KHON KAEN – They became known as the “murder babes” — three Thai women in their 20s who went on the run after killing and dismembering a young bar worker.
Thai media became obsessed with the case, elevating the suspects to celebrities until they turned themselves in and confessed to the murder.
While the story continued to adorn the front pages of newspapers, some people in Thailand profited from the crime.
Young girls wanted to buy the colourful striped bags the suspects carried in the CCTV footage, and souvenirs were produced in the poorest of poor taste.
The whole saga has sickened many Thais and raised questions about the conduct of the media and police.
One of the most disturbing photos from the whole so-called “murder babes” saga was not of the crime scene or the victim.
It was a photo of a metal keychain, a product that went on sale at the height of the hype.
It was a keychain of a tiny handsaw and it was packaged along with a photo of “Preaw”, or “sour” — the nickname of Preeyanuch Nonwangchai, one of those accused of hacking up the body with a similar saw.
Why was a 22-year-old bar worker killed?
How on Earth did we get to this point of tacky souvenirs that glorified a grisly murder?
The sordid tale began in late May, when a body was discovered chopped into two pieces, wrapped in plastic garbage bags and put in bins, and buried in a shallow grave in the north-east province of Khon Kaen.
The same day, three women fled across to neighboring Myanmar while a young couple also fled to Laos.
The five of them were allegedly in a car that picked up 22-year-old Warisara Klinjui, who worked at a karaoke bar.
She was strangled and later dismembered.
The motive? According to later confessions by Preaw and her accomplices, the young bar worker had given information to police which led to the arrest of one of the women’s husbands on drug charges.
Local media alleged Preaw used and sold crystal methamphetamine, with rumours of connections to drug lords in Myanmar.
Her Facebook page documented a life of gaudy consumption — shoes, handbags, overseas trips and lots of photos of her posing with piles of bank notes.
Thai police were quick to rule out links to drug rings, satisfied the police tip-off and an unpaid debt of about $1,500 were the true reasons for the killing.
‘Beautiful face, but cruel mind’
At this point, leaked photographs caused outrage.
There was a snap of the three suspects in police custody — they were not handcuffed and two of them were applying makeup before they attended a police press conference.
Perhaps even more curiously, there were photos of Preaw with a facial cleansing mask posing with police officers. The accused murderer flashes a peace sign, a cop laughs.
Social media lit up with accusations of special treatment.
The police defended themselves, saying it was normal for female suspects to be allowed to apply makeup before appearing in front of the media.
Police then led the three women in a re-enactment of the crime.
When they reached the field where Warisara Klinjui’s body was disposed of, a wall of police officers was needed to control hundreds of angry villagers.
The Bangkok Post quoted one onlooker saying she just wanted to see with her own eyes the “beautiful face, but cruel mind”.
The suspects apologized to the family of the victim, but some Thai observers thought the apology came off as insincere.
The three were charged with premeditated murder and concealing a body.
Of the other two suspects, one said he only drove the car while his girlfriend said she was not even there.
The media devoured every scrap and tidbit. One paper even interviewed the pilot who flew the suspects back to Thailand.
Another outlet was criticised for this headline — “At least she knows how to be dutiful: A look at plans for the home Preaw is building for her mom.”
When brutal murder becomes entertainment
The case has gone quiet now but will no doubt be splashed across the news when it goes to trial.
And no doubt there will be more soul-searching about what the publicity says about Thai society.
Are people desensitized to violence by the daily dose of homicides and gory traffic accidents shown in the media?
Is reality just another form of reality TV-style entertainment? Do people just care less these days?
And the police? Well, the two officers posing with Preaw in her face mask were transferred as a result.
However, the wider implications of drug dealing and possible links to regional meth trafficking do not appear to be have been followed up.
Weeks later, the Prime Minister did come out against police re-enactments by suspects, something many here think is long overdue.
Meanwhile a family mourns the loss of their 22-year-old daughter and granddaughter.
For many Thais, Preaw has become a household name while the victim’s name has been forgotten.
For the record it is Warisara Klinjui. Her nickname was Amm.
ABC News, Australia