Captive ex-abbot freed at temple where novice was slain

Kanya Minkrathok, the mother of slain novice Pluem, pays her respects at the spot where the body of the 17-year-old was found buried on the grounds of Wat Wang Tawan Tok in Muang district of Nakhon Si Thammarat. (Photo by Nujaree Raekrun)

NAKHON SI THAMMARAT: The former abbot of a temple where a 17-year-old novice was killed had been locked up for more than two years by the gang accused of the murder, police have learned.

Phrathep Sirisophon, a former chief monk of Nakhon Si Thammarat, was found in a locked kuti, or monk’s cell, when police went to question him at Wat Wang Tawan Tok on Friday, Thai media reported.

The 79-year-old ex-abbot told the officers that he had been in the locked living quarters for more than two years. A temple staff member gave him meals every day.

He said he had been left in the dark about the temple’s financial status as all business was in the hands of former monk Denchai Phumniyom and his associates.

The abbot denied any relationship with Mr Denchai, formerly Phra Denchai, and the ex-monk’s girlfriend Piyachat Arunsakul. 

The former abbot kept silent when the officers asked him why he had been put in the locked dwelling.

The questioning of the elderly monk followed the discovery earlier this week of  Supachai “Pluem’’ Ekkiarttikul, 17, in the temple compound. 

The novice had disappeared from the temple five months before his body was found buried under the base of a Buddha statue on Friday.

Mr Denchai, 36, was defrocked after his arrest on Thursday. Two other accomplices — Ms Piyachat, 40, and Suriya Kusolsuk, 18, formerly novice Suriya — were also held for their involvement.

Police say Mr Denchai and Mr Suriya confessed to the murder charges but Ms Piyachat denied any involvement.

Police said that during questioning, Mr Denchai told them he had killed the novice during a quarrel over missing temple money and buried the body inside the temple.

Pol Lt Gen Thesa Sriwatho, chief of Provincial Police Region 8, said Mr Denchai and Ms Piyachat controlled business at the temple as it had no committee. 

An initial investigation found that Mr Denchai and his associates collected fees from vendors, parking lot and other activities at the temple. The businesses generated at least 15,000 baht cash daily but did not appear on the temple’s books, said Pol Lt Gen Thesa.

“Ms Piyachat used to sell fruit juice behind the temple before she started managing the temple’s affairs,” he said. “Her living circumstances have significantly improved. She has three expensive cars.”

He said he believed as many as 10 people were linked to the murder of the novice and that more arrests would be made soon.

Pol Col Chaowasil Boonpradit, deputy chief of the Nakhon Si Thammarat police, said the investigators were examining the money trail of Mr Denchai and his girlfriend.

On Saturday, police took Mr Denchai, Mr Suriya and Ms Piyachat to the Nakhon Si Thammarat provincial court, which approved their detention.

Criminal suspects can be detained for up to seven 12-day periods, or 84 days, before charges must be formally laid.

The three suspects have been charged with colluding in the assault leading to death and concealment of a body.

The Nakhon Si Thammarat Buddhism Office resolved on Saturday to appoint Phra Khru Prommakhet Khanarak, 45, abbot of Wat Srariang temple in Muang district, to serve as acting abbot of Wat Wang Tawan Tok. which is also in Muang district. 

The former abbot later left the temple to stay at another temple in Lan Saka district.

The family and relatives of the slain novice arrived at the temple on Saturday to pay their respects.

Kanya Mintakhok, the mother of Pluem, said she believed her son might have been murdered because he knew about irregularities at the temple.

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