Stealing a Cursed Diamond, Murdering Diplomats, and an International Incident- The Blue Diamond Affair

When we talk about famous heists, maybe our minds go to the Antwerp diamond robbery of 2003, or the brazen Lufthansa heist at JFK in 1978. We may even remember the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum theft of 1990. Not only did these heists garner headline news, but some of them were adapted into movies or sub-plots. Think Goodfellas, which was partly based on the Lufthansa heist. Others may not have made headlines or had movies made based on them, but once you hear the details you might wonder: how did screenwriters sleep on those stories? The Blue Diamond Affair is one of those.  Diplomatic disasters, police corruption, fraud, kidnapping, assassinations, and murder all followed in its wake, with the whole thing still unresolved to this day. Here now is the story of the Blue Diamond Affair.

The entire affair started simply enough. Thai janitor and gardener Kriangkrai Techamong worked in the palace-home of Saudi prince Faisal bin Fahd.  At the time, Kriangkrai (**Thai family names come first and personal names come second**) was struggling with gambling debts that continued to grow as he made more and more bets in the employee residence for palace workers. In need of a way out, Kriangkrai decided to get morally flexible about resolving his problems.

In 1989, Prince Faisal was to go on a three-month holiday with his family. With a deep knowledge of the palace and relatively free access due to his job, Kriangkrai knew that Prince Faisal stored his wealth of jewels in 3 of 4 safes that were usually kept unlocked. And so it was that after the prince went on holiday, Kriangkrai put his plan in motion.

A simple plan being generally the best, he simply waited until other staff were off the premises and snuck into the prince’s bedroom. Next, he took out a couple hundred pounds of jewelry and duct taped many of the items to his body, as well as stuffed as much as he could fit into a vacuum cleaner’s bag, which he would then go on to have shipped to Thailand.

After shipping the jewels, he flew to Thailand before the princes’ vacation ended. Upon arrival, he bribed the customs officials searching the incoming container to not look too closely at his bag. Kriankrai explained to them that he was bringing home pornography and didn’t want it confiscated. His plan worked and he took the loot home to the Northern Thai province of Lampang.

So, what all did Kriangkrai steal? About 20 Million dollars worth of jewelry. This included watches, necklaces, rubies, and most mysteriously, a large 50-carat, supposedly cursed, blue diamond. On this one, we do not actually have a picture of the diamond in question, with only eyewitness and official accounts of its existence coming from Saudi officials and Kriangkrai himself.

Of course, stealing incredibly valuable  jewelry is one thing, finding someone to buy it is another and, upon arriving in Lampang, Kriangkrai had a hard time fencing the stolen items. However, ultimately he found a jeweler, Santhi Sithanakan,  willing to purchase them for some undisclosed amount..

Not long after, in January of 1990, the Saudis managed to trace the theft to Kriangkrai and Thai police Lieutenant-General and Elvis Presley enthusiast (something that will be significant later) Chalor Kerdthes led a team that arrested Kriangkrai and seized the stolen jewels from Santhi the jeweler.

For his part, Kriangkrai did not put up a fight and admitted to his deeds, reducing what could have been a seven year jail sentence to just three. As for Lieutenant-General Chalor, he announced the seizure and led a delegation to Saudi Arabia to return the jewels. But, curiously, not before the seized jewels were held at a Bangkok hotel for two days before being officially transferred to a police station for no apparent reason at the time….

Thai-Saudi relations up to this point were actually very good. Both nations were monarchies and pursued anti-communist repressions during the cold war. The Thai economy relied heavily on remittances. And there were around 200,000 Thai workers in Saudi Arabia, backed by a robust industry in Thailand dedicated to recruiting laborers to work there. Additionally, the tourism sector flourished as Thailand was a popular vacation destination for Saudis and others in the Middle East.  Keeping these relations good was of utmost importance to the Thai government, so Chalor’s delegation had a lot riding on it.

Here is where the story takes a sudden turn. Upon investigation, the Saudis spotted that the jewels were fake; replaced with paste copies. Even then, only 80% of the missing jewels were returned, with the most important of them still missing: the “cursed” 50 carat blue diamond.

Upon this discovery, Chalor and the Thai police were immediately under suspicion by the Saudis. It didn’t help that the wives of police and government officials were rumored by the Thai press to be wearing jewelry suspiciously similar to the stolen items at important events. Attempting to resolve the mystery, the Saudis ordered its diplomats serving in Thailand to investigate as well as dispatched a businessman named Mohammad al-Ruwaili, with ties to the Saudi Royal family, to carry out his own investigation.

Naturally, this set off a string of bloody murders… So what happened?

In February of the same year, the Saudi consul investigating the case, Abdullah al-Besri, was shot in his apartment, and around ten minutes later, diplomats Fahad al-Bahli, and Ahmed al-Saif were shot in their car en route to the Saudi embassy.  Later the same month, al-Ruwaili was kidnapped and was never seen again. To this day no body has been found, but he is presumed dead.

These murders made a tense situation between the two countries worse, and the Saudis downgraded their diplomatic relations as a result. This, in turn, put pressure on the Thai government because downgrading relations meant putting on hold the recruitment and immigration process for Thai workers to Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia further banned its citizens from hiring Thai workers and the numbers of Thai migrant workers in Saudi Arabia dropped from around 200,000 to around 10,000..

Naturally, the pressure was on to resolve this case. And so it was that Saudi Arabia dispatched the colorful Mohammed Said Khoja. Not pulling any punches, Khoja immediately accused the police of corruption, theft of the jewels, and murder of the diplomats. He also had the habit of conducting interviews about all of this with his gun placed on the desk.

As to those murders, American diplomatic reports unearthed by Wikileaks claimed it was all a Hezbollah plot against the Saudis. Much later, the Thai Department of Special Investigations would try and pin at least one of the murders on an “Arab” by the name of Abu Ali, a generic pseudonym, while also claiming the blue diamond never existed at all.

However, through the use of a private investigator, Khoja uncovered what he believed to be the events leading up to al-Ruwaili’s murder: he was abducted by police and taken to a hotel for interrogations to reveal what he had turned up so far.  Whatever the results of the interrogation were, he was then taken to a farm to be executed and his body supposedly burned. Two years after al-Ruwaili’s disappearance, police Lieutenant-Colonel Somkid Boonthanom was arrested and charged with his murder. The charges against Somkid, however, were eventually dropped, but his name will come up again.

Hoping to smooth things over, in June of 1991 Thai officials reopened the case and later arrested four people on charges of receiving stolen goods and charged an investigating officer with embezzlement. One of those arrested was Santhi the jeweler.  Officials accused him of making the fakes that were delivered to Saudi Arabia by Lieutenant-General Chalor.  Purportedly, Santhi either sold the goods, or as believed by the Saudis, colluded with the police to sell or hide them.

As a key witness in the case, naturally, in July of 1994, he was kidnapped by police, and his wife and son went missing only to be found in a car accident in Bangkok. The bodies showed signs of blunt force trauma not consistent with the car accident, and it appeared that the accident was staged. Despite these assessments, the official forensics report concluded that it was, indeed, an accident, with no foul play. However, as for Khoja, he made waves in the news denying the report and accusing the forensic commander of covering up the original crime. Later autopsies confirmed this, showing the individuals did not die in the car accident.

Apparently insanely good at their job, the police then concluded the individuals were likely murdered, and the murder was staged to look like a car accident after all. Just to muddy the waters more, they would later try to walk back their statement by claiming the blunt force trauma was caused by the truck that struck the car… And it was, indeed, just a tragic accident.

This didn’t really work and Lieutenant-General Chalor was arrested and charged with murdering Santhi’s family. During Chalor’s trial, it was concluded that four men carried out the murders on behalf of the police. Supposedly they kidnapped the family to extort millions out of Santhi, but for whatever reason, his family was murdered instead. Chalor was sentenced to death (but we’ll come back to him in a bit), and neither he nor Santhi would divulge any information about the rest of the missing jewels. Khoja, the Saudi investigator, claimed the rest of the jewels were held by a small number of high ranking Thai officials and are still in the country. Chalor, on the other hand, maintained his innocence of both the theft and murders.

All was not lost for the missing items, however, as rumors of a curse seemed to weigh heavily on some of the recipients of the jewelry as throughout 1994, some items from the haul were periodically dropped off to the police with notes citing their return owing to the items’ curse.

Also in 1994, the aforementioned Lieutenant-Colonel Somkid, who was previously charged with al-Ruwaili’s disappearance, would get a promotion to intelligence chief of the Bangkok police department.

Fast-forwarding to 2009, 20 years after the theft and murders, and 10 years after the death of Prince Faisal in 1999, the statute of limitations was about to pass ont he whole thing. Before that happened, Saudi Arabia increased pressure on the Thai government to solve the murders and theft once and for all. It was at this point that supposedly new evidence pointed back to now Lieutenant-General Somkid. In the interim of all of this, repeated attempts were made to charge him with al-Ruwaili’s murder, but these were thwarted by public prosecutors until it was pushed hard enough by the Department of Special Investigations.

And so it was that the Lieutenant-General was finally staring down murder charges.

Apparently still with friends in high places, while awaiting trial, a baffling turn of events occurred: Lieutenant-General Somkid was promoted once again, this time to assistant national police chief. Putting aside the timing of the promotion, his new promotion potentially gave Somkid control over his own case.

This angered the Saudis as they knew Thailand had laws prohibiting the promotion of an officer charged with committing a criminal act. Thai officials countered by citing laws that seemed to be grandfathered in allowing for Somkid’s promotion. Further, the national police chief tried to argue that Somkid’s promotion was actually a demotion. The Saudi’s, however, didn’t buy it. And, seeing the Saudi’s close to pulling relations altogether, Somkid decided to reject his promotion… only to accept a slightly lesser one to inspector-General a week later.

If you think this probably didn’t go over well and things were all looking ok for Somkid, you’ll be not entirely shocked to learn that in March of 2014, Somkid and the other police officers accused at the time were all acquitted, and Saudi-Thai relations suffered greatly as a result.

In the end, only two people actually saw prisonl time over the ordeal: Kriangkrai Techamong for the theft, and Lieutenant-General Chalor Kerdthes for the kidnapping of Santhi the jeweler and the murder of his wife and son. As for Kriangkrai, he was released early due to good behavior. He promptly changed his name to avoid attention, but according to him, people still track him down and press him for information about the stolen jewelry from time to time. He was also reportedly plagued with guilt over his actions and, thus, in 2016 became a monk, inviting the media to his ordination. However, he did not last long as a monk and left the monastery to work odd jobs to support his family.

As for Chalor- and we can’t make this stuff up- while in jail, ever the Elvis enthusiast, he became an Elvis impersonator and recorded a cover of Jailhouse Rock. Beyond this, Chalor maintained his innocence throughout his stay in jail, and upon release. Even though he initially received the death penalty he is very much alive and out of jail presently. Much like Kriangkrai, he also became a monk and was even at Kriangkrai’s ordination.

As for the present state of things, in January of 2022, relations between the two governments seem to be normalizing again as the Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha went to Saudi Arabia for a two-day visit to meet with the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The Saudis still maintain the case has not been properly handled, and for now, the blue diamond remains missing, and the murders of the Saudi diplomats still unsolved. And so it is that the Blue Diamond Affair may not be over yet.

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