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.
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