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Bad Checks, Wandering Spouses--Business Is Good for a Private Eye in Bangkok

December 20, 1987|NICK B. WILLIAMS Jr. | Times Staff Writer

BANGKOK, Thailand — Supakorn Bunnag leaned forward in his leather chair, the baby-blue telephone on his cluttered desk momentarily quiet.

He extended a glitzy hand: gold ring, gold cuff links, gold watch. Business has been good, plenty of bouncing checks and cheating husbands.

Supakorn is a private eye.

"Investigations, we do investigations," he rasped, lighting a Winston and settling back in the chair.

It was a steamy Bangkok morning, and a street dog lay stretched out on the steps of the old Paris Theater building, cocking a lazy eye at passing feet. But inside, in the Business Law & Detective Agency, the watchers were alert.

Two young Thai women with fast figures and slow smiles screened the traffic in the outer office. In the back room, which had the atmosphere of a First Street bail-bond office, three agents leaned against a table near Supakorn's desk. Jeans, T-shirts, tennis shoes. Outside, in the streets of the Urupong district, they could melt into a crowd like butter under the tropical sun.

"I've got 65 investigators full-time," the detective said, "and I can round up 40 to 50 free-lance men if I need them."

That's a lot of eyes, but Supakorf figures that he needs 10 men just to track a wandering husband, and "family matters" are a minority of his cases.

The big load is bad checks, and the office had the look of it. The 40-year-old detective and his top associates sat at weathered desks along a wall covered with boards bearing the names and mug shots of Bangkokians who have tripped on the universal assumption that if there are checks in the checkbook, there is money in the bank.

A rubber check for more than $2,000 is the business of the men downtown at the CID, the Central Investigations Department of the Bangkok police. Supakorn's bread and butter is the smaller fry, but he also gets a piece of the police overflow.

"Sometimes we're a little short on manpower or budget," Col. Wisut Wanichbutr of the CID explained. "So businessmen hire detective agencies to run the man down, and we come in to make the arrest.

"You cannot say the relationship is good or bad. Sometimes they help. Other times we're watching a little fish to get to a big one, and the private detectives come in and demand we arrest the little one for some case they're on. Then we lose the big one."

Supakorn has 800 businesses signed up at $400 a year as regular clients. For the $400, and a percentage of the restitution, Supakorn and his men run down their bad checks.

Most are simple cases--insufficient funds--but they take time and connections. The check provides the name. That and some "friends" at the banks and the Interior Ministry produce an address and a national identity card photo.

"Then we just watch and wait--a stakeout," the detective said, stubbing out a cigarette and reaching for another.

Small-time offenders usually settle up on the spot, sometimes agreeing to make the check good in scheduled payments. At that level, Supakorn gets 10% of the restitution. For the bigger fish, he gets a larger cut, and the police make the arrest.

His agency, set up six years ago, is one of about 10 in Bangkok. It does a good business, Supakorn confided with a small grin. Salaries are the main overhead. The trick is to keep the bad-check artist under surveillance until the police arrive.

Vichit Raungrojvichai, a former soldier and policeman who runs an agency in Thonburi, a working-class district on the other side of the city, said: "We want agents who are observant, patient and clever. I mean, you want a man on stakeout who knows how many exits there are in the building."

Vichit and Supakorn often find the men they want on the police force. Both use off-duty police officers. They are experienced and licensed to carry firearms.

Detective work here is tedious, often frustrating and rarely dangerous, "but it gets a little risky when you're following the influence guys," Vichit said, meaning big shots with bodyguards.

As a top man and "just in case," Supakorn carries a gun, a .38-caliber Smith & Wesson revolver.

Influence, even the appearance of it, is a big edge in Bangkok. On one case Supakorn's agents had a hard time tracking the cheating wife of a wealthy client.

"She and her lover drove a Mercedes-Benz," he recalled. "They'd run right through red lights, and the traffic cops took a look at the Benz and didn't make a move. My men had to stop at the intersection."

Family matters provide a steady income for Bangkok's detective agencies. Check cases are cyclical, rising and falling with the economy, but philandering follows a straight line.

Many Thai husbands maintain one or more mianoys , or "minor wives," a Thai term for "mistresses." So many stray, in fact, that it does not make for scandal.

"Sometimes," Vichit said, "the wife wants evidence for a divorce--name, photos, the usual. But other times they're just curious about the frequency."

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