Family members, friends and local residents hold a picture of Sornchai Sathitrakdamrong and banners during a rally at the provincial hall on Jan 5 asking Chiang Rai governor Narongsak Osotthanakorn to intervene after police arrested what many believed was the wrong man for his killing. (Photo by Chinnapat Chaimon)

An army private has turned himself in to police to face charges in the shooting death of a driver at a checkpoint in Chiang Rai, for which a local official had been arrested earlier.

Pvt Wanchai Champa was accompanied by his boss, Col Worathep Bunya, who commands the 17th Infantry Regiment in Phayao, to report to Provincial Police Region 5 in Chiang Mai before he was handed over to Mae Suai police for interrogation.

The 22-year-old soldier faces four charges, including murdering Sornchai Sathitrakdamrong, 35, on the night of Jan 2 in Mae Suai district of Chiang Rai, after he failed to stop a car at a makeshift checkpoint at Ban Mae Tam. He was taking his girlfriend, Sirirat Yaepieng, to Chiang Mai at the time.

A clip from his car camera showed the area was dark with dim flashlights and some hands gesturing the driver to stop.

Sornchai was shot in the back of the head shortly after passing the checkpoint, losing control of his car which slammed into a roadside electricity pole.

Loval authorities had set up the checkpoint to improve safety in the area .

After the fatal shooting, Sornchai’s family, friends and local residents rallied at the Mae Suai police station to demand the arrest of the gunman.

Police apprehended Wutthichai Injai, the assistant village chief of Ban Pa Hieng, on Jan 4. But the protesters were not convinced that he was the one who pulled the trigger.

Mr Wutthichai’s family came to Bangkok on Wednesday to ask the national police to take over the case from local officers.

Mr Wutthichai, who was at the checkpoint with other local authorities when the shooting took place, denied the charges, although he admitted firing his 9mm handgun into the air.

The case took a twist after an autopsy by forensic police showed Sornchai was shot by an M16 bullet, not a 9mm pistol. It later turned out that a number of soldiers, including Pvt Wanchai, were at the checkpoint on that night.

The 37th Military Court on Thursday issued an arrest warrant for the soldier, leading to his surrender. He was whisked away to Mae Suai after a brief interrogation at Provincial Police Region 5 headquarters. The police did not parade him out in public as is often the practice.

Pol Lt Gen Poonsap Sapprasert, the regional chief, on Friday confirmed the surrender and said the soldier was not another scapegoat. “The real suspect has definitely been arrested,” he said.

The bullet killing the driver matched the M16 rifle of the soldier, he added.

Lawyer Songkan Atchariyasap, who helped the family of the victim, told a Channel 33 news programme that evidence supplied by the family was sufficient to implicate the soldier.

Army chief Gen Chalermchai Sitthisad said the fatal shooting could have stemmed from a misunderstanding by the soldier.

He admitted he was surprised to learn that soldiers were helping local authorities man a village checkpoint. Their presence could be because of reports of drug trafficking in the area, he added.

News Reporter

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