'Pinball wizard' escapes extradition

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He was blamed for the collapse of the South East Asian Tiger economies, which sent shockwaves through stock exchanges across the world.

But, yesterday, the High Court ruled that Pin Chakkaphak should not face extradition back to Thailand on charges of embezzling £35m. His legal costs, said to be £2m, will be met from public funds.

Lord Justice Kennedy and Mr Justice Harrison overruled a decision by a district judge at Bow Street magistrates' court that there was insufficient evidence for Mr Pin to be sent for trial in Bangkok. Mr Pin, 50, represented by Alun Jones QC, had been on £2m bail.

After the champagne celebration for his court victory, the plump and bespectacled financier said: "I have always believed that when the full facts of the case were known all the allegations against me would be set aside. I trust the Thai authorities will respect the decision of the British court. That will send a clear message to the international investment community that Thailand's new government is operating under the rule of international law and is free of any political obligation to events in the past. Analysts will say one man cannot bring down a financial system, and there is something wrong with the system itself."

Mr Pin is unlikely to return to the East from his £1.5m flat in Knightsbridge in the near future. He has always claimed he had been used as a scapegoat for the economic meltdown. His friends say he fears arbitrary arrest from the Thai government or even attempts on his life because local businessmen lost everything in the collapse.

The influence of Mr Pin's Bangkok-based securities group, FinOne, was so great in Thailand that its demise led to the country's currency, the Baht, being destablised. In turn, this created a domino effect in the neighbouring countries in 1997 and 1998. The Asian Contagion then spread to the West, wiping off billions of dollars.

Mr Pin was accused of stealing millions of pounds disguised as inter-company loans in a carefully premeditated fraud before fleeing Thailand.

This latest twist came at the end of an extraordinary tale of high finance and low politics, with Mr Pin the key player. He became known in the international trading floors as the "Pinball Wizard" and the "Donald Trump of South East Asia". He was a driven man who named his daughter Typhoon and carried out a whirlwind of mergers and acquisitions on a scale the local business community has never seen before.

Mr Pin was born in Chicago, the only son of a Thai-Chinese family, and holds dual Thai and US citizenship. After graduating from the blue-chip Wharton Business School he joined Chase Manhattan Bank, serving first in Bangkok and then Thailand. He left to try to revive the ailing fortunes of the family's finance Company, Yip In Tsoi.

The company, recreated as FinOne, was soon flying high with the economies of the region and so was Mr Pin. He had a garage full of Ferraris and luxury properties in America and Britain as well as Thailand. But FinOne had been built on borrowed money and, when the Thai economy took a downturn, it collapsed with debts of £ 1.5bn, despite hundreds of millions of pounds of aid from the Thai central bank. A general run on deposits followed, with a big assault on the Thai Baht and other South East Asian currencies by speculators.

Mr Pin left the country. He spent the next year, he said, travelling between Hong Kong, New York and London, looking for a job and hunting new business opportunities.

He blamed the failure of his company on lack of liquidity as well as corruption among the country's ruling and financial elite. "In Thailand, the regulations for financial executives and stock trading are very lax", he said. "In the old school of Thai cronyism, inside information is everything. A majority of people involved in finance traded shares. That's part of the reason I don't have a lot of friends."

The Thai government, in the meantime, had begun to look for him. In November 1999, in New York, US marshals, at the request of authorities in Bangkok, knocked on the door of his daughter, Typhoon, at 5am, asking for the whereabouts of her father and discovered he was in London.

On 10 December, Mr Pin's doorbell in London rang at 6.10am. It was the Metropolitan Police, with an international warrant for his arrest.

Mr Pin was held in Brixton Prison before being granted bail. "It was time for reflection, and my consuming thought was the unfairness of it all," he said. "One of the ways I passed the time was to write the name of the governor and the deputy governor of the Bank of Thailand all over the facility, anywhere I could. Then I made a wish that if these guys ever wanted to erase their names they will have to do it themselves. Kind of juvenile, but it passed the time."