German village reels as police probe restaurant slayings

PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 February, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 09 February, 2007, 12:00am
 

The sleepy hamlet of Sittensen is the kind of place where shops close early, everyone greets each other on the street and family-owned hotels don't ask to be paid upfront.


It's a measure of the pace of life there that on Wednesdays the community virtually closes. Nestled not far from the autobahn, and midway between the two northern German port cities of Hamburg and Bremen, it's easy to see why local residents have plenty of civic pride in their well-kept though unremarkable town.


But since Monday, Sittensen has been reeling. A sense of fear and disbelief has descended on the tight-knit community after the murders of seven people at a restaurant owned by a couple originally from Hong Kong.


Danny Fan Wing-hung and his wife, Anny, proprietors of the popular Lin Yue Chinese eatery in Sittensen, southwest of Hamburg, were slain along with five others in execution-style killings on Sunday night, stunning local residents and leaving police searching for a possible motive. The tragic event has unleashed a spectacle never seen before by local residents, as hordes of international media descend on the community of low-rise, red-brick buildings.


The crime is now the focus of an investigation by about 100 state police officers and authorities of the German state of Lower Saxony.


'We simply can't understand what's happened here,' said Sittensen's mayor, Stefan Tiemann, emphasising that those killed were considered well-integrated and valued members of the community.


Mr Tiemann joined hundreds of other townsfolk crowding into Sittensen's main church for a memorial service on Wednesday evening. The house of worship was overflowing with those wishing to mourn 36-year-old Fan, his 28-year-old wife, and the five other victims, whose identities have yet to be made public by the police. One man died at the hospital from his wounds on Tuesday morning.


The Fans' two-year-old daughter, Tiana, is the only survivor of what has all the signs of a contract killing.


Whereas other small German towns, especially in the former communist east, have had several episodes of xenophobic violence in recent years, the Fans and the other Asian residents appear to be wholeheartedly welcome and cherished in Sittensen.


Jutta Behleit, who brought her three teenage daughters to the memorial service, could not understand how something so awful could have happened to such nice people.


'We knew them well, visited their restaurant often and were on very friendly terms,' she said outside the church as dusk fell, a growing chill in the air causing the lights from TV cameras to give off vapours. 'Everyone has a very good relationship with each other in the village. We're just here to take part.'


The Fans came to Sittensen a decade ago to open their restaurant, and by several accounts were successful and happy. But Germany's major tabloid newspaper Bild reported that Danny Fan might have had considerable gambling debts. 'Danny blew all his money in casinos. He owed a lot. Now things have possibly been paid off with blood,' a supposed long-time friend of Fan's told the paper.


There were several Asians at the service, partly because of the diverse backgrounds of the victims. Besides the Fans, whom police said both held British passports, one victim was a 31-year-old Thai man and another was a 39-year-old Malaysian waitress at the restaurant. A Vietnamese woman who came to pay her respects outside the two-storey white stucco building where the Lin Yue was located said that at least two of the dead were also Vietnamese.


The crime sparked a massive police effort that they say could take on an international dimension as the victims' relatives abroad are contacted. But the authorities have been unable to find an obvious reason for the murders.


'It's still impossible to determine a motive,' said Andreas Tschirner from the Lower Saxony police, explaining that his special commission was only at the beginning of its investigation.


With the arrests of two Vietnamese men, attention has turned from the possible involvement of triads to Vietnamese gangs, which have been responsible for murders and other acts of violence in Germany in the past.


In the mid-1990s, Vietnamese gangs fought bloody turf wars in Berlin for control of the trade of cheap cigarettes smuggled over the Germany border from Poland. In May 1996, the cigarette mafia known as Ngoc Thien systematically executed six members of a rival group after first tying them up - just as was done in the murders in Sittensen. There were several other similar multiple homicides, but eventually the killings stopped as the gangsters decided it was attracting too much police attention.


However, according to police, Vietnamese organised crime has since spread from Berlin and the eastern parts of Germany to other regions, including Bremen and Lower Saxony.


The two Vietnamese were arrested after a routine traffic stop on Monday. When the 29-year-old driver could not produce identification, he and his 31-year-old passenger were arrested on suspicion of being in Germany illegally. One of the two suspects then admitted to having a small amount of cocaine in his possession.


Witnesses have placed a small blue Volkswagen, similar to the rental car that the men were driving, near the restaurant on the day of the murders.


And police said they had found a piece of paper that could be linked to the crime scene as well. Although they would not divulge more information publicly, the website of the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel reported that police sources were calling it 'a kind of layout' of the restaurant.


The two men, from Bremen, 60km southwest of Sittensen, yesterday denied playing any role in the shootings, a lawyer said. Prosecutors have requested and received arrest warrants for seven counts of murder. The authorities also searched their apartments on Tuesday afternoon.


Despite widespread speculation about Asian gang involvement in the bloodbath, Petra Guderian, director of the Rotenburg police department's investigation, remained cautious.


'It's too early to make a link to organised crime,' she said.


But that hasn't stopped the German media from at first speculating that Chinese triads could be involved, even if they aren't known to have a particularly strong presence in Germany.


Some local papers even went as far as detailing the alleged habits the Chinese mafia has for collecting protection money from restaurants, and claiming the Lin Yue had a rather big pond for koi fish - supposedly a sure sign that lots of money was owed to underworld figures.


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