Thai nursery massacre unfolded over three hours of horror

  • Gunman was a fugitive, firing pistols at home
  • The village chief warned him against violence
  • Police admit the response has been slow

THA UTHAI, Thailand, Oct 12 (Reuters) – In the days before killing 36 people, including 22 children, who were stabbed to death in their sleep, the former police sergeant behind Thailand’s worst massacre fired guns in his backyard.

For several nights, the sound of 34-year-old Panya Khamrap’s 9mm pistol broke the silence in the sleepy village of Tha Uthai, neighbors said.

It was the latest display of violence from the former police officer who was once a village success story and spiraled downward into an angry, introverted man, though he still possessed some of the authority his old job had bestowed on him.

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“How were we supposed to report him to the police? He was the police,” said Phuwan Polyeam, 29, who lives nearby with her two children.

Panya killed the 36 people in a three-hour rampage through the district where he was born, shooting and stabbing neighbors, including a childhood friend.

The 22 child victims in the kindergarten were boys and girls between the ages of two and five. Seven are in the hospital.

The violence – the deadliest massacre of children in recent years – has stunned the country.

Authorities initially blamed drugs. Panya was described by police as a methamphetamine pill user known as yaba and was released in January for drug possession.

But an autopsy found no trace of drugs in Panya’s system on the day of the killings, Thursday last week, police said.

Thailand’s Deputy Police Chief Gen. Surachate Hakparn told Reuters the violence was due to “exploded emotions”, citing his dismissal from the police force as well as legal, financial and family issues.

Panya’s movements that day are unclear. There have been several killings in different locations and the police have yet to release a full report.

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Reuters compiled a timeline of events through interviews with neighbors, witnesses and an investigating officer.

They told of three hours of horror and a slow police response. Telephone records confirmed many details.

Surachate acknowledged that police response had been slow and officers arrived too late to stop the killing. He also pointed to the law, which prohibits even licensed gun owners from shooting at home or in public.

“If there had been an arrest, maybe that wouldn’t have happened,” he said.

CALMING SIGNS

Nong Bua Lam Phu is a poor northeastern province with lush paddy and sugar cane fields.

Raised in the remote village of Tha Uthai, Panya attended high school before landing a law degree at one of Bangkok’s top universities. He later got a job in the police force, working in some of the capital’s most affluent neighborhoods.

But in 2020 he came back home. Recently divorced, he moved in with a woman who worked in a karaoke bar and her son.

He worked at a police station but was fired in January for drugs. Colleagues said he got heated and started fights.

There were other worrying signs. A neighbor said he locked his girlfriend and her son in when he left the house.

The deputy chief of a neighboring village told media Panya had praised the 2020 massacre of 29 people in another province by a soldier and said he had killed more. She declined an interview.

Another neighbor said that days before his killing spree, the village head warned Panya about his behavior. They quarreled and the village head was scared, said neighbor Suwan Tonsomsen. The boss could not be reached for comment.

Early in the day of the massacre, Panya had a court date on a drug charge. The verdict was to come the next day. Before dawn, neighbors heard him arguing with his girlfriend in their small house on the outskirts of the village. Police said she told him she was leaving him.

‘SO FAST’

Reuters was unable to determine what happened in court, but media, citing neighbors, reported that Panya’s lawyer had asked him to show evidence of good character. Another neighbor told Reuters he saw Panya’s mother with his diploma.

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When he returned home, police said Panya’s girlfriend and son were gone.

Around noon he drove off in a white pick-up truck. As he turned a corner, he collided with a man on a motorcycle in front of a small shop. According to witness Sombat Rattani, who ran the store, he rolled down the window and shot him dead.

The mortally wounded man crawled to the store and asked for help, Sombat said. He saw Panya through the window, his gun pointed at him, and thought he was going to die. They knew each other. Panya had bought water from his shop.

Panya didn’t shoot. Instead, he drove to an intersection where he rammed into a group of people, exited his truck, and stabbed them. Three died and several were injured.

From there he drove to the administration complex where the Uthai Sawan Child Development Center, a pink one-story building, stands next to a government office.

When Panya arrived around 12:30 p.m., the kindergarten teachers had put the children down to sleep

He attacked people in the yard, shooting some, slashing others with a long blade that farmers use to chop crops.

Several people were killed there.

“Everything happened so fast and there was blood everywhere,” said office worker Kittisak Polprakap, 29.

“I saw the wounded and the dead sitting around a table as if nothing had happened.”

people ran. Two female employees, Jidapha Boonsom, 48, and Saowaluk Keeta, 25, burst into an office overlooking the nursery.

Some employees called the police but were told they were employed elsewhere.

Panya shot and kicked the children’s room door twice, a witness told the media. For about 20 minutes he went from room to room, shooting teachers and slashing children with his machete.

Some teachers fled over a wall, but not Supaporn Pramongmook, 26, who was eight months pregnant. Another teacher, Maliwan Lasopha, tried to persuade Panya. As children they had played together.

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He killed them both.

‘WHAT DO YOU DO?’

The clerks said Panya calmly came out with the blade and drove off.

News of the violence spread with photos surfacing on social media. Suwimon Sudfanpitak, the aunt of one of the children killed that day, rushed to the complex to see two bodies outside the kindergarten. “His teacher came to apologize and said there was nothing she could do to save the kids,” she said.

The only child to emerge from the nursery unharmed, a three-year-old named Ammy, was carried out with a blanket over her eyes.

After driving back to his neighborhood, Panya was approached by a neighbor. “What are you doing?” asked the man. “I’m here to fucking kill you,” Panya replied. He shot the neighbor dead before fatally attacking another, witness Phuwan Polyeam said.

Another villager, Suwan’s daughter-in-law, hid in her home with her two children and put her hand over her young son’s mouth to keep him quiet while she frantically texted Suwan. “He’s here,” read one.

Suwan’s phone records showed numerous calls to the police. “They said there weren’t enough police,” she said, and they had to wait for a commando unit. “It took a while,” she said.

Suwan said after Panya tried to set fire to her car, he left. He went back to his home where around 3pm he burned down his truck, shot his girlfriend, her son and then himself.

The community falters.

“Everyone gets depressed,” said shopkeeper Sombat. “But the solution isn’t crime… Why did he attack and hurt children? We ask ourselves that.”

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Additional reporting from Panarat Thepgumpanat, Panu Wongcha-Um, Vorasit Satienlerk, Chayut Setboonsarng and Ardchawit Inha; writing by Poppy McPherson; Edited by Robert Birsel

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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