Police in eastern Thailand on Thursday arrested a reputed illegal casino kingpin in the city of Rayong and charged him with murder, Nation Thailand reports.
Somchai “Long Joo” Jutikitdecha, dubbed “the Gambling King of the East” by local media, is believed to own a network of illegal gambling dens that have been blamed for a surge of COVID-19 cases in the region.
He was initially arrested in February on illegal gambling and money laundering charges but was released on bail after agreeing to wear an electronic tag on his ankle.
Now, prosecutors accuse Somchai, 56, of ordering the contract killing of a taxi motorcyclist who informed police about one of his gambling dens.
Local police originally arrested Manas Imnam, 39, and Niphon Panthong, 47, for Prathum’s murder. The suspects claimed they killed Parthum because of a personal quarrel they had with the victim.
But Prathum’s family believed they were hired hitmen and demanded further investigation. The case was referred to the national police, who linked the killing to Somchai’s gambling den.
Illegal Casinos Lined to COVID
Rayong was the epicenter of Thailand’s second wave of COVID-19 in December, which health officials said had been spread through cockfights and crowded illegal casinos, many of which were linked to Somchai.
Police raided ten locations during Somchai’s initial arrest, and an additional 21 on Thursday in Rayong, Chanthaburi, Chonburi, and Bangkok.
Gambling is illegal in Thailand, except for the lottery and betting on horse racing. But it has been estimated that as much as half the population of almost 70 million people gamble regularly by illegal means.
Thailand’s illegal casinos are necessarily discreet, which means they are typically small, crowded, and poorly ventilated venues where people mingle closely, smoke, and drink alcohol – ideal breeding grounds for the virus.
Legalized Casinos on Horizon
The link between gambling dens and COVID-19 clusters has, at the very least, started a conversation about legalizing casinos.
In January, The Bangkok Post reported that Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha spoke out about the issue. He said he would consider a proposal to authorize casino gaming in a bid to curb an illegal gambling problem that is spiraling out of control.
Thailand is one of only three ASEAN nations without casino gaming, along with Indonesia and Brunei. Should that change, the country would have no shortage of takers from international casino operators.
Las Vegas Sands Corp has made no secret of its ambitions to bring a casino resort to the country. In 2015, the company’s former chairman and CEO, the late Sheldon Adelson, offered to invest up to $6 billion to build a gaming and entertainment complex in central Bangkok.