Model’s Mysterious Death is shining a light on Thailand’s Entertainment Industry

Thitima Noraphanpiphat's death has drawn widespread attention in Thailand. Photo taken from Thitima's Instagram.

Bangkok, Thailand (CNN)The mysterious death of a young woman in Thailand, whose body was found in the lobby of an apartment building, has gripped the nation and highlighted the risks women who work in the service and promotions industry face.

Police arrested a male model in connection with Thitima Noraphanpiphat’s death Wednesday after CCTV footage appeared to show him dragging her lifeless body into an elevator and leaving her on a sofa in the lobby of his Bangkok condominium.

Thitima, 25, was a model, product presenter and party entertainer and had been paid to serve drinks at a party on September 16 at a house outside Bangkok in Nonthaburi. Her body was found in the lobby of the main suspect’s apartment building later that night, Metropolitan Police Chief Pol Lt. Gen. Suthipong Wongpin told CNN.

Thitima’s death has dominated headlines in the country, and the circumstances surrounding her final hours have become the center of intense speculation and rumor.

On Thursday, police arrested six more people who attended the party after another woman filed a complaint to police saying she was made to drink so much that she became unconscious. She woke up naked the next morning.

In this Sept. 18, 2019, photo, Ratchadech Wongtabut talks to reporters at the Bukkhalo Police Station in Bangkok. Police have arrested Ratchadech the male model accused of taking an unconscious woman home, boasting online about his sexual exploits, and leaving her lifeless body in the lobby of his building. (AP Photo)

The second woman, identified in police reports as “Deer,” was also hired to serve drinks at the party, police said.

Life of a ‘pretty’

The case has put scrutiny on Thailand’s service industry, where women — known as “pretties” — are hired for promotion work at events such as auto shows, parties, and in bars and nightclubs.

Sexual harassment and abuse is common, and the women are often pressured into drinking excessive amounts of alcohol, said Naiyana Supapung from the Teeranat Foundation, an organization advocating for human rights and gender equality. Naiyana said society looks down upon “pretties” and the stigma can put them off from seeking legal recourse if they are abused.

Thitima was the main breadwinner for her family, and she had wanted to send her 3-year-old daughter to a good school, the Bangkok Post reported.

Her death has sparked calls for laws to be introduced to protect those working in the industry and awareness campaigns to change attitudes surrounding their work.

“We have to change this believe for our next generation to understand that nobody has right to harass or hurt others,” Naiyana said.

A case that has gripped Thailand

The main suspect, Rachadech Wongtabutr, 24, the last person Thitima was seen alive with, was initially questioned by police but subsequently let go after denying any criminal involvement.

Interest in the case blew up after police confirmed the Rachadech had posted photos of Thitima, who was known as Lunlabelle, on social media on the night she died. The release of CCTV footage from his condo added to the speculation around the incident.

Police later arrested Rachadech after medical examiners determined the time of death meant Thitima could have already died by the time he took her to his apartment.

Rachadech was charged Wednesday with illegal detention leading to death, abduction with intent of committing an indecent act, and indecency. Police said they are investigating others who could be involved, including the hosts of the party and guests.

There was also speculation that Thitima has been drugged and sexually assaulted though the autopsy found no evidence of drugs in her system nor evidence of assault, according to Suthipong.

Focus in the case has been on the time of death, which medical examiners have given a four-hour window on September 16, between 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. Police have even considered the biometric data on her smartwatch to determine when she died, though the data is unlikely to be counted as evidence.

An attorney working for Thitima’s family told CNN that they are waiting for a new autopsy to be completed on October 2 as they believe her death was suspicious.

“Right now the problem is all about timing issues,” said Pongsa Ratri, adding that they will wait for the fresh forensic reports before deciding how to proceed with the case.

By Helen Regan and Angie Puranasamriddhi, CNN