The encounter of Mr. Premchai and Mr. Wichian during the arrest in Thung Yai four years ago. Credit: DNP

Strong evidence and witnesses defeat Premchai in a black leopard slaying case: Prosecutors

A construction tycoon and President of Italian-Thai Development PLC, Premchai Karnasuta, and his three trip companions have been sentenced to prison from one year and eight months to two years and 21 months in a high-profile black leopard slaying case in Thungyai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary four years ago following the ruling of the Supreme Court on Wednesday. They have been defeated by strong witnesses and evidence collected at the scene, prosecutors working on the case said

The Office of Attorney General’s spokesperson team has revealed that strong evidence and witnesses during the investigation and interrogation of the case have helped defeat a construction tycoon, Premchai Karnasuta, and his companions, and the latest Supreme Court’s verdict will be studied thoroughly to lay a ground for similar future cases.

Prayut Petchkun, the office’s deputy Director-General and deputy spokesperson, responded to the question raised by the media during the press conference after the court verdict on Wednesday that strong evidence and witnesses are the key to the success in this case.

Having studied the case since the beginning, Mr. Prayut said Thong Pha Phum prosecutors in charge of the case obtained critical evidence and testimonies that helped them consolidate their indictments against the defendants.

While witnesses at the scene were interrogated thoroughly, evidence and items used in a crime scene, ranging from wild animal carcasses, those of the slain and skinned leopard included, kitchen knives, as well as rifles,  were sophisticatedly collected. All these, he said, led to the thorough indictments upon which the court had ruled.

“Following legal procedures upon which the Supreme Court ruled, that means the case will be over. That means this long-fought case which lasted from 2018 to 2021 (four years) is over, and the defendants are punished with an immediate effect without any suspension of their penalties,” said Mr. Prayut, in the interpretation of the court’s verdict.

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court delivered its verdict in this high-profile case which concerned the slaying of a black leopard for game hunting in Thungyai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary four years ago by Mr. Premchai and his companions, who at that time were a driver, a cook, and a poacher of his. This had prompted the public to be in fury as it involved the high-profile businessman, whose social status prompted fears that the case could circumvent the law.

The public has since kept an eye on the case, and closely monitored every step of the legal procedures concerned as the act was considered taboo in Thai society.

According to the Attorney General Office’s spokesperson and Director-General, Itthiporn Kaewthip, Thong Pha Phum prosecutors in charge of the case, which occurred in Thong Pha Phum district in Kanchanaburi province, the prosecutors first indicted Mr. Premchai as the first defendant in April of the same year for jointly poaching a protected species (a black leopard) without permission along with other four or five charges.

The first court then ruled in March 2019, sentencing Mr. Premchai 16 months in total, while the other three companies of his faced a jail term ranging from four months to two years and 17 months. Some of the charges were dropped against them including jointly collecting forest products and possessing carcasses of a protected species. One of Mr. Premchai’s charges was re-addressed as “supporting” possession of carcasses of a protected species (a black leopard).

The Office’s Public Prosecution Region 7 then appealed against the ruling on May 24, asking the Appeal Court to rule against them in all of the charges, while reversing the re-addressed charge to “jointly possessing” carcasses of a protected species.

The Appeal Court Region 7 ruled against them all with additional penalties. Mr. Premchai alone faced an additional jail sentence of two years and 14 months. They appealed to the Supreme Court on March 31 last year, which ruled on Wednesday.

According to the Supreme Court, their appeals were not justified and there were no reasons to suspend penalties as appealed. The Court thus ruled in favour of the Appeal Court’s verdict although making some minor changes in the reading regarding the wildlife law amendment.

Aside from being sentenced to jail for two years and 14 months without suspension of penalties, Mr. Premchai and his companions were also ordered to compensate for the loss of the natural resources to the Department of National Parks, Wildlife, and Plant Conservation worth two million baht.

“Their appeals were not heard so they were found guilty and punished without any suspension of their penalties. The case is therefore finished and closed today,” said Mr. Itthiporn.

A leopard skinned seized at the scene by wildlife rangers of Thungyai Naresuan. Credit: DNP

The trip to the slaying

According to the court verdicts, Mr. Premchai and his companions had travelled to Thung Yai Naresuan in the afternoon, February 3, 2018. They met Thung Yai’s chief, Wichian Chinwong, who suggested they camp in the Maharat forest protection site, which was around 30 kilometres away from the sanctuary’s office.

The four then travelled to the site, before deciding to camp in a non-permitted zone near Huay Prachi stream. Rangers found them camping in the restricted area the following morning and reported to Mr. Wichian of  “suspicious activities”, which led to a search of the camp and the arrest of the four suspects. 

There they had found rifles and ammunition, kitchen knives, and animal carcasses, including that of a black leopard, skinned to the bone. 

Mr. Premchai claimed in the first court that he had left the camp on his own for the Sesawo grassland, which was further away, and only returned to the camp at around 4 pm when Wichian’s assistant had arrived before the chief followed. However, this contradicted the testimony delivered by Wichian’s rangers, who said they saw Premchai at the camp from late morning to early afternoon on February 4. 

The map created by DNP’s Phaya Suea taskforce. Credit: DNP/ Phaya Suea

Due to these contradicting testimonies, the prosecutors working on an appeal led by Chief Prosecutor Somchet Amnuaysawasdi at that time conducted an additional investigation and learned that the route from the sanctuary’s office at Thi Nuay area to Maharat was straight, being only a narrow potholed route leading to the location where Mr. Premchai had camped.

Along the route, from Thi Nuay to Maharat and Sesawo, there were checkpoints with rangers stationing and visitors had to pass through and need to sign up to get permission for entry. None of the rangers on the route, however, saw Mr. Premchai passing since the first day of the group’s arrival, and this prompted the prosecutors to question whether the tycoon had travelled to Sesawo as claimed. 

According to the prosecutor team, the critical evidence was discovered around 750 metres from Mr. Premchai’s camp. Mr. Wichian and his assistant found internal organs of wildlife hidden in a dry stretch of the Huay Prachi stream, along with a shotgun shell from one of the three guns seized at the camp.

But the most critical evidence was some human faeces three metres away from the shotgun shell found by the joint investigation team, which led the prosecutors to suspect that this was the spot where the black leopard was shot and skinned. 

Forensic officers tried to project the trajectories of the bullets on the slain leopard. Credit: DNP/ Phaya Suea

Intensified investigation

Aside from the prosecutors’ work, it’s a joint effort made by the DNP’s Phaya Suea forest crime suppression task force and the forensic team from the Police Regional 7 Office, which jointly intensified the investigation and applied wildlife forensics to try to collect more pieces of the jigsaw puzzle. 

The police had conducted forensics and ballistic tests on the leopard’s skin and other remains to track the trajectories of the fatal bullets. They showed eight wounds on the big cat’s forehead, right ear, and torso, indicating that the shots came from above and from the front to the back_all probably from a shotgun. The weapons were also seized at the scene and documented as belonging to Mr. Premchai. He admitted as such when apprehended. 

In addition, the investigator team reconstructed the crime scene following trajectories from the bullet shells collected at the roadside to the points where the bullets made impacts_two in tree bark and the other two on the surface of a rock in the stream. They re-examined the traces in the trees and marks left in the rock and concluded that the marks and traces were caused by the same bullets that killed the animal,  but could not identify the exact type of bullet.

The investigators also reviewed the bullet trajectories in a lab to try to pinpoint an exact location of the shooting, but could not find it matching with any suspected locations. An examination of Premchai’s pickup truck led to an assumption that the gunshots would have originated from it. 

The graphic created as part of a crime scene reconstruction by the investigation team. Credit: DNP/ Phaya Suea

The team also searched for other possible remains and discovered a lump of black fur and bloodstains where the rangers had collected pieces of the leopard’s organs weighing 17 kilograms in total, possibly indicating the spot where the animal was skinned. A further search also led to the discovery of two leg bones and a piece of the leopard’s colon in the stream. 

Blood and tissue from the leopard and other animals killed at the site were sent to the DNP’s forensics lab. The forensic team led by the DNP’s chief of the Wildlife Forensic Science Unit tried to determine whether the flesh and blood recovered at the site all belonged to which animal and whether they were a protected species.

The lab tests confirmed that it did, while other samples sent along came from wild birds. This was a proof that the animal meat found onsite wasn’t brought there from elsewhere as claimed by the suspects.

Mr. Chaiwat who led the investigation team personally believed in the first place that the evidence found in the black leopard case was strong. Any further records concerning the case should be based on such wildlife forensics, he had remarked, pointing the work and outcomes would help the officials concerned picture what happened in the forest so they could testify or file the case to the court logically.