One son's big mistakes
It was 6am when fully armed police officers with sniffer dogs burst into the home of elderly couple Nie Yuxiang and Zhang Yongqing - throwing their lives into a tailspin.
The officers were targeting the couple's son, Nie Lei, a triad kingpin who was wanted for gang-related killings and other crimes.
Since that raid on June 11, 2010, in the eastern coastal city of Qingdao, Nie and Zhang - in their early 70s - say they have been harassed and tailed by police. Their bank accounts were frozen and, with Nie Lei's arrest in September that year, they were left to care for their three teenaged grandchildren.
The two retired middle-school teachers are struggling to make sense of how their son, now 45, became one of the most high-profile mainland gang leaders, and ended up with a death sentence that the parents believe is a gross injustice.
'I know he got involved in some dubious businesses before and he has upset business rivals, but I still can't picture him as a notorious gangster,' Nie's father told the South China Morning Post.
Nie Lei - whose business empire included nightclubs and game kiosks - was sentenced to death on March 20 this year by the Qingdao Intermediate People's Court for more than a dozen offences, such as running a prostitution and gambling ring, and drug trafficking. His father said Nie Lei, whom they nicknamed Lei Lei, had been a shy and quiet boy who liked to keep a low profile, and who cherished close bonds with friends.
But Nie was largely away from his parents' supervision. Nie's father said he and his wife regretted placing their only son in the care of grandparents while they worked. 'I wish we could have spent more time with Lei Lei when he was young,' the elder Nie said.
Ironically, as the son of teachers, Nie Lei was a poor student. He dropped out of school at the age of 15 and enrolled in an apprentice programme at his father's urging.
Around this time, he had his first brush with the law. Nie Lei and another boy were caught extorting 1.3 yuan (HK$1.60) from a teen, and he was sentenced to six years in juvenile detention. The term was later reduced to six months after appeals from Nie Lei's parents.
His criminal record kept him from getting jobs in state-owned firms, so Nie Lei began selling shoes from a stall his parents rented out for him at the then-famed Jimo Road Market. But Nie Lei got into a fight in 1992 while on a work trip to Wenzhou, Zhejiang province. This time the authorities sentenced him to five years in jail.
Nie Lei doused himself with hot water in prison, so he was soon released on medical parole.
Again out of jail, his career - shady or otherwise - began to take off. With high-interest loans from an associate, he tapped into the booming property market in the mid-1990s. Much later, in 2005, he started investing in high-end nightclubs.
Over the past 10 years, he and his gang were implicated in 40 crimes, which resulted in two deaths and 22 injuries (one of them critical). In the trial in March, Nie Lei was also convicted of illegally owning 13 firearms.
Nie Yuxiang, the father, said he tried to steer his son away from shady deals, such as an underground casino in Qingdao's Laoshan district.
Nie Lei's years leading a violent but money-spinning empire came to an abrupt end when one of his subordinates led a group of thugs in ransacking the Wuzhihua Nightclub inside the five-star Crowne Plaza Qingdao on March 27, 2010. This happened while the city was hosting an international diving competition, causing embarrassment to local authorities.
The assailants had sought revenge for an earlier incident when the Wuzhihua Nightclub's security guards detained two prostitutes - who also worked as waitresses for one of Nie Lei's establishments, the Xingyicheng Nightclub - when they refused to pay 'protection fees'.
The attack spurred a police crackdown. On June 11, 2010, officers launched simultaneous raids on triad members' homes and businesses, resulting in the arrests of 200 suspects in the city's biggest gang crackdown.
Nie's three children were brought in for questioning. His wife, Zhou Xinping; his little sister, Nie Hui; and brother-in-law, Jiang Yuan, were also arrested. Officers also seized possessions from the kingpin's residence, though Nie Yuxiang said police did not disclose the list of items until the next day. The father said the police confiscated a minivan that his son had used for years to bring the children to school. Some 10,000 yuan in lai see money for Nie Lei's youngest child also went missing.
Nie Lei was arrested weeks later, and his parents said they had no idea where or how their son was caught.
According to the Qingdao court's 366-page verdict, Nie Lei recruited former inmate friends, relatives and neighbours for a highly organised gang which, starting in 1995, amassed huge wealth from real estate development, nightclubs gaming arcades and illegal casinos.
Mainland media reports say at least 30 police officers and city officials, including former police chiefs in Shibei and Licang districts, were detained for having provided Nie Lei with protection.
Zou Chuanning, the city's top judge, admitted at a briefing a day before Nie Lei's sentencing that prosecutors did not have sufficient evidence - much of which was destroyed - linking him to the officers.
Still, Nie Lei was sentenced to death for a long list of crimes, including grievous bodily harm - two counts of which his father disputed.
Nie Yuxiang argues that his son was not aware or even physically present when Wang Jun, the employee of a rival, was beaten to death in 1999 by security guards for distributing fliers at the Honxing Game Arcade - partly owned by Nie Lei. For the next 11 years, Nei Lei paid Wang's parents 5,000 yuan a month, in addition to a two-bedroom flat.
The elder Nie points out that Liu Fengguo, who authorised the beating, was sentenced to only 13 years in jail.
That same year, a former employee at a Nei-owned arcade, Hu Yuhai, was dragged back to Qingdao from his home in nearby Yantai and was beaten for three days for stealing 20,000 yuan. The victim later died in a Yantai hospital.
Nie's lawyer, Qian Lieyang, said his client did not take part in the actual beatings and that the circumstances of Hu's death were suspicious as he refused to seek medical treatment. After learning about Hu's death, Nie paid the ex-worker's family 500,000 yuan - 300,000 yuan more than they asked - in a closed-door settlement.
Nie Yuxiang sat through his son's 12-day trial, and was convinced the confessions were coerced. His son complained of being deprived of sleep during interrogation.
Just as he and his wife did when their son was sent to juvenile prison, the elder Nie is determined to file an appeal. 'I always believe [Nie Lei] should be held accountable for what he's done wrong,' he said. 'But I'm not seeing justice coming. My son is a victim in some score-settling games or simply targeted as part of a politically motivated purge.'