last message he sent in April, one month before Nong Ploy went missing, said he would kill her and wasn't afraid of the police since his father was a high-ranking military man.
"My daughter got depressed and scared of all the threats she got from Polkrit," Ms Patcharee said. "It was her boyfriend who sent me these messages. I then reported this to the police officer."
CALL FOR HELP
The case wasn't making progress fast enough for Ms Patcharee's liking. She sought help from the police, but she was always patiently told to simply wait for the investigation.
One year passed and she still had heard nothing back from them.
So she travelled to Bangkok to see the Crime Suppression Division (CSD) police and the Department of Special Investigation. She also approached several TV stations and newspapers, and finally, the Ministry of Justice. Still, no one paid attention to her story.
She went back to where she started, demanding to see the Tha Rue police station after her daughter went missing. She found out that the investigator and superintendent she dealt with had been moved to another police station. She began the process all over again.
As soon as the team realised the case involved a military man, they had quickly turned it away and told her that they were afraid of getting into trouble.
It occurred to Ms Patcharee that the only person who could perhaps help her was Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha. She tuned into the news to start tracking wherever the prime minister went. She took the free train whenever she could to catch sight of him, but never got close to him.
She visited parliament to issue a complaint to Gen Prayut, but her case wasn't given even a look. She decided then that the best way to get people's attention was by using social media.
"I started to post a lot of bad things using bad words about the police and military," said Ms Patcharee. "All I wanted at that time is to be arrested for insulting military officials so that I could plead my case to Gen Prayut. He is the only one who can help me deal with his own [military] people."
That gave her more attention, but Nong Ploy remains missing. The best she could hope for at that point was that her daughter was living with Polkrit and a small family.
Still, she cannot give up searching. She spent every holiday she got to investigate herself -- that was until the end of last year when she got sick and needed an operation.
For a few months following surgery, she was unable to walk.
But she sat firmly in front of social media trying to get a sign from her lost daughter.
GONE FOR GOOD
As soon as Ms Patcharee got better, she started to take steps to file a report again. She went to Lop Buri where Polkrit was living to leave photos of Nong Ploy at shops and restaurants, and she went back to the CSD as well as local police offices in Ayutthaya.
After three years with little progress, Mrs Patcharee got a response from lawyer Ronnarong Kaewphet, who said he could help her with the case.
One police officer in Ayutthaya helped guide Ms Patcharee through the investigation process. She finally felt like she had found the right people with the right intentions. The case was now back at the Ayutthaya Provincial Police Office where Pol Maj Gen Sutthi Phuangphikul, the commander of Ayutthaya police, ordered his investigation team to solve this case.
The search was officially launched on Aug 1, 2017, and on Aug 11 Mr Ronnarong called Ms Patcharee to be on standby. The police had already found Polkrit. Like her daughter, he had been missing for three years.
"My heart was filled with joy and I couldn't stop smiling," said Ms Patcharee of the news. "I was so happy that I would finally get to meet my daughter after three years. I prepared her favourite clothes for her to change and I prepared the chocolate that she loves to eat."
She was taken to Nakhon Ratchasima, where a helicopter and ground search was under way. The police searched the area around Polkrit's house where he was said to live with his wife.
His wife, however, was not Nong Ploy.
"I fully believe my daughter was still alive until I got there," said Ms Patcharee. "Then I realised he might have killed her already. I started to cry until I passed out. My heart is broken to know that my daughter is gone for good."
After a 24-hour search, Polkrit finally presented himself to the police. He confessed to abducting Nong Ploy on the night of May 21, 2014. He said he did it because he wanted to be with her.
While she was in the back seat of his truck, Nong Ploy stabbed him in his left arm with a nail file folded inside a nail clipper she had in her bag.
Polkrit got furious at Nong Ploy for hurting him. So he turned around and strangled her to death. He then drove back to his father's house in Lop Buri to pick up three old tyres. Then he drove to Kaeng Khoi district of Saraburi where he burned her dead body on a hill there.
After three years of pushing the case, Ms Patcharee believed no one could help her investigation.
She thought no one cared to investigate her daughter's case. She started to question the justice system in Thailand and whether it might be only available to the rich and powerful.
"If the police had responded to my request quickly enough, none of these incidents would have happened," she said. "My daughter would have been rescued just in time before she was killed in this tragic way.
"I'm just a regular person with little money and no recognisable family name. Is this why I was treated differently? Is this why the case moved at such a slow pace? I can't remember how many times those police laughed at me and insulted me as being too panicked."
Maj Gen Sutthi told Spectrum that the case wasn't delayed due to Ms Patcharee's lack of wealth or its associations with military figures. It was slow, he said, because the suspect left no trace of his existence.
"I ordered Tha Rue police station to send me the files of this case and ran the check myself," he explained.
"I saw that they issued an arrest warrant from the court to Polkrit's superior when he was still an army sergeant. Then he left the army and went to live in Nakhon Ratchasima with his new wife.
"The police didn't ignore the case. They just found a roadblock that stopped them from further investigation. When I picked up this case again, I ordered my team to work on it. Within 13 days, we can finally get Polkrit to confess to the crime he committed."
Polkrit moved away to Nakhon Ratchasima. He changed his phone number and didn't use his real name to register or do transactions with the bank. When his child was born, he didn't even register his name as the father on the child's birth certificate.
Ms Patcharee doesn't believe that Mr Polkrit acted alone. She says that there were likely two other men helping him. She has a feeling her daughter was locked up somewhere secretive before she was killed. As it stands, she has no concrete evidence to back up her suspicion.
Polkrit confessed that he was responsible for the crime and that he did it on the same night he abducted Nong Ploy. He told the police he had thrown away all of the belongings she had on her in several different places so that they couldn't be found. He burned her body in Saraburi.
In November 2014, officials in Saraburi province were notified that remains of ash and human bone were found in Kaeng Khoi. They were later revealed to have a DNA match with Ms Patcharee and her husband.
"Despite the fact Nong Ploy didn't come back alive that night, my mind is now at peace knowing that the person who did this heartless thing to her is now arrested," said Ms Patcharee.
"My fear is that he will do this again to someone else when he is released from prison. I won't accept his apology and I won't forgive him. I can't after knowing what he did to my only child,
Picking up a photograph of her daughter in graduate uniform, Ms Patcharee says: "Nong Ploy, you are finally back home with me. I love you so much, you know that?" Next to the photo are Nong Ploy's ashes wrapped in white fabric. She intends to keep her daughter with her and never let her go again.
memory lane: Single mother Ms Patcharee maintains her daughter's bedroom and belongings as they were when she was still alive. A photo of Ploynarin when she was a child, below. PHOTOS: CHAIYOT YONGCHAROENCHAI
caught: Polkrit 'Es' Wiset, ex-boyfriend of Ploynarin, confessed to killing her in his truck. PHOTO: Pornprom Satrabhaya
case closure: Pol Maj Gen Sutthi Phuangphikul worked on Ploynarin's case. PHOTO: CHAIYOT YONGCHAROENCHAI
in the face of tragedy: Ms Patcharee weeps after hearing confirmation of her daughter's death. Her disappearance went unsolved for three years. PHOTO: Patipat Janthong