Tenacity pays off in toxic case

Cops probing the murder of an activist arrest two of their own

Police were under intense pressure to solve the murder case of a key environmental activist shot dead in late February while fighting against the illegal dumping of toxic waste in Chachoengsao province.

Prajob: Shot to death

After putting tremendous efforts into their probe, their hard work has finally paid off.

All the suspected gunmen and the man believed to be the mastermind behind the killing were rounded up on April 13, almost two months after activist Prajob Naowa-opas, 43, the head of Moo 14 of tambon Nong Nae in Phanom Sarakham district, was gunned down on Feb 25.

The alleged hitmen were identified as Sgt Yuthanai Najaeng, 32, and Sgt Anu Boonpheg, 29, while the suspected mastermind was 42-year-old Phuthon Kawiphan.

Mr Phuthon ran a company which allegedly dumped toxic substances into an area of tambon Nong Nae.

"This is our greatest pride to have apprehended all the right culprits," a police source working on the case said.

The source said officers were under immense pressure from their superiors.

He said villagers held doubts over the police's determination to arrest the culprits in the murder of Suthep Tongkam, another key leader, who was gunned down two years ago.

The case was dropped after the prosecutors decided not to indict the suspects.

During their investigation into the murder of Prajob, most of the witnesses kept quiet because they feared information would be leaked, the source said.

The source said investigators worked hard and pieced together details from the hotel where the suspects had planned the murder to routes leading to the killing.

One accused gunman had confessed to the murder and gave an account which matched police evidence.

The suspect's account helped convince national police chief Adul Saengsingkaew that the investigators had arrested the right culprits.

Although the locals' trust in police has been boosted over the arrests, some other key figures are still fearful of being the next target.

Tambon Nong Nae municipality councillor Sunan Nidorn, 46, said there could be more people involved in the toxic waste dumping.

He said a group of companies involved in the dumping of toxic waste had jointly raised up to 5 million baht to kill five local leaders who opposed the practice.

Two leaders had already been gunned down, Mr Sunan said, leaving 3 million baht to pay for hitmen to kill three more.

He said the key leaders found it difficult to protect themselves because many people from outside the community, including migrant workers, have moved into the area and mingled with the locals.

Mr Sunan said some local leaders had also been offered up to 100,000 baht per month by some people to find ways to stop the villagers from opposing the waste dumping.

Another local activist, Manas Sawasdee, said about five companies were involved in the illegal dumping of hazardous chemicals.

All of them may have lost considerable profits because of the opposition by locals. One of the firms which operated an engine oil recycling business, had released chemicals and oil into the public canal which was the key source for local tap water production, Mr Manas said.

Some firms had paid up to 60,000 baht per rai of land to turn it into a dumping site for hazardous chemicals in the area, he said.

Chachoengsao police deputy commander Winai Jitprung said the investigation had succeeded in rounding up all the gunmen and the mastermind.

Police have not yet established if other people are linked to the case, as claimed by villagers, since more evidence was needed.

Some officers have been transferred from the area to increase locals' confidence in the force, he said.

Police consider the Prajob murder case to be closed, said Pol Col Vinai, when asked about the villagers' call for the police to expand their investigation into the alleged plot to kill other leaders in the area.

Contact Crime Track: crimetrack@bangkokpost.co.th

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Writer: Sonthanaporn Inchan
Position: Writer