BANGKOK (AP) — He's known as Thailand's jet-setting fugitive monk, and his story has riveted the country with daily headlines of lavish excess, promiscuity and alleged crimes ranging from statutory rape to manslaughter.
Until a month ago, 33-year old Wirapol Sukphol was relatively unknown in Thailand. Now he is at the center of the biggest religious scandal the predominantly Buddhist country has seen in years.
Despite the vows he took to lead a life of celibacy and simplicity, Wirapol had a taste for luxury, police say. His excesses first came to light in June with a YouTube video that went viral. It showed the orange-robed monk in aviator sunglasses taking a private jet ride with a Louis Vuitton carry-on.
The video sparked criticism of his un-monkly behavior and a stream of humorous headlines like, "Now boarding, Air Nirvana."
Since then, a long list of darker secrets has emerged — including his accumulated assets of an estimated 1 billion baht ($32 million). This week, authorities issued an arrest warrant for the disgraced monk after having him defrocked in absentia.
Wirapol was in France when the scandal surfaced after leading a meditation retreat at a monastery near Provence. He is believed to have then fled to the United States but his current whereabouts are unknown.
The arrest warrant implicates him on three charges including statutory rape, embezzlement and online fraud to seek donations. He is also under investigation for money laundering, drug trafficking and manslaughter for a hit-and-run accident. Authorities are struggling to figure out how he amassed so much money.
"Over the years there have been several cases of men who abused the robe, but never has a monk been implicated in so many crimes," said Pong-in Intarakhao, the case's chief investigator for the Department of Special Investigation, Thailand's equivalent of the FBI. "We have never seen a case this widespread, where a monk has caused so much damage to so many people and to Thai society."
Cases of monk misconduct in recent years have centered on alcohol use or cavorting with women or men, all forbidden activities. Last year, about 300 of Thailand's 61,416 full-time monks were reprimanded and in several cases disrobed for violating their vows, according to the Office of National Buddhism.
In Wirapol's case, investigators believe they have only scratched the surface.
Born in the poor northeastern province of Ubon Ratchathani, he entered the monkhood as a teenager and gained local renown for claims of supernatural powers like the ability to fly, walk on water and talk to deities. He renamed himself, Luang Pu Nen Kham, taking on a self-bestowed title normally reserved for elder monks.
Gradually, he cultivated wealthy followers to help fund expensive projects in the name of Buddhism — building temples, hospitals and what was touted as the world's largest Emerald Buddha. The 11-meter (36-foot) high Buddha was built at his temple in the northeast, touted as solid jade but made of tinted concrete.
Thailand's Anti-Money Laundering Office has discovered 41 bank accounts linked to the ex-monk. Several of the accounts kept about 200 million baht ($6.4 million) in constant circulation, raising suspicion of money laundering.
Investigators also suspect that Wirapol killed a man in a hit-and-run accident while driving a Volvo late at night three years ago.
Critics say Wirapol is an extreme example of a wider crisis in Buddhism, which has become marginalized by a shortage of monks and an increasingly secular society. The meditative lifestyle of the monkhood offers little allure to young Buddhists raised on shopping malls, smartphones and the Internet.
But the case of Wirapol has also shown the benefits of social media, says Songkran Artchariyasarp, a lawyer and Buddhist activist.
"Buddhists all around the world can learn from this case," said Songkran, who heads a Facebook group that collects tips about wayward monks. Photos uploaded to his page helped launch the investigation into Wirapol.
"Let this be a case study that shows if a monk does something wrong, it's harder to get away with it — especially in the era of social media."
But it remains stunning how much Wirapol did get away with. During a shopping spree from 2009 to 2011, Wirapol bought 22 Mercedes worth 95 million baht ($3.1 million), according to the DSI. The fleet of luxury cars were among 70 vehicles he has purchased. Some he gave as gifts to senior monks, others he sold off as part of a suspected black market car business to launder his money, Pong-in said.
Luxury travel for the monk included helicopters and private jets for trips between the northeast and Bangkok.
"I always wondered what kind of monk has this much money," said one of his regular pilots, Piya Tregalnon. Each domestic roundtrip cost about 300,000 baht ($10,000) and the monk always paid in cash, he said in comments posted on Facebook.
"The most bizarre thing is what was in his bag," Piya said, referring to the typical monk's humble cloth shoulder sack. "It was filled with stacks of 100 dollar bills."
Like many people, Piya only went public with his suspicions after the scandal erupted. Dozens of pictures have been posted in online forums showing Wirapol's high-flying lifestyle — riding a camel at the pyramids in Egypt, sitting in a cockpit at the Cessna Aircraft factory in Kansas. According to the pilot and investigators, Wirapol was interested in buying his own private jet.
Even more incriminating were accusations of multiple sexual relationships with women — a cardinal sin for monks who are not allowed to touch women. Among them was a 14-year-old girl with whom he allegedly had a son, a decade ago. The mother filed a statutory rape case against him last week.
Police have yet to determine how many people he swindled, but the trail of disappointed followers is long.
One of them is a Bangkok housecleaner originally from Ubon Ratchathani who remembers first hearing him preach a year ago.
"His voice was beautiful, it was mesmerizing. He captivated all of us with his words," recalled Onsa Yubram, 42. When he ended his sermon and held out his saffron bag, hundreds of people rushed forward with donations. "His bag was so full of cash, they had to transfer the money into a big fertilizer sack. He told us, 'Don't worry, no need to rush. I'll stay here until the last of you gets to donate.'"
Onsa now feels betrayed but says her belief in Buddhism is too strong to let this scandal shatter her faith.
"As a Buddhist I can understand why this happened. Monks, in a way, are ordinary men who have greed and desire," she said. "Some are bad apples, but that doesn't mean every monk is bad."
Associated Press Writer Thanyarat Doksone contributed to this report.