The murderer in their midst

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 29 May, 2012, 12:00am


Nanmen is typical of an urban neighbourhood in modern China. After passing under a banner across its entrance that proclaims the former farming settlement to be a 'village of ecology', a first-time visitor soon finds himself lost in a maze of streets and passages that weave through tightly packed townhouses.

The houses were hastily built during the wave of urbanisation that has spread outwards from Kunming , and some are still under construction. The village's name means 'southern gate', a reference to its location on the approaches to the capital of Yunnan province, from where its new prosperity has come.

Only one building in the village has not been renovated. It is easily overlooked, with a small iron gate squeezed in between the brand-new houses of its neighbours. It is the home of a suspected serial killer, who was arrested there this month in connection with at least 11 deaths.

Its occupant - unmarried, childless and with a tall, muscular profile that made him seem like a giant - was Zhang Yongming. He was the most solitary person in the village and hardly spoke to his neighbours, locals said. Some did not even know his name until they saw the news on TV last week of his arrest.

To those who did know him, Zhang was a 56-year-old farmer who had served 20 years in jail for murder, and was thought responsible for the disappearance of at least 17 young men from the area, 11 of whom were confirmed on Sunday to have been killed.

Many say the fact that he could kill so many victims while on parole from a life sentence for murder, in plain sight of suspicious neighbours but without any intervention by the police, is symptomatic of a failure in public safety that has accompanied the country's growing wealth and urbanisation.

Xinhua's report on Sunday confirming 11 of the deaths came several weeks after the case started making national headlines, with reports that Zhang was suspected of killing dozens of people who had gone missing in and around Nanmen since 2008. Last week, it was reported that the central government, which had sent its own investigators to take over the case, would severely punish local officials whose negligence allowed the suspect to remain at large for so long.

Quoting police, Xinhua reported that Zhang had chosen quiet country roads to ambush his victims. However, the report made no mention of the fact that Zhang had eaten his victims, as has been rumoured among locals - speculation which has been circulating on the internet over the past few weeks. The state news agency reported only that Zhang was accused of using 'burning, burying, dissecting and [using] other methods' to destroy evidence.

On May 9, the day of Zhang's arrest, villagers stood on their toes behind police lines marked in yellow tape around his property. Policemen carrying blue plastic forensic bags streamed in and out of the house for a whole day, and one witness said the contents of those bags resembled the weight and shape of arms or legs.

Rumours soon began to spread among villagers that the suspect not only killed most of the missing people - at least 17 boys and young men aged between eight and 19, according to media reports - but also ate their flesh and sold the leftovers to a nearby food market as ostrich.

Li Yudong, a neighbour of Zhang's who had raised doubts about Zhang with police after his 12-year old son went missing five years ago, said police had told him that the suspect suffered from some mental illness. They had therefore never taken Li's report seriously.

Li, whose son is not one of the 11 confirmed victims, said that villagers believed that Zhang's parents and older brother had also killed people. As a result, villagers called him a 'born killer' to his face. Zhang did not seem to mind the insult.

Another villager, who wished to be identified only by his family name, Chen, said he had been a classmate of another of Zhang's brothers, and that he and Zhang were friends when young.

According to Chen, Zhang had killed a man in the 1970s in a fight by a nearby river, and buried the victim's dismembered body on the river bank. He said Zhang received a death sentence in 1979, which was suspended for two years and later commuted to life imprisonment. Zhang was released on parole in 1997, probably because of his quiet nature and hard-working attitude, he said.

Li said that Zhang's return from prison coincided with Kunming's rapid expansion, which had given many villagers economic opportunities from which Zhang had nevertheless failed to benefit. On his return to Nanmen he was accompanied by a young man, whom he told villagers was his adopted son. The young man disappeared after two or three years and no one knew where he went.

While other villagers gave up farming for paid jobs, Zhang had no income other than that from growing crops and vegetables. The bachelor stopped talking to neighbours and even old friends, 'as if he wanted to be forgotten', said a female villager who declined to be named.

Because of Zhang's criminal record, villagers regarded him as dangerous and nobody wanted to do business with him, his neighbours said. His older brothers and sisters had moved to different villages, to escape the shame brought on their family. None of the young women in nearby villages wanted to marry him.

Li said: 'The village became richer and richer, but Zhang remained as poor as ever.'

About five years ago the rumours started, of boys and young men, all under the age of 20, disappearing in similar circumstances. Most were last seen at a busy crossroads about two kilometres from Zhang's home.

To protect their reputation, police bureaus receiving these reports kept anxious relatives in the dark, and did little to find the missing people. They also withheld information from their supervisors at the county and provincial levels, relatives of the victims said.

Guan Lianmei is the mother of 17-year-old Chen Lei, one of the 11 confirmed dead, who went missing near Nanmen last September. She said that if the township and county police had taken villagers' initial reports seriously and made some investigations, their sons would not have disappeared.

Speaking on Saturday, before receiving confirmation that her son had been killed, she said that she was prepared for the worst because her son had been seen standing near a refrigerated storage plant where some other victims, including one who had already been confirmed to be among the dead, went missing.

'Family members and friends were all looking for my son, but we couldn't find any clues, so I took it to the police. But the officer we met seemed to not care, telling me with a blank face that my son was too old to be kidnapped, and that we should continue looking into his possible whereabouts by ourselves.'

Cai Wen , the father of a 15-year-old who went missing in February and is also one of the 11 confirmed victims, said a police officer had promised him that they would do their best to help him find his son.

'But till today, none of them has come to my home to get more detailed information about my son,' he said.

Relatives of victims said that local police had shown no interest in finding missing people because it was hard work without monetary reward, and if it became known that so many people had disappeared in their jurisdiction, they would lose face and possibly even their jobs.

The grisly news from Nanmen was reported by mainland media and on the internet early this month, and the chief of Jinning county's public security bureau and the head of a police station were both removed from their posts last week.

A senior Ministry of Public Security officer leading an expert team from Beijing has taken charge of the case, and has promised the relatives of the missing and dead a thorough investigation.

'My worst fear is that if the total number of deaths exceeds 10, the government might start worrying about its image at home and abroad, and keep the truth secret forever,' Guan said on Saturday, before she was told of the death of her son.

'In my search for my missing son, most of the government officials I met were selfish, irresponsible and cold-blooded.'