Janchai Nakeawngam, a 19-year-old Thai, was working as an administrative assistant in a Bangkok insurance company. Her coworkers found her cute, child-like even. She liked to pose for photographs with stuffed toys. She had chubby cheeks, and shoulder-length black hair. She was the kind of coworker you could find at multiple offices across the Thai capital, girlish and naive. Unremarkable. It was her first job, and she was proud to be bringing in a pay check.

There was a new man in the office, and he was causing a stir among the assistants. Apichai Ongwisit was 29, a decade older than Janchai, and he carried himself with the air of Bangkok’s upper classes. He had a shaved head, thick eyebrows, and sensual lips like those on a stone Buddha. The office assistants found him handsome. He was light skinned, thanks to his Chinese heritage. What’s more, unlike others, he drove his own car to work.

Janchai watched from her cubicle as Apichai moved smoothly around the office, as if he’d been working there his whole life. In fact, this was only his first day on the job selling insurance policies.

He worked the phones, and at the end of the day, there was a hubbub around Apichai’s cubicle. He’d sold a policy for $30,000. On his first day! Everyone gathered around Apichai’s cubicle and the boss came in to offer congratulations. Janchai also came over and nervously said well done. Apichai, smiling, held her gaze and she felt a small palpitation.

Janchai at the time she met Apichai. (Courtsey of Janchai Nakeawngam)

Janchai had never had a serious relationship and, over the next week, she found herself gravitating to Apichai’s desk. He was bringing in more business. He was charming everyone, and he seemed to be paying attention to her, like no one had ever done. He would stop by her cubicle to chit chat. He was reserved but polite. There was something other worldly about him.

One evening, the company was hosting an evening get-together and Apichai offered to drive Janchai in his car. The couple walked out of the office together into the humid Bangkok air. She could sense Apichai was interested in her, and was thrilled by the attention of a man a decade her senior.

He opened the door for her. They drove out from the garage at the office, chatting away about the company and colleagues. Janchai realized then they were not headed toward the event venue, and mentioned this to Apichai. He smiled back at her but didn’t answer. He kept on driving. Janchai couldn’t figure out what was going on, but she had a feeling something wasn’t right.

He pulled the car over and calmly turned off the engine and leaned toward her.

“You’re going to be my girlfriend,” Apichai said, his dark eyes burning into her. “If you don’t, I’m going to rape you and tell everyone we had sex.”

Janchai froze. The calmness of how he delivered the lines made it hard for her to respond. He turned on the engine, and they drove on to the company event. He entered and started to talk animatedly to coworkers as if nothing had occurred.

Over the next few weeks, Janchai would meet his eyes in the office, and he’d smile. She started to question whether she had somehow misinterpreted the event. One evening, Apichai offered to drive Janchai and a colleague home, and she reluctantly agreed to go along, given comfort by the presence of another person.

Apichai made a point of dropping the colleague off first. When the colleague alighted, Janchai tried to follow. But he locked the door, and waved, smiling at the colleague, before pulling away.

Suddenly filled with panic, she tried to open the door and throw herself out. But Apichai pulled over. He grabbed Janchai and began to swing wildly at her, punching her in the face. Blood spurted from her lip. Stunned, she slumped back in the seat, her face bruised.

“You’re going to be my girlfriend,” Apichai said, his dark eyes burning into her. “If you don’t, I’m going to rape you and tell everyone we had sex.”

Apichai drove her to his house, a sprawling compound of low-lying buildings, ponds and scrubland, dotted with palm trees, in a Bangkok suburb. It was an eerie and lost kind of place. He pulled Janchai out of the car and frog-marched her into one of the buildings.

He dumped Janchai on a bed and then proceeded to turn on a CCTV system that recorded the goings on in every room of the house. Janchai had not talked since the car, but now she asked, pleading, to go home.

Apichai Ongwisit. (Thai police)

Apichai didn’t respond but quietly and methodically came over and preceded to remove Janchai’s clothes. She was terrified, and didn’t even cry out as Apichai began to rape her.

When it was over, she fell limp onto the bed, her body in shock. Apichai searched around in her bag for Janchai’s phone and wallet. With those in hand he walked out, locking her in the room.

Janchai wasn’t a forceful person – she was like a directionless child — and she had no idea of how to escape. She was unnerved by a camera, clearly pointing down at her. She tried the windows, the doors, but she was trapped. Her heart racing, she began to gulp air down, as if she was suffocating.

Later, Apichai returned with a sword in hand, and without speaking, began to thrash her with the hilt. He continued until his hands hurt and he fell, panting, on the bed. Janchai’s mind was overcome with dark thoughts. She was going to die here. This man was a monster.

The beatings went on for a week, and Janchai felt her mental strength ebbing away. One day he strangled her with his bare hands, and she thought it was the end. Just as she felt the breath leaving her body, he released his grip.

“It’s not that easy to die,” he said. “If I go to hell, I’m taking you with me. I’m never letting you go.”

As the days passed, her senses dulled by the beatings and the fear of death, she realized that Apichai was often high on meth or drunk. He would handcuff himself to her and fall asleep for hours. Other times, he would tie her to the cabinet or bed, and leave for days. He’d feed her scraps of food, and her body weakened.

***

Workers back at the insurance company started to ask what had happened to Apichai and Janchai. Neither of them were answering their phones. Janchai’s mother had become frantic when she didn’t return home after work, but she held off on calling the police, a force that often demands payment to conduct a proper investigation.

Apichai’s supervisor at the company called a number he had on file for him to see what was going on. The phone rang a few times, and then an elderly Thai woman picked up. The woman, in her 60s, took the phone and aggressively batted back the questions. No she hadn’t seen Apichai, and no, she couldn’t help locate him. The supervisor, taken aback, put down the phone.

The woman left her house on the compound and walked over to Apichai’s house, which was located across a dusty piece of scrubland. Nipaporn Ongwisit, or Auntie Lek, as Apichai called her, was the sister of his late father, and she had looked after him on this strange compound since his childhood.

She had a fierce countenance, and a rough way of talking, and she held the dark secrets of the Ongwisit family.

She rapped on the door, and Apichai, high on drugs, opened.

“Do not bring your problems into this house, or I’m not going to help you,” she yelled at him.

She peered inside the house, trying to see what was going on, but Apichai blocked her way. Auntie Lek stormed back to her own house and slammed the door.

Auntie Lek as a young woman at her father’s funeral. (Ongwisit family)

Banthoon Ongwisit, his hair gelled back and slick in a Western-style suit, walked onto the construction site of “Dream City,” a movie theater, shopping mall and luxury hotel that his company was building. Dapper and popular, Banthoon had made his name as a pioneer of Thailand’s film industry.

Banthoon Ongwisit. (Ongwisit family)

In the 1950s and 1960s he had written and directed dozens of feature films. He built a series of luxury cinemas in Bangkok that once even hosted the King and Queen of Thailand. Now, he was building Dream City, which was to be the finest property in Bangkok. These were heady days in Thailand. As foreign investment flooded in, Bangkok was booming. The first American GIs in the Vietnam War streamed into the country in search of R&R with dollars to spend. The Ongwisit family sat perched in an enviable combination of fame, wealth, glamor and limitless possibility.

Banthoon talked to construction workers and then walked up to the balcony of his new cinema. As he looked down toward the huge screen, and surveyed the plush seating, a shadowy figure, a gun kept close to his body, approached from behind. Banthoon, hearing a noise, turned half around. The assailant raised the gun and shot him the in the back. As Banthoon slumped over the seats of his new cinema’s balcony, the figure exited quietly.

Overnight, Auntie Lek’s world was changed. Back then, just 19 years old, she was a member of Bangkok’s high society. The possibilities for the Ongwisit family seemed limitless. Suddenly, she was fatherless. The police never found the murderer. Bangkok society started to gossip about Banthoon’s possible connections to the city’s underworld. There was talk about debt.

It would be the first in a wave of killings that would surround the Ongwisit family, including another mysterious murder of an Ongwisit heir and strange, and awful crimes that kept occurring on the family’s compound. There was something foreboding in the Ongwisit’s family history, a multi-generational chain of violence hiding just under a facade of power and wealth.

Auntie Lek would survive them all. She would be the caretaker – some say the enabler – of one of the most notorious serial killers in Thailand’s history. Something broke inside her that day in 1966 when her father died. She’d do whatever she could to keep her family together — and to bury their secrets.

Banthoon’s murder did not dim the Ongwisit’s fortunes. By the 1980s, the Dream City had become one of Bangkok’s most popular malls and cinemas. The property housed a popular aquarium, and local children would come and marvel at the tropical fish. The family was certifiably rich. Banthoon had built a family compound on eight acres of land on the outskirts of Bangkok, not far from Dream City. It had a rural feel, with ponds and palm trees, and a number of bungalows for various family members.

It fell to Banthoon’s eldest son, Chalermchai – Auntie Lek’s brother — to run the family business. Chalermchai had studied abroad, in Germany, as many rich Thais do, and then he married and had two sons and two daughters. He built a luxurious home on the Ongwisit compound, with a sprawling bedroom for his wife, Apiradee. He doted on his eldest son Apichai, who was a quiet and gentle child, spoiling him with treats. To the outside world, the Ongwisits looked like a happy family, content with a life of wealth.

But there had long been signs of trouble in the family.

Chalermchai would fly into unexplained fits of rage. He would get in fist fights with mall customers, and at times he could barely suppress a frightening temper. He beat Apiradee, often in front of the children. One day, he saw that Apichai was crying. Blaming the nanny, he kicked her mercilessly.

To the outside world, the Ongwisits looked like a happy family, content with a life of wealth.

In return, Apiradee took her frustrations out on her children, especially Apichai, whom she would beat with a mettle rod. Verbal or physical attacks would rain down without explanation.

Young Apichai, only a toddler, would find solace playing games alone, trying to escape the beatings. He enjoyed Dream City, especially the aquarium, and would spend hours playing with the fish.

And then, another murder engulfed Dream City.

***

In a flower market near the swirling Chao Phraya river, Lt. Gen. Somkid Boonthanom was directing a group of police officers. They searched through the stalls, as onlookers wondered what was going on. Sticky with heat, one of the uniformed policemen shouted out. He’d spotted what looked like a human torso, but shorn of its head and limbs, stuffed into a cardboard box. The policeman gagged.

Gen. Somkid, a tough cop who’d seen his fair share of murders, approached the body. It was still warm, suggesting the killing had happened no more than a few hours earlier. The cardboard box was for a television, and there was a serial number. Police had something to work on.

The police traced the serial number to a purchase made a few weeks earlier. The name of the buyer shocked them. It was Charlermchai’s brother-in-law, Phayong Saenthawee. Hidden inside a toilet drain in his apartment police found blood stains, a piece of skin and a neck bone. The neck bone matched the bloodied torso.

Police later found the body’s head stuffed into a leather suitcase and dumped outside of Bangkok.

The construction of a cinema. (Ongwisit family)

Officers identified the corpse as the body of a 15-year-old homeless girl. Phayong confessed to killing her. He said she’d been messing with the fish in the aquarium, so he’d dragged her into his apartment, where she had hit her head and died.

To Gen. Somkid, the story made little sense, and police later found bloodstains inside Chalermchai’s car. Though Chalermchai was questioned by police and briefly detained, he was released.

To the case’s investigators it seemed that Phayong was taking the fall for the heir to the Ongwisit fortune. “Police didn’t have enough evidence to charge Chalermchai,” Gen. Somkid said.

His wife, Apiradee, was furious. It was her brother who for some reason had agreed to take the rap for the murder. She was sure he wasn’t guilty. Maybe he’d been promised money? She already hated her husband, and the entire Ongwisit family, and the arrest of her brother further inflamed the situation.

She pleaded with police to free her brother, but to no avail.

***

Over the next five years, as Apichai entered middle school, his family life was a horror. Hs mother and father clashed, and he took regular beatings. He played by himself, trying to block out the toxic family life.

And then, in 1988, Chalermchai, his father, was shot dead. The circumstances of Chalermchai’s murder are clouded in mystery. It’s not clear where he was killed or by whom, and efforts to find investigative records were not successful.

Apichai had grown up hearing about the murder of his grandfather in the 1960s, before he was born. And now, just like that, his father was gone.

The little boy wasn’t the only one mentally scared by the cascade of murders. Nipaporn Ongwisit, whom Apichai knew as Auntie Lek, now 41 years old, had lost her father back in the 1960s and now her brother.

The rift between Apiradee and the Ongwisit clan was so severe that, at Chalermchai’s funeral, Apiradee ordered her children to ignore their father’s family. But, after Apichai smiled at Auntie Lek, Apiradee dragged the little boy from his seat and slapped him across the face in the middle of the funeral hall.

Over the next five years, as Apichai entered middle school, his family life was a horror. Hs mother and father clashed, and he took regular beatings. He played by himself, trying to block out the toxic family life.

The Ongwisit family believed Apiradee was behind her husband’s killing. There was a rumor she was having an affair with a local policeman, whom she enlisted to help plan Chalermchai’s murder. Auntie Lek relayed these concerns to the police, said Col. Jiraklit Jarounapat of the Thai Royal Police.

Why would Apiradee allegedly arrange the murder of her husband? Perhaps she believed he had murdered the 15-year-old homeless girl, and her brother went to prison for a crime he didn’t commit. “We had enough evidence to believe his wife was the mastermind,” Gen. Somkid said. “This family’s problems were rooted in violence.”

But before police could pursue a case against Apiradee, she fled with three of her four children to the U.S.

Apiradee’s oldest child, Apichai, had other plans. Sick of his mother’s beatings, he made the fateful decision to stay in Thailand with Auntie Lek.

***

With the patriarchs dead, the Ongwisit properties fell into disrepair. The shopping mall was soon covered in weeds. The nearby Ongwisit family compound, once the home of a famous family and dotted with palm trees and fish ponds, became covered in unruly grass.

In one corner of the property was a reminder of the family’s brutal history: a Gothic-style family tomb, with photos of the two murdered Ongwisits, Banthoon and Chalermchai, and other deceased family members.

Banthoon outside Dream City. (Ongwisit family)

In another part of the property were the last reminders of the family’s film legacy. There, the family kept several large, casket-sized metal containers that Banthoon had used to store film canisters, and which later were used for goods from the shopping center.

Auntie Lek, approaching middle age, and not married, was left to look after nine-year-old Apichai. There was still money. The family had built a six-story apartment complex on the edge of the compound, and they rented out rooms. Auntie Lek lived in a bungalow at the center of the property, where she could keep an eye on who came and went. As a child, Apichai spent many of his days there. But as he grew up, he lived mostly in the main house that his father had built, a young scion ruling the family’s fading kingdom.

Auntie Lek was just five-feet tall, but she was powerful and commanding, neighbors said. She did whatever she could to keep in the good graces of local police. In Thailand, police favors can be bought for a price. She’d have Apichai bring gift baskets to the station. And there were civic duties to keep the Ongwisit name in good standing: Auntie Lek would host local politicians at the compound and she donated to various parties.

At a boarding school outside of Bangkok, Apichai was a good student, a quiet, gentle boy who barely spoke. He was often bullied, in part because of he was smaller than other boys.

After his father’s death and his mother’s disappearance, things got worse. Apichai tried to use his wealth to buy friendship, often paying for treats and outings for his schoolmates. There was a change in his quiet demeanor. He began to carry his father’s pistol to ward off bullies.

Auntie Lek protected Apichai at any cost. When he got in trouble at school for carrying a gun, she took his side. When he flunked out of school, she welcomed him home to the lonely family compound. As he grew up, Apichai never held a steady job. The cash from the family’s trust fund gave the Auntie Lek enough money on which to live a good life in Bangkok.

For Apichai, the good life meant two things: drugs and prostitutes. In her own way, Auntie Lek would help with that too.

***

By the time he was in his early 30s, in the evenings, high on ya bah, a local methamphetamine, Apichai would take his gun and fire into the air. Once, he even fired into the car of a pizza delivery man. Auntie Lek did nothing to stop the behavior. Instead, she paid off local police. Neighbors were too scared to cross the family.

Auntie Lek became a protector and support system to the heir to the Ongwisit fortune as he descended into drug abuse and madness. “Auntie Lek loves Apichai very much. She raised her only nephew by herself. She’d do everything for him, to make him happy, and whatever he thinks, that’s good. She doesn’t want to see him sad or unhappy,” Col. Jiraklit said.

By the time he was in his early 30s, in the evenings, high on ya bah, a local methamphetamine, Apichai would take his gun and fire into the air.

It wasn’t long before he landed in police custody. One day, in 2008, Apichai was high with a friend and his girlfriend. He became wild, brandishing a knife, and took the man’s girlfriend hostage. He threatened to rape her if the man didn’t get another girl for him. The man managed to escape to get the police, while the woman jumped from an upper story, breaking her back and nose.

Apichai ran into the surrounding jungle but was later arrested by police. Already struggling with mental illness, addiction and rage, he was sentenced to two years in a dank Bangkok jail.

A judge later suspended the sentence, and Apichai was back on the streets.

It was then that Auntie Lek pushed Apichai to get a job at the local insurance company, where he met Janchai. And it was Auntie Lek who bought that insurance policy. When she came to his house that day, with Janchai held captive inside, Apichai realized he needed to move out. Although Auntie Lek did everything to protect him, he didn’t want her finding out about this kidnapping.

He left the compound with Janchai, renting a room on the outskirts of Bangkok. For months on end, they never left, ordering food from a delivery service. Apichai was constantly high.

When he wasn’t beating her, Apichai told Janchai about his past, the abusive family and the childhood trauma. This cycle of beatings and emotional outpouring went on for months and Janchai, like many kidnapping victims slowly fell into a kind of Stockholm Syndrome-like affinity with her captor.

She felt especially sorry for the experience he said he’d suffered at boarding school.

“He said his friends often took off his clothes then left him naked in public. During shower time, his friends often grabbed his hands and legs while others touched his body, his bottom and body parts,” Janchai said.

Soon, Apichai’s money ran out and he didn’t want to go back to Auntie Lek. And so he forced Janchai to call her family. When the mother picked up, Apichai snatched the receiver, demanding money or he would sell their daughter to a prostitution ring. Scared for their daughter’s safety and hesitant to go to the police, Janchai’s family wired money to Apichai.

Almost a year passed of this terrible existence.

One day, Apichai forced Janchai to ask a building manager about a problem with the apartment’s internet. It was first time she left the room alone. As she talked to the manager, a taxi pulled up to the front of the building to drop off a passenger. Janchai’s heart beat fast as she mulled whether to take her chance.

Although she was starting to fall under Apichai’s sway, she wanted so much to see her mum. In a flash, she slipped inside the cab and, panicked, yelled at the driver to take her home.

Janchai’s mother, an accountant, wept when her daughter knocked at the door. She was relieved but also furious, and wanted to file a complaint with the police. But Janchai was scared. Apichai knew where she lived, and he – and his family – seemed so connected with the local police. Janchai moved into her grandmother’s home, thinking that Apichai wouldn’t be able to find her there.

Apichai arrested in 2020. (Sarawut S.)

 

She was wrong. One day, as Janchai briefly stepped outside her grandmother’s house, Apichai walked toward her from the shadows with a metal stick in his hand. He forced her to get in his car. Janchai was soon back in captivity in the Ongwisit compound.

This pattern repeated itself for another year: Janchai would run away, but each time Apichai dragged her back. The threats escalated. If she ran away, he would destroy her family home. He’d kill her younger brother. “I’d take them all,” he said.

“It was worse than a nightmare,” Janchai said. “I was living in a darkness, and thought I would never see tomorrow. I’m not brave enough to kill myself, so I allowed him to beat me.”

She had been captive for more than two years and he had broken her resolve. “So, I learned that if I could never run away, then I’d better stay quiet and do whatever to avoid  his madness and risk of getting beaten,” she said.

“I loved you that is why I beat you,” Apichai told her one day. “I want you to be a better person.”

By this time, Janchai was so docile that Apichai allowed her more freedom. He introduced her to Auntie Lek as his girlfriend. The older woman took a liking to Janchai, and they would spend time together cooking and talking.

This pattern repeated itself for another year: Janchai would run away, but each time Apichai dragged her back. The threats escalated. If she ran away, he would destroy her family home. He’d kill her younger brother. “I’d take them all,” he said.

Eventually, Janchai persuaded him to let her get a job in a local bakery. He took whatever money she brought home and used it to buy drugs. For Janchai, it was a slight improvement of an horrific existence. “At least, I could get out to meet real human beings, not being locked in his room 24/7, and beaten 365 days a year,” she said.

Auntie Lek began to confide in Janchai about how she justified Apichai’s behavior, using a twisted logic. “My nephew is actually a very nice guy when he doesn’t take drugs,” Auntie Lek told her.

Janchai began to wonder whether the older woman knew she was a prisoner, but she didn’t dare raise the subject.

Apichai got agitated when he wasn’t high. And, so, Janchai said, Auntie Lek provided a steady stream of drugs, including crystal meth more potent than ya bah. She became his supplier.

***

In late 2010, Auntie Lek managed to sell the land where the Ongwisit mall had once stood. The proceeds from the sale of Dream City were a windfall, and it only provided more fuel for Apichai’s lifestyle. He spent prodigiously, buying drugs, weapons and prostitutes. A fixer would bring drugs and women to the family compound. He liked teenagers with white skin.

He began to refer to himself as “ICE,” bragging about his cold-blooded nature.

The Ongwisit’s main house became something of a flophouse, with various people staying there each night. Oil, a teenager of 15 but who looked like a 10-year-old girl, very skinny, with bobbed hair and bangs, would often visit Apichai, begging him for drugs.

In 2011, Bangkok flooded after a serious monsoon. Auntie Lek came to survey the damage as the floodwater entered the compound. In one corner of the house, Auntie Lek noticed that Oil’s legs were chained together. “Oh, no. Why did you do that?” Auntie Lek said. But she did nothing to intervene.

Afforded some freedom, Janchai continued to live on the compound, too scared to run away or to alert the police to Oil’s captivity.

A few days later, a housekeeper told Janchai and Auntie Lek that he’d seen Apichai late one night. He was drenched with water and dragging a metal casket across the estate grounds, one of the caskets that his grandfather, Banthoon, had used to store film negatives years earlier.

One of the Ongwisit family’s metal caskets. (Thai police)

 

Apichai had an explanation for all the commotion. He told Auntie Lek that Oil had run away and was demanding that he pay 200,000 baht – about $6,000 – or she would file a police complaint. Auntie Lek wrote the check and gave it to Apichai, no questions asked.

But Apichai told Janchai a very different story. He said that Oil was dead and that he had dumped her in the pond on the Ongwisit compound. “But I didn’t kill her,” he said. “She died by herself.”

Janchai was shocked. But, still scared of Apichai’s rages, she kept her mouth shut.

Later, Apichai changed his story again. He told Janchai that he’d forced Oil into the metal casket after a fight and locked her inside. He said he returned a few hours later and Oil was dead. Apichai said he tried to give her mouth-to-mouth, but she had already suffocated. He took the casket to the pond on the Ongwisit estate and weighed it down with dumbbells.

Janchai was shocked. But, still scared of Apichai’s rages, she kept her mouth shut.

***

After the flooding, which had damaged the Ongwisit property, Apichai rented an apartment nearby. The routine there was familiar: Apichai would do drugs and hire prostitutes, and he sometimes sent Janchai to stay at the home of a drug dealer on another floor.

At 3 AM one evening in April 2012, Apichai knocked on the door of the dealer’s apartment. Without any semblance of emotion, he began talking about another dead girl. He calmly motioned to the window. “For fuck’s sake, she was high on drugs and fell down,” Apichai said.

Another wooden casket. (Thai police)

Janchai and the drug dealer followed Apichai to the window. Seven floors below, a woman’s body lay face down in a bush. Help get rid of the body, Apichai threatened, or they’d be charged with conspiracy.

The drug dealer, Janchai and Apichai lugged the body into the passenger seat of Apichai’s truck and drove back to the Ongwisit compound. The girl’s decaying corpse lay there in the car for two nights. He called another prostitute for sex. The prostitute witnessed him carrying the corpse into his bathroom. Seeing the body, she screamed and wet her pants. She recognized the dead woman.

Apichai flew into a rage, beat the prostitute and locked her in a room. The next day, the woman managed to escape.

Apichai’s brazenness – leaving a dead body in a truck and a bathtub in his own house – was hard to understand. He took almost no precautions, as if he wanted to get caught.

When he finally decided to dispose of the prostitute’s corpse, Apichai chained her arms and legs together and weighed them down with dumbbells, just as he had done with Oil. He dragged the body across the compound and dumped it in the same pond where Oil’s body was decomposing.

That evening, Apichai went out and didn’t return. Frantic and scared, Janchai saw an opportunity. The next morning, in the main house of the Ongwisit compound, she approached Auntie Lek and told her that Apichai had killed a woman. Janchai, by this point, didn’t know who trust. She thought Auntie Lek was her friend.

Apichai’s brazenness – leaving a dead body in a truck and a bathtub in his own house – was hard to understand. He took almost no precautions, as if he wanted to get caught.

Auntie Lek shifted into damage control mode. She called her nephew and demanded he return home. She sent a maid to search the pond. There, the maid found the dead prostitute floating face down, but near the surface. Later, Apichai returned home with two men. They wrapped a carpet over the prostitute’s body, and used an iron gate and part of a broken bench to weigh it down. Auntie Lek paid each man $300. The tenants on the edge of the compound were warned to stay away from the pond.

Janchai pleaded with Auntie Lek to let her leave the Ongwisit compound and return to her mother’s house. She would keep quiet, she said. She’d never tell. Auntie Lek agreed to let her go but warned her to maintain her silence.

It was April 2012. Janchai had been in captivity for four years. As she left the compound, it was eerily quiet. She was free.

***

Apichai’s unhinged behavior finally brought him down. A few weeks after Janchai left for good, Apichai kidnapped a 15-year-old girl. But he forgot to turn on a cell phone-signal jammer he’d installed and the girl was able to text her mother. “Help me mom,” she wrote. “Help me. He has a gun. Bring police.”

The police faked a car crash outside his apartment to lure Apichai out. They pushed him to the ground and handcuffed him. When police stormed the apartment, they found the girl, naked, bound with a rope and belt, sitting on the edge of Apichai’s bed. She was weak, and they rushed her to ER. In the room was a machine to administer electric shocks to victims, and the cell phone-signal jammer, as well as drugs, knives and guns.

Apichai after his arrest with guns and drug paraphernalia. (Thai police)

 

Apichai was taken to the police station, where he was formally charged. A court sentenced him to five years in prison for rape of a minor, kidnapping and the possession of drugs and weapons.

The police still did not know about Oil or about the dead prostitute, both dumped in the Ongwisit pond. Janchai was free, but she had kept her promise of silence to Auntie Lek.

In April 2012, after Apichai was arrested, Janchai returned to the compound. The guilt of complicity was gnawing at her. She finally had decided to tell Auntie Lek about the death of Oil, just a 15-year-old girl.

Auntie Lek, who only knew about the second killing, was stunned. “Why don’t you two consult me before doing things?” she said.

Still no one told the police about the two women Apichai had killed.

Janchai had come to believe she had been brainwashed. She’d been beaten, raped and held against her will, but she found it too hard to separate herself from the Ongwisits. Now that Apichai was in jail, she could live her own life. But Auntie Lek drew her back in, paying her $600 a month to visit Apichai in prison twice a week.

At the prison, Janchai ran into Apichai’s mother, Apiradee, who had returned from the U.S. after fleeing Thailand so many years earlier. The statute of limitations for her husband’s murder had past. She had come back to visit her son in jail and take her share of the proceeds from the sale of the Ongwisit’s real estate holdings.

Apriadee was tall, white-skinned and good looking, Janchai thought. She talked about the Thai restaurant the family ran in the U.S. Apiradee admitted that she felt guilty for beating her son when he was young. Perhaps she was the reason her son became violent, she said. Janchai couldn’t bring herself to tell Apiradee the awful truth – that her son was a murderer.

Though Janchai was wary at first, she grew close to Apiradee, who was now in her 60s and calmer. Apiradee warned her she might have to flee the Ongwisits one day. Run to another country where they can’t find you, she said.

One day, while still in prison, Apichai confessed to his mother about the two women he killed. She couldn’t believe her son was a murderer; she thought her son had lost his mind. Apiradee soon returned to the U.S.

Janchai had come to believe she had been brainwashed. She’d been beaten, raped and held against her will, but she found it too hard to separate herself from the Ongwisits.

Janchai stopped visiting Apichai, moved back home with her parents and tried, at least for now, to forget the deranged Ongwisits.

In prison, Apichai met Chalermchon Ngabua, a fellow drug user. They quickly hatched plans for the future. After the pair were both out, in 2018, Apichai hired Chalermchon as a laborer on the Ongwisit compound. They hung out and got high on meth every day.

Apichai, right, Kookik and an unidentified man. (Thai police)

 

Apichai introduced Chalermchon to a striking woman named Warinthorn Chaiyachet, or Kookik, a 22-year-old sex worker who he referred to as his girlfriend. She was pale skinned, and had dyed-brown hair in braids . Across her entire back, was a red-and-green tattoo of a giant fish.

To Chalermchon, Kookik and Apichai seemed like a sweet couple. But he quickly learned that Apichai seemed to have a split personality. He could be doting one minute and then, suddenly, he’d turn violent.

One evening, Chalermchon watched as Apichai put handcuffs on Kookik, and locked her hands to ankle chains. He then hung the key around her neck on a chain and stuffed her into one of the family’s metal caskets.

Chalermchon was stuck. He was an addict and reliant on Apichai for his stash. And, like so many people in Apichai’s orbit, he was scared that he’d be killed if he talked.

On some mornings, Apichai would put his pistol to Kookik’s head, commanding her to roll out of the casket where she often slept. He’d feed her, have sex with her and force her back inside. Sometimes, he used a stick to beat her. Apichai would usually keep the casket open a little to let air in.

In August 2019, Chalermchon couldn’t hear any sounds coming from the casket. He asked Apichai about the girl. “She’s already dead,” he responded without any emotion.

Once again, a woman had died in one of the Ongwisit caskets.

Kookik’s fish tattoo. (Thai police)

Carrying his pistol, Apichai ordered Chalermchon to help him bury the woman. They wrapped Kookik’s body in a black plastic bag and, using spades, dug a hole. They buried Kookik just a few feet from the Ongwisit family tomb.

The burial triggered something in Chalermchon. He escaped from the house. A few months later, after being arrested on drug charges, he told police all he knew about Apichai’s crimes.

The story seemed unbelievable. At first, police officers couldn’t work out if the bizarre, gruesome story Chalermchon told was true or the product of a drug-addled mind. Given Apichai’s brutal history, police couldn’t leave anything to chance.

On January 9, 2020, Thai police and commandos raided Apichai’s house. As he was surrounded, he tried to fire at a gas tank, but his gun jammed. Police overpowered him, pushed him to the ground, and handcuffed him. He was high during the arrest. “I won’t return to prison again,” Apichai screamed. “I just got out.”

The police found drugs, illegal weapons, lots of bullet holes in the ceiling and dozens of empty metal caskets. But there was no corpse.

“Where is Kookik?” Col. Jiraklit asked Apichai.

Apichai said he knew nothing about it. Chalermchon had already told them about the murder of Kookik, but police wanted an admission.

Col. Jiraklit stormed off and left his senior detectives to question the Ongwisit heir. Inside Apichai’s bedroom, police continued to grill him. “Is Kookik still alive? Did you do anything to her?” a senior detective asked him.

“I don’t know. I didn’t see her for months,” he replied.

Finally, Apichai calmly admitted she was dead.

Police search Apichai’s room. (Sarawut S.)

 

Col. Jiraklit dragged Chalermchon out of the house, to Apichai’s backyard, and started cursing him: “Where did you bury the woman?”

He led them to the plot of ground. First, officers used hoes and shovels to dig, but it was so difficult as the corpse had been buried for several months. Eventually police brought in a backhoe. When they uncovered a large bag, the senior detective ripped it open with a knife.

Then Col. Jiraklit saw the fish tattoo. The body had been eerily preserved all these months.

“I knew this was her,” Col. Jiraklit said. “She was facing down. She was naked. Her body was not rotten or damaged yet, just pale.”

Apichai claimed that Kookik had died of natural causes and he had simply buried her.

(Left) Chalermchon directs police to where Kookik is buried. (Right) Police excavate Kookik’s buried remains. (Thai police)

 

The news of the gruesome casket killing made national headlines in Thailand. Apichai was nicknamed “Ice Metal Casket.” Suddenly, Col. Jiraklit’s phone was ringing off the hook with leads.

A man who had been in jail with Apichai called to say the murderer had boasted to other prisoners about how he disposed of women’s bodies. “He kept telling his inmate friends that he killed two women and disposed of them in the pond at his compound,” Col. Jiraklit said. “It’s like he tried to prevent himself from being bullied.”

A police officer pays respects to Kookik’s remains. (Sarawut S.)

 

***

The signs and symbols that surrounded the Ongwisit murders only added to the mystery of what exactly drove Apichai’s killing spree. As a child, Apichai would have known about the murder of the homeless girl at the Ongwisit compound. She’d apparently been messing with fish in the family’s celebrated aquarium at Dream City. Kookik’s back was emblazoned with a fish tattoo. A rumor broke out in Thai media that Apichai had been feeding dead bodies to fish in his family compound. But it was just a rumor.

Police examine excavated bones and buried remains as reporters look on. (Thai police)

 

Still, police needed to search the pond. Soon after Apichai’s arrest, police divers waded into the murky water. They found an iron gate on the bed of the pond. Underneath, wrapped in a carpet, weighed down with dumbbells, were a collection of human bones. By the end of a gruesome day, the divers found human hair, eight teeth, 24 ribs, a pelvic bone, and hundreds of other smaller bones.

The next day, Col. Jiraklit ordered the teams to keep searching. More than 40 divers worked on four grids. At 1 pm, he started his car engine, about to leave for lunch, when a diver cried out. They’d found another metal casket.

The casket, submerged for years, contained hundreds more bones.

Police ended the search with evidence suggested that Apichai had murdered at least three women.

In the station, Apichai denied any role in the murders. He was polite and calm. “How could you know I killed them?” Apichai asked. The question sent a chill down Col. Jiraklit’s spine. Apichai was smart: he knew police didn’t have enough evidence to tie him to the bones in the pond.

Auntie Lek declined to talk to police. She had lived all these years with Apichai, since he was a young boy. She refused to rein him in, during the shootings, during his fits of rage and drug rampages. She had done whatever she could to keep him safe. There was no way she was going to break now.

In the station, Apichai denied any role in the murders. He was polite and calm. “How could you know I killed them?” Apichai asked. The question sent a chill down Col. Jiraklit’s spine. Apichai was smart: he knew police didn’t have enough evidence to tie him to the bones in the pond.

But the police had Chalermchon’s testimony and Kookik’s body, and that was enough to hold Apichai for her murder.

A few weeks later, Col Jiraklit got a break. The leads brought them to Janchai.

***

The Ongwisits, it turned out, had been looking for Janchai too. A few months after Apichai killed Kookik, he showed up at Janchai’s brother’s house, asking for her. He looked wrung out and disheveled. The brother refused to tell him anything.

An iron casket. (Thai police)

Apichai was desperate to find Janchai. He filed a complaint at the local police station, claiming Janchai had stolen money. The police looked for Janchai, but she was nowhere to be found.

In January 2020, when news about Apichai’s murders broke in the media, Janchai came out of hiding. She turned herself into police and Col. Jiraklit’s team spent hours interviewing her. The case against Janchai filed by Apichai was sidelined. In return, Col. Jiraklit asked Janchai to become his star witness.

Col. Jiraklit had a hard time making sense of this case. Why didn’t Janchai just find a way to leave the Ongwisits? Why did she keep coming back to Apichai? What was Auntie Lek’s role in all of this and why wouldn’t she talk?

It soon became apparent the Ongwisits still held a dark kind of power over some of the residents of this corner of Bangkok.

Janchai told police she was scared of Apichai and his auntie. She’d seen other women’s corpses. She’d tried to escape and gotten beaten. Finally, after four years of captivity, she made the move to leave permanently. “I think I couldn’t handle it anymore,” she said.

Janchai believed that Apichai was battling against his past, against the Ongwisits’ long history of rage and violence and secrets. “It’s like he is fighting with another person inside himself,” she told Col. Jiraklit.

The murders of the father and grandfather. The girl in the aquarium. A violent mother who fled Thailand. The bullying at school. On a rare day when he wasn’t high, Janchai said, Apichai had broken down, while feeding the birds at a local park. His sister was back in town from the U.S. with her family, and she had refused to see Apichai. “I feel really sorry for what he had been through all his life. Deep down inside, he is very sensitive,” Janchai said.

To Col. Jiraklit, Apichai was a strange kind of serial murderer. He didn’t appear to enjoy killing. He had no fear of getting caught. Apichai’s crimes were all carried out in the open. He talked about the murders to people in his orbit. He even drove around with a corpse in the passenger seat of his truck.

There was something in Apichai’s behavior that didn’t quite add up. “From my instinct as a detective, he didn’t have fun or enjoy killing. But he was not afraid,” Col. Jiraklit said.

In December 2020, Janchai attended Apichai’s criminal trial as a witness. In a prison uniform, shackled, Apichai called out to her. Janchai shook in fear in the courthouse, but she didn’t dare look up. Apichai kept staring at her as she delivered her testimony.

There’s something in Apichai’s behavior that doesn’t quite add up. “From my instinct as a detective, he didn’t have fun or enjoy killing. But he is not afraid,” Col. Jiraklit said.

In January this year, a Bangkok judge gave Apichai a life sentence for the murder of Kookik. Police said they couldn’t identify the other bones, or match them to missing people, and there was not enough evidence that he committed those murders.

Janchai is now living in hiding under another name. She still fears retribution from the Ongwisit clan.

Strangely, Apichai is a model prisoner, and he seems, shockingly, to be able to compartmentalize his crimes. “He is a very good prisoner. I’m not sure this is about his illness or his subconscious mind. It’s more like Hannibal Lecter in my view,” Col. Jiraklit said.

***

Auntie Lek is now without her beloved nephew. When questioned by police, she repeated a strange line — “He lost his parents when he was very young” — as if the Ongwisit family’s dark history is a sufficient explanation for his crimes.

“We have a strong feeling she knew everything,” Col. Jiraklit said. “But we need evidence to prove that her behavior violated the law.”

Now 74, but looking much younger than her age, Auntie Lek continues to preside over the compound. When a reporter approached, looking for comment, she refused to answer questions about Apichai’s crimes, what she knew or anything else about the terrible events at her compound.

Janchai today. (Courtsey of Janchai Nakeawngam)

Nearly shouting, Auntie Lek was clear that she did not want visitors on her family’s property. “This happened a long time ago,” she yelled. “He is such a poor man, sentenced for a life term, and you are such an idiot to come ask me about this.”

But she’s not alone. Chaliew Ongwisit, Banthoon’s first wife, who is now 94, lives with Auntie Lek on the compound. They have watched their family crumble, presiding over decades of death. Generations of violence and tragedy and secrets that led to Apichai’s transformation into a serial killer.

The site of the Ongwisit shopping center, once Banthoon’s fabled Dream City, remains undeveloped. No one, it seems, wants to build on such contaminated ground.

As for Janchai, she’s now 33, and trying to reassemble something close to a normal life. She lives at home and helps look after her brother’s child. By day she works as a saleswoman at a jewelry store in a shopping mall.

She’s too afraid to have a relationship with a man, she says. But there’s hope. She no longer feels the urge to visit Apichai in prison. Finally, she appears to have broken his grip over her.

— With reporting in Bangkok from Wilawan Watcharasakwet