Fugitive ex-monk Wirapol Sukphol is escorted by the Department of Special Investigation officials to the prosecutor's office in Bangkok on July 20, 2017. Wirapol, wanted on charges including child molestation and fraud, is back in Thailand after being extradited from the United States, where he fled in 2013. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)

‘Jet-set monk’ is back in Thailand after extradition from US

BANGKOK (AP) — A former monk known for a jet-setting lifestyle is back in Thailand after being extradited from the United States, where he fled to escape charges including statutory rape and fraud.

Wirapol Sukphol, 37, appeared on a YouTube video showing the orange-robed monk aboard a private jet. He wore aviator sunglasses and had a Louis Vuitton carry-on bag, sparking an outcry over his behavior.

Soon after the video surfaced in 2013, Wirapol was defrocked amid accusations of multiple sexual relationships with women — a cardinal sin for monks.

He was also alleged to have had sex with a 14-year-old girl. The statute of limitations has expired in that case, but he still faces fraud, money laundering and other charges.

He was arrested in California last year.

Wirapol returned to Bangkok late Wednesday (July 19) under an extradition agreement with the United States. According to Paisit Wongmuang, director-general of Thailand's Department of Special Investigation, Wirapol "wanted to come back to Thailand and was ready to enter the justice system."

Critics say Wirapol is an extreme example of a wider crisis in Thai Buddhism, which has become marginalized by a shortage of monks and an increasingly secular society.

Born in the poor northeastern province of Ubon Ratchathani, Wirapol entered the monkhood as a teenager and gained local renown for claims of supernatural powers. Gradually, he cultivated wealthy followers to help fund expensive projects in the name of Buddhism, including erecting a 59-foot-high Buddha statue.

Thailand's Anti-Money Laundering Office has discovered 41 bank accounts linked to Wirapol. Several of the accounts kept about 200 million baht ($5.9 million) in constant circulation, raising suspicion of money laundering, the office said.

According to the Department of Special Investigation, Wirapol at one point had accumulated assets of an estimated 1 billion baht ($32 million). During a shopping spree from 2009 to 2011, Wirapol bought 22 Mercedes cars worth 95 million baht ($2.8 million), the department said.

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