Children of the underworld

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 October, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 October, 2009, 12:00am

After Canadian police discovered Betty Yan's bullet-riddled body slumped at the wheel of her Mercedes-Benz in April, the initial public shock over yet another murder in the Vancouver area turned to intrigue and outrage when details of the victim's identity emerged.

Police acknowledged the 39-year-old Guangdong native was known for her criminal connections, while local media later revealed she had earned the nickname 'Big Sister' Betty within the criminal underworld for her involvement in a ruthless and violent loan shark operation.

Yet while Yan's murder pointed to a further escalation of violence in Vancouver's gang wars, what sparked the strongest reaction - particularly from the city's upper crust - was the revelation that Yan had lived something of a double life.

On the surface, her lifestyle seemed typical of other wealthy suburbanites. She and her husband owned a lavish home in the city of Richmond, on the outskirts of Vancouver. And Yan was known as a dutiful mother who organised play dates and participated in carpools to drive her three young children to their prestigious private school, West Point Grey Academy.

When other parents at West Point Grey realised their own children had been visiting a suspected loan shark's home for parties, they were horrified.

'This women put the lives of our children in danger every single day!' one parent commented on a blog run by The Vancouver Sun newspaper. 'We now have a school where the children are scared ... the children are asking: 'Why where [Yan's children] at our school?' and yes, why were they?'

Yan's apparent gang-related murder fuelled panic at a school that was already rattled by the 2007 fatal shooting of another West Point Grey Academy parent.

The victim of that incident, Raymond Huang, whose daughter attended the school, was later found to have links to a Chinese organised crime syndicate, the 'Big Circle Boys'.

In the wake of these slayings, some elite private schools in Vancouver have decided to take action. Several are now enlisting the services of private investigators to screen out applicants whose families may be involved in organised crime, in an effort to protect their students and appease worried parents.

Critics, however, question how appropriate and effective the measure will be.

'The schools have a great concern about who they're letting in to the institutions because of ... the high-profile shootings that have happened,' said Kim Marsh, managing director of the investigative consulting services firm IPSA International, which is working with an undisclosed number of private schools in the city.

'It's causing tremendous consternation amongst other parents and causing schools to think about how they can screen when they don't know the background of the family,' said Marsh, an ex-policeman who formerly headed a Royal Canadian Mounted Police organised crime unit.

Only a minority of schools had sought his help so far, he said, but even those reluctant to hire private investigators were considering ways to be more selective in their applicants.

Although he could not offer details, he said the services he provided for schools were similar to the background checks his company carried out for companies and government agencies to vet potential employees.

Marsh said parents had been particularly concerned about the increasingly brazen nature of gang violence. Yan's body was found in her car in an industrial area, and Huang was shot in front of his home.

'They feel their kids are being subjected to possible situations where the parent of one of the students could be targeted by rival gangsters and their kids could be around and get caught up in the crossfire,' he said. 'I suppose a parent could be dropping a kid off at a house party and bang! - they could get it.'

Yan and Huang are not the only notorious figures who have placed their children in Vancouver's private schools, where tuition can cost more than C$12,000 (HK$90,000) a year.

China's most wanted man, Lai Changxing , who has been fighting deportation in Vancouver, reportedly enrolled his children at a prestigious private school for a time. Fugitive Gao Shan, who is wanted in China for allegedly embezzling some US$150 million, also placed his teenage daughter in a private high school.

West Point Grey's headmaster, Clive Austin, and several other private schoolmasters declined to be interviewed. (Yan's children reportedly stopped attending West Point Grey after her murder.) But some headmasters, whose schools were not using private investigators, said they nevertheless recognised the need to be well acquainted with students' families.

Gail Ruddy, head of the York House School for girls, said her school conducted comprehensive interviews with applicants and thoroughly checked their references before accepting them.

'We spend our time really getting to know our families and that, to us, is most important,' she said.

Tony Macoun, head of the Mulgrave School, said it was highly unlikely his school would hire a private investigator, but that he sympathised with parents.

'If the children go to some school parent's home, the assumption is because it's a Mulgrave family, they must be good people,' he said. 'If that assumption is in error, there's probably some obligation on the school to make sure we don't have whole classes going to someone's home.'

Criminology professor Robert Gordon of British Columbia's Simon Fraser University said he also had doubts about the use of private investigators.

'Unless a private investigator has access to confidential police information, they're unlikely to be very successful in getting clear and convincing evidence that a particular family has these links,' Gordon said.

It was not surprising that organised crime figures placed their children in elite private schools, he said.

'An organised crime figure is simply raising a family, and they want what the rest of us want for our kids. So they want to send their kids to good schools,' he said. 'Often times they're not monsters. They're simply people running businesses that ... involve ... goods and services which happen to be illegal.'

Gordon warned that the screening of families opened the door to examining a host of other criteria.

'Once you start down this road, you can end up in a place where you didn't intend to be at the outset,' he said.